Mirrors and Smoke

There’s part of me that wonders what happened in Oz after the Wizard was revealed to not be so great and powerful. Were they incredibly disillusioned? Did some just reject reality and hold on to the fantastical image that the middle aged man presented? I mean this was a guy that inspired people to burst out in song because of the wonderful things he did. To find out he was a fraud had to be crushing.

The situations are not quite as dramatic, but the last couple of weeks have been marked by reports that two hugely influential megachurches have been pulling levers to present a not-totally truthful image.

First there was a news story about a document on Elevation Church’s website about how to conduct mass “spontaneous baptisms.” This included planting 15 people to come forward when the invitation was extended and having them walk through the most visible places. This and other parts of the report are troubling for a variety of reasons that many other have covered.

Then yesterday there was the report that Mars Hill Church in Seattle paid a firm over $200,000 to get pastor Mark Driscoll’s book on the New York Times Bestseller List. This is not just a marketing firm, but the organization also buys thousands and thousands of books in select locations. While not illegal, the practice is frowned upon by the companies that publish bestseller lists.

Both of these Oz-ian methods were successful. Elevation’s spontaneous baptisms are known for their tidal wave of converts. Driscoll’s book spent a week on the New York Times Bestseller List which means “New York Times Bestselling Author” can proceed his name for whatever books he writes henceforth (or until print dies).

But the fact of the matter is both of these scenarios involve some sleight of hand, some misdirection. The fifteen people at the spontaneous baptisms are not responding to a decision to change their life by following Jesus. They’re part of a show to get things rolling. Driscoll may not have actually sold enough to get on a bestseller’s list. They just dropped two hundred grand on a company that has figured out how to work the system. Let’s be direct here: this is deception.

One might respond that, sure, these methods are a little underhanded, but don’t the ends justify the means? More people were baptized. More marriages may potentially be saved by a book (the latter one is more of a dubious hypothesis from what I know of the book, but I’ll play along, hypothetical person). Lives are changed and, in the end, isn’t that all that really matters?

That’s where it gets difficult because, despite the great qualms I have with these two institutions, I cannot deny that there are people that are sincerely changed by their respective ministries. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder what happens to some of those folks when the curtain is pulled back. Are they devastated? Do they question their commitment or their strength of their marriage? I’m sure many do not have these questions, but I bet there are definitely some. And I wonder if those people are not now farther from God because they were played by the church.

Don’t get me wrong: commitments genuinely made under emotional manipulation or whatever else can still be genuine commitments. But why the crap would someone play fast and loose with honesty and transparency when we are dealing with people’s lives? Why risk people finding out that the mirrors and smoke are just that and then have them run further away from the church?

I am not saying that these practices were malicious on the part of the parties responsible. I’m sure they had the best of intentions. At the very least, I hope they did.

But honestly, I think this shows a lack of faith. In both cases, it attests to the belief that numbers and status is what moves people hearts. Why not trust the invitation offered by Jesus is enough? If you’ve written a book that you believe has a good message for people, why not just trust that—bestseller list or no bestseller list—the message will get out to people? Do we believe that the gospel is enough when we use the less genuine methods of the world to make it look popular?

I hold onto the fact that God is a living God that still moves in real and often surprising ways. Our job is to be faithful to the way of Jesus. Deceit or misdirection is not the way of Jesus. He told his followers to “Come and see” and there was no curtain to pull back. People came, they saw, and they wanted to follow him. Others did not, but that’s part of how this works. We have to recognize that floods of people are not always going to come to Jesus. His way is not easy.

When we try to manufacture these great and powerful events in ways that are not totally honest, the question of people being hurt is not “if” but “when.” And we are not just talking about the people that are taken in nor just the churches of Oz. It hurts all of us. It hurts the Church. It confirms stereotypes and gives critics another argument.

We’ve got to stop this kind of crap. We need to trust that Jesus really is enough.

To Liam on His 1st Birthday