For years, as a preacher charged with preventing people from sinning, that was my problem (and sometimes it still is). I became so phony I could hardly stand myself.
I know, I know, there is a lot more to being a preacher and a pastor than keeping people from sinning, but if you become obsessed with sin prevention, it begins to take over everything you do and teach. Pretty soon you become a police officer and the crime is sin. You spend your time trying to discern what is and what isn’t sin, you emphasize “sin prevention” by teaching how to avoid sin and stay pure, and you create a disciplinary process whereby sin is punished in the name of Jesus and “for their own good.”
Have you ever watched the television program that reveals the secrets of magicians? It’s called Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed. If you’ve seen it, you know there is this weird, masked man who looks kind of scary. He does the impossible, to wit, performs major illusions to the astonishment of the audience. And then after the trick is demonstrated, he goes back and step-by-step reveals how he did it.
I suspect that professional magicians are not altogether happy with this television show. It’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz who is big and scary . . . until Toto pulls the curtain aside. Everybody then sees that behind the big, scary, demanding image on the screen is a little man pulling levers. I hardly ever go to magic shows anymore. I used to love seeing the illusions and being astonished by an illusionist who did things that seemed impossible. I just don’t enjoy them anymore. The television show took the fun out of it, and I wish I had never watched it.
With my apologies to the teachers of flying frogs (i.e. preachers and teachers), I’m going to pull back the curtain and tell you how I did it—and sometimes still do. It’s a problem, you know? If you can’t fly and have been charged with teaching others how to fly—who also can’t and never will be able to fly—you have to be very good at creating a façade. And not only that, the problem is compounded when you think that the master flyer (God) has commissioned you to do it.
Being a preacher and a pastor is like that. And it will kill you if you let it. Trying to teach people not to sin and, at the same time, finding out that they are still sinning is not an easy task. Neither is trying to cover up that you have your own sins too (maybe bigger than your students/parishioners).
Let me give you some of the techniques of teaching frogs to fly and of keeping people from sinning.
1. Manipulate with guilt.
You would be surprised at how far a “How could you?” or “After all that Jesus has done for you!” will go if it is said with sincerity and passion. It’s even better and more effective if you can attach a Bible verse to it.
(Last week I heard about a preacher who said that heaven wasn’t going to be a happy place for some Christians. “When you look back and see how many opportunities you missed and how often you failed when you could have succeeded, it will be depressing.” Now that’s over the top. Okay, okay, I did some guilt manipulation over the years, but at least I left heaven alone. It’s almost like this preacher is not content with making people miserable on earth. He has to mess with heaven too.)
2. “Encourage” with how much better others have done.
It’s sort of like the rooster who found a gigantic eagle’s egg. He rolled it into the chicken coop and said, “Ladies, I don’t want you to think I’m complaining, but I did want you to know what the competition is doing.”
3. Tell stories of heroes of the faith who persevered and were faithful in the hard places.
“If they can do it, God will give you the grace to do it too!” It’s very important that, when motivating with biography, you not tell the whole story. You have to leave out the sin, the doubts, and the failure. Only reference the victories.
4. Use the carrot and the stick technique.
This is one of the best techniques there is. The carrot is heaven, of course, and the stick is hell. After someone becomes a Christian, the hell thing doesn’t work very well, but there is always Hebrews 12:8 (“If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons”). It’s a simple matter of telling your congregation that while they probably won’t go to hell for their sins, God will break their legs if they get out of line. A few attention-grabbing words like “cancer,” “financial ruin,” and “leprosy” help.
5. Throw out the “follow me as I follow Christ” thing.
The trick here is to never let them see you sweat. You have to look spiritual, speak spiritual, and act spiritual when people are around. If they catch you in an unguarded moment, the gig is up. But it’s doable. I was able to pull it off for a whole lot of years.
The above list is, of course, truncated. For a price, I can send you a complete manual of hypocrisy. I have, however, given you enough so you get the idea.
Now, can we talk?
That stuff is sick. And that’s our problem, the problem I want to address for the next few chapters.
Simply put, we’re in serious trouble in the church. It isn’t because we are sinners or because we don’t know enough, pray enough, or read the Bible enough. Our problem isn’t about being more faithful or not living a supernatural life of victory. Our problem isn’t going to be fixed with more programs, better methods of evangelism and stewardship, or discipline. Our problem isn’t spiritual formation or that we aren’t missional.
Our problem is that we have taken the best news ever given to the world, ran it through a “religious” grid, and made something unpalatable out of it. In short, we’ve taken the good news and made it bad news. And if you listen carefully, you can hear old Slew Foot (that would be the devil) laughing.