Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Christmas Sweater and the Gospel

I was invited to a party last Saturday night. In deciding what to wear, I settled on a kitten Christmas sweater. That is, I decided to wear (over a tan collared shirt), a child's medium sweater that had a large white kitten in the middle surrounded by candy canes and gumdrops. Needless to say, I looked ridiculous.

Why I made such a decision is an entirely different conversation, but the fact remains, I wore a kitten sweater to a party that I expected to be very out of place at.

Normally I go to parties, find someone to talk to, and then get into as deep and philosophical a conversation as I can with that person. I'm normally near the edge of the room and it's normally awkward.

With the kitten sweater, I was popular.

For a nerd like me, being popular was a new and exciting experience. I've been respected (or feared) while in FISH, but by no means was I ever popular. That is, I could tell people to do things, but few people would ever want to spend time with me.

Normally, I could never break into a tight circle of conversing people. During the party, things were different. I simply had to approach the edge of a closed circle, someone would point out the lurking kitten at the periphery, and I'd be in. My attire (which everyone complimented) would be the center of conversation for the group for a few minutes.

The things that I said mattered greatly to the group. One person was discussing Messianic Jews. I said something like "Messianic Jews are lots of fun," and the mostly group (most of whom I'm sure had absolutely no idea what either of those words meant), decided I was right. After a few more minutes, the group of agnostics and Catholics literally wanted to go to a Messianic synagogue. If I'd been on my toes, I think I could have actually gotten a few of them to go. I've never had that kind of influence with people. I normally have a hard enough time getting people who are my friends to go to church with me, let alone semi-intoxicated secular strangers at a party.

I've recently started going to parties and doing evangelism. I would talk with someone, shift the conversation to spiritual matters, and share the Gospel as best I could over the music. This time, I was preaching Christ from a position of (what seemed to be) social authority. I was no longer a social beggar, barely holding on to the few minutes of attention I could steal. I didn't beg for a glace at a flyer or signboard (or worse yet, a 8' sign with "REPENT" on it). People wanted to give me their attention.

Learning the language and dynamics of a culture is essential in effective evangelism. Paul in Athens spoke the language of the Greeks, and made a masterful argument for Christ that was relevant to what Greeks valued: Reason. Today in college, we make our decisions based on what our social leaders are doing. For example, tonight there will be more than 5000 people running through UCLA in their underwear. Why? Because a few people with immense social authority did the same thing a few years ago and told their friends. Why are they running in their underwear and not to Christ? Because Christians do not have any social authority.

Perhaps Christians ought to re-learn the language of those around them to win them for Christ. We continue evangelizing with the outdated language of reason to a culture that no longer understands or cares.

Social authority, like money, is not inherently evil. If the analogy between social capital and capital capital holds, then the parable of the unjust steward applies:

Luke 16:8The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

For perhaps the first time, I believe I learned a few words of cool. I intend to continue learning the language and maybe one day, I'll be able to translate the Gospel to so many lost people.


  1. I was priveledged enough to have this conversation with you the other night at the PAB patio but I don't think I quite understood the situation the way I did when I read your blog. And my response...BE CAREFUL Mr. Carreon. Please, Please, Please do not let one seemingly successful incident lull you into believing that you have to adopt an appearance of cultural normality (a.k.a. "cool") to captivate a crowd's attention and have an impact on the way they think. You cited the quazi sober state of your test group the other evening and then mentioned that you have had trouble captivating the attention of groups that should have been more inclined to pay attention to you "let alone semi-intoxicated secular strangers at a party" I think this is bad logic. Maybe it was the "semi-intoxicated" state of your listeners and their fascination with your kitten sweater that won you their ears and not your words.

    You command authority by your words, your actions and your least that is how you've captured my attention so often in the past. You don't need interesting clothing, or any other kind of gimmick to appeal to your would be listeners. What you need is for God to empower you to speak to people, and for Him to soften the hearts of your listeners. I say you should continue about the business of letting "all those who have ears to hear" bear witness to the message you have to deliver and let God decide who will truly hear you and who will simply be fascinated by your kitten sweater.

    It is a difficult message you bring and as you pointed out, it is not one that easily translates into our "cultural language." But perhaps that is because (at least where we are... LA USA 2007) our cultural language has become God-less and affraid of the things a conversation about God might bring...moral responsibility, repentence...etc. So should you really concede that we have lost this battle and continue your fight on your opponent's terms? Speaking the "cultural language" in an attempt to "trick" your audience into listening to you? Perhaps my interpretation of this whose situation is wrong but I have never, ever thought I would hear that from you.

  2. There is certainly the grave danger of misuse of social power as there is with money. Substituting coolness for money, I think 1 Timothy 6:10 applies: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows."

    The goal must be purely translation; the fidelity or power of the message cannot be diluted at all. This is the error I believe many in the "emerging" or seeker-friendly churches are making: changing the message to fit with what society says is OK.

    I am not suggesting that at all. I am suggesting that we present the message to people where they are. Calvary Chapel did exactly this: they preached the Gospel in a way that attracted Hippies; they let people into church without shoes. A large percentage of UCLA is drunk and at parties every Thursday night. That's where they are. And they only listen to people who look stupid.

    My point is this: I cannot go into a party wearing what I want to wear and talk about what I want to talk about (God from a high intellectual standpoint). I've tried. People do not listen. You can say it's their problem, they had their chance; or that it's my problem, that I should have had more faith or boldness. But simply looking at the situation, it seems reasonable that bringing up the Ontological Argument is not how to reach someone who is intoxicated. There need to be simple words and bright colors.

    Nevertheless, the critical thing is that Jesus must be the same. He must be just as Loving and just as Just. It would truly be a sin to pervert this, either in word or deed. I must continue to present Him as God with my actions and my presence. But I don't have to wear a short-sleeved white shirt and ride a bicycle.

    I should speak in a manner that is effective for Christ. I should wear what is most profitable for the Gospel. If clown shoes help my testimony, then I'll wear clown shoes. If dress shoes, then dress shoes.

    It's not a trick to win people's respect and trust and then turn them to Christ. Paul used Greek reason (Acts 17) and Jewish argument (Acts 9) to introduce people to Jesus; Peter used miracles (Acts 3); Philip used prophecy interpretation (Acts 8); Matthew used money and parties (Mat 9).

    I simply discovered that people at a party trusted me immediately when I dressed ridiculously and spoke loudly. Why can't this also be used to preach the True Gospel of Christ's death and Resurrection?