Pastor's Blog

When I first came to Mountain View Chapel, we held three weekly services:  Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night prayer meeting.  Our Sunday morning was always full.  Sunday evening was usually half full.  And Wednesday night prayer meeting?  Well, for years it was usually me, two elders, and one deacon.  We were faithful to get on our knees and pray for the church for about an hour every Wednesday night.

I tried a generate interest in attending prayer meeting for a few years.  Nothing seemed to work.  Sunday morning and Sunday evening kept growing.  But Wednesday kept withering away.  I finally said, “Guys, the church doesn’t seem to want the Wednesday evening service.  Let’s shut it down and and find another way to accomplish the same goal.” 

So we shut down Wednesday night prayer meeting.
We announced that we were doing so the next Sunday morning
I was shocked by the response:  “What kind pastor are you???  Churches need to have prayer meetings!  This church has always had prayer meeting!  Churches must pray!  You can’t just shut Wednesday night down!  Don’t you believe in prayer, pastor?”

To such people I responded:  “Do you believe in prayer?”
“Of course,” they said vehemently.
“Then why don’t you come to prayer meeting?” I asked. 

Touche and checkmate.  Yes?

No.

My reasoning was like water running off a duck’s back.  Churches are supposed to have Wednesday night prayer meetings and pastors are supposed to run them, they insisted.  Even if no one comes.  That’s just all there was to it!

This wasn’t the first example of feelings overrunning reason – but it was one of the most memorable for me.  And it wasn’t the last.  That issue – people being so grounded in feelings that they can’t understand reasoning – has been one of the greatest and most frustrating challenges I have faced in ministry. 

I entered ministry assuming that people were mostly reasonable, able to keep their emotions in check, and willing to change their minds when new and better information was presented.  I have long since jettisoned that assumption.  When people feel strongly about something, it’s difficult to reason them out of it.

If you are called to shepherd people like that (and I have concluded that more people are like that than not), what do you do?
Do you try to argue them into understanding and agreeing with your position?
Or do you just give them their way and go with what they feel?

It depends on the issue, doesn’t it?  Some things really matter – and other things don’t.  Life, I think, is about learning the distinction between those things.

But when you start off at 21 thinking all of your ideas matter, and that the goal of ministry is to reason everyone into your own position on things – well…the Lord will have a lot of distinctions to teach you, won’t He?

And I’m STILL learning…

My favorite character in the original Star Trek series was Mr. Spock.  Spock, half-human and half-Vulcan, is dominated by his Vulcan side.  Vulcans live by sheer logic.  Reason means everything.  Emotions do nothing but cloud judgment.  Feelings are unimportant.  What is the truth?  What are the facts?  That is what drives Spock.

Mr. Spock is surrounded by highly emotional fully human characters like Captain Kirk and Dr. “Bones” McCoy, who constantly act on emotional impulse and gut instinct, and who, despite bypassing logic, somehow end up doing the right thing and saving the day.

To which Spock can only raise an eyebrow and respond drily:  “Fascinating.”

The characters of Star Trek, much to my chagrin, reflect truth about reality.  Vulcans don’t exist.  Spock is just the fictional foil for Captain Kirk and the other characters to demonstrate that emotion and feeling, not reason, are what make humans human.  It is Spock with his constant appeal to logic alone who seems less human, unreal, robotic.  His inability to engage emotion is what is often lamented in the series, not Kirk’s inability to stay the course and be logical.  Kirk’s success apart from logic always puzzles Spock.

The clash between reason and emotion has created an internal battle for me ever since I’ve been in ministry.  Spock represents my own approach, my ideal.  People should be persuaded by the truth alone.  If you need to appeal to more than truth to persuade – if you must use gimmicks, if you must manipulate feelings – you are attempting to bypass the truth.  Why?  Isn’t the truth good enough?

An appeal to logic may be a great ideal, but Vulcans are fiction.  Real people in the real world are emotional.  Like it or not, how they feel about things is important to them.  And if your appeal to reason doesn’t take into account the fact of their emotions you are perceived as lacking compassion, lacking heart, lacking sensitivity.  You are perceived as impersonal and uncaring.   You lack humanity.

When it comes to matters of reason and emotion, humanity falls on a spectrum.  On one end you have people who are almost robotic – completely given to logic and reason (like Spock).  On the other end you have people who are completely given to feelings and who can’t track with any reasoning that runs contrary to their feelings.  And then you have the entire spectrum of different balances of reason and feelings that fall in between.

I fall on the Spock end of that spectrum.  It’s not that I don’t feel things.  I am very emotional.  I am moved to uncontrollable tears by Gustav Holst’s Jupiter, and my voice cracks and breaks off in silence if I have to sing And Can It Be or How Deep the Father’s Love For Us.  Our congregation can testify to the many times that I have been overcome with emotion in preaching, especially when I begin thinking of selfless sacrifice – like that of Jesus or John the Baptist or the American founders or those that have given their lives in military service.

What I have found, however, is that when they are given free rein, when they permitted to take the steering wheel, feelings rarely steer life in a good direction.  Feelings are my personal response to the world around me, to how the world is affecting me.  But my view is narrow and small, and when my feelings drive I fail to consider the numerous other things required to make wise decisions and plot a steady and successful course forward.

I can’t escape having feelings, but I can control them and keep them at bay.  I am not always successful, but many things, including my upbringing and many life experiences, have taught me how to suspend feelings when I am assessing a situation and making a decision. 

But what do you do when you are oriented toward the Spock-end, have learned to be that way, and then you encounter people at the opposite end of that spectrum?  If you want to minister to them, to serve them, you have to meet them where they are – and that means developing some level of understanding of emotions and emotional people – people who not only don’t feel that emotional manipulation is bad but whose lives are actually driven by it!

This is one of those places where reality has not totaled my ideals, but viciously dented them and forced me to adapt.  Adapt -- not completely concede and surrender. 

And that is one of the crosses upon which my own soul must die almost daily in the hope of being raised with a better understanding of this dilemma and how to minister patiently and successfully, serving others where the Lord has put them rather than demanding that they move to where I want them to be.

Years ago, a pre-teen approached me after a Sunday sermon, visibly shaken.  “Pastor,” the student said, “after today’s sermon, I’m not sure if I’m a Christian.”  I asked why, and the young soul told me that sin was a “churchy-word” that she had used her whole life but hadn’t really grasped until the sermon that day.  And she understood what it meant to be guilty before God and knew of some particular sins in her own life of which she was guilty. 

She told me that she had become a Christian when she was three.  When I asked what she had believed at three years old, she shrugged and said, “My parents kept telling me that if I died without praying the ‘prayer of salvation’ I wouldn’t go to heaven with them.”

“And so you prayed the prayer that they told you to pray so you’d all be in heaven together,” I said.  The young soul nodded. 

She was able to explain how the death of Jesus forgives sin, and she believed that – but had never fully understood it or applied it to herself until that day.  I explained that what was most likely happening was the Holy Spirit was putting some of the last puzzle pieces in place in her soul, and that it’s not praying a prayer that saves you, but believing the message, trusting Christ.  And she was expressing that mature faith.

I asked if she minded if I spoke with her parents, and she wanted me to.  When I told her parents about our conversation and suggested that their child had come to faith in Christ that morning, her mother was indignant and told me that was ridiculous, that she herself had led her in the ‘prayer of salvation’ by her bed when the child was three years old.

I suggested that another way to look at it was that the seeds the mother planted had germinated in the child’s maturing soul.  I encouraged the parents to water that faith and watch it bloom and blossom.  To my surprise, they would have nothing of it.

“You’re saying our child wasn’t saved at three years old?”

“I’m saying that at three years old your child had a three-year-old understanding,” I said, “and today the Holy Spirit clarified that message in your child’s heart, and she now has – not your faith – but her own – born in her own heart.  She understands the gospel herself!  She grasps it in an adult way!” 

I saw it as a reason to rejoice.  But this mother was not rejoicing.  I got an angry lecture about how I was undermining the child’s simple faith.  “You’re scaring her with all this stuff about sin,” the mother said.  “She prayed the prayer with me when she was three and she’s going to heaven.  She doesn’t need to know anything else.”

That day was the last day the family attended our church.

Evangelicals mean well with ‘child evangelism’, but the road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions.  I strongly support teaching children biblical truth, but what some evangelicals call ‘child evangelism’ seems to me little more than emotional manipulation.  Manipulating the emotions of a fragile, vulnerable child is easy – and, I think, especially despicable.  I’ve seen some pretty despicable manipulation of children, including the use of gimmicks – prizes, toys, gifts – to “bring them to Christ.”

There is a difference, I think, between a healthy fear of God and merely fearing the prospect of suffering in hell;  the latter is easy to generate by emotional manipulation – the former, not so much.  Likewise, it’s easy to want to go to heaven to be with a relative or friend or even a pet that died – and you can easily manipulate a child that way – “Don’t you wanna see Fluffy again?”.  It’s quite a different matter to want to go to heaven, not because of personal pleasure and comforts, but because you want an eternal life in a world driven by rejoicing in what God wants.

I think that’s sometimes a fine line, but a crucial one, that we evangelicals need to observe.

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