Because The Cross Was Made Of Dogwood – Thoughts On Evangelism, Part 4

I know this looks a little long, but there’s a story at the end that you’ll want to hang around for.

Thanks again for dropping by! The feedback on this series has been great. I know you’re not all commenting, but please feel free to jump into the discussion by leaving comments below. I won’t bite, I promise.

Last post we talked about the issue of authenticity when it comes to a behavior modification approach to Christianity. At the end of the blog I noted that there is a significant spiritual implication for using Christianity to modify behavior. The implication is that using Christianity to modify behavior is exactly opposite of how the gospel works. Renewal and redemption of the Spirit is an inside out process, but the behavior modification approach adheres to the fallacy that if you control the exterior then the interior is also in line.

In the fifth of seven ‘Woes to teachers and pharisees’ (Matthew 23:25-26), Jesus clearly addresses the practice of cleaning up the outside and calling things ‘good’ while the inside is filthy. Much of the sermon on the mount from Matthew 5-7 addresses the difference between the inside and outside. Give to the needy in secret, pray in private, hide the fact that you’re fasting. All of these reinforce the idea that it is what is on the inside that matters. By implication, you can discern that no matter how much you clean, dress, and control the external, you’ll never affect the spiritual.

So why all the focus on the external? Why the presupposition that the cleanliness of the outside is indicative of the spirit on the inside? Why measure our success in evangelism by whether someone quits wearing their Marlboro t-shirt or not?

I’ll go a step further and say that not only is focusing on the outside bad authenticity from the spiritual standpoint, it is also one of the greatest inhibitors to spiritual growth. The reason is because we are allowed to dress ourselves up and pass ourselves off as something we’re not. When we define a ‘good Christian’ by whether they attend church each week, we’ve fallen for the ‘external matters’ trick. We frequently joke around about families that fight all the way to church and then get out of the car and pretend that everything is fine… and that’s just the preacher’s family.

A few weeks back I overheard someone say that they loved it when men wore dress shirts and ties when the get up during worship. It made them look like they were ‘ready to serve the Lord’. I have to admit, I’m from a different generation. Not only did we make Levi’s cool, we made Levi’s with gaping holes in them cool. So when someone says to me that what you wear is indicative of your preparedness to serve the Lord, I balk. Not only I, but non-Christians/new converts have a similar reaction.

I shared this encounter with one of my peers who had been wearing a beautiful, new suit to worship for the last several weeks. I had noticed the suit, and since he was similar to me in many ways demographically I wanted his opinion on the matter. He recounted of when he bought the suit several weeks before, of how he wore it to service, and of how people just ooohhed and aaaahhed over him in his nice new suit.

“That must have felt nice.” I said, thinking I could pass his interest in ‘dressing up’ off as a interest in vain recognition. His response: “Not really.”

He proceeded to tell me the story of why he bought the suit. He had been struggling with depression for some time and had decided it was time to end his own life. He researched the different ways to kill himself and decided on hanging. He had visited several stores to find just the right rope he needed to get the job done. He selected a spot where his kids wouldn’t be the ones to find his body. Then, as a last step, he went out and bought a nice, new suit to wear when he killed himself.

Then he wore the suit to church. While I can’t speak to his emotional response to people commenting on how good he looked, when some expressed to him that they wished more men would be more like him he definitely caught the inconsistency. “Here I was, rotting on the inside and all these people cared about was how I looked on the outside.”

The inconsistency is glaring. The lack of authenticity is offensive. When we elevate the importance of external things over that of spiritual things, we either 1) turn people off, or 2) win them to a system of external regulations and not to a system of transformation by the Spirit.

Next post in this series we’re going to turn the topic a little in a different direction. Until then, what are your thoughts on where we’ve been so far? Please leave your comments below.

18 Responses to Because The Cross Was Made Of Dogwood – Thoughts On Evangelism, Part 4

  1. Brian says:

    This is good stuff, Brad.

    I have a few loosely connected thoughts and reactions:

    First, it’s pretty tough to blame people for not recognizing you when you’re wearing a mask. There is no more inherent authenticity in a pair of Levi’s with holes in them than there is in an Armani suit. I think there’s a risk of a sort of reverse self-righteousness in taking the position that appearances don’t matter at all. Appearances matter to all of us. Why comb your hair or wear matching socks? Where do you draw the line?

    Second, how does the importance of repentance and counting the cost fit in with what is described here as a “behavior modification” approach to evangelism?

    I seems to me that personal judgement based on appearances and genuinely assessing the success of evangelism on whether someone dresses better are not exactly the same thing. I’m also not completely sure that this isn’t a bit of a straw man. Does anyone really think of evangelism that way? I suspect that a bigger problem for most of us is that we don’t think of it at all.

    (Just trying to keep the discussion lively.)

    – Brian

    • Anonymous says:

      Howdy, Brian! Thanks for making your way around the old blog.

      I would typically say “You’re right, Brian” in that ‘just been hypnotized by a Jedi’ voice, but if I fight against the urge hard enough I think I may be able to engage in a bit of dialogue. So here are my rambling thoughts about your thoughts.

      I’ll also break my response up into three posts to facilitate discussion.

      1. I think the ‘wearing a mask’ thing is the 1st person manifestation of what I’m talking about. I’ve taking the 2nd or 3rd person approach in my discussion so far, that being what we think of others. Some of the credit/blame definitely rests with those who cover themselves up. As far as authenticity and clothing, the point I was really getting at was that of making character judgements based on the clothing or other external features. Of course, that assumes that the clothing is a neutral part of the presentation of the individual. If I spike my hair up and color it pink, I’m making a statement that is going to be interpreted. Even in that setting, though, the 2nd/3rd person response should not be one of judgement or making character decisions based on external features. I suppose the line I would draw, while different than what you were hinting at, would be at the place between us and others (assuming generally accepted standards of modesty are met, which is also a loosely defined, cultural statement).

    • Anonymous says:

      2. Repentance and counting the cost in conversion has suffered with the behavior modification concept of Christianity. True repentance and spiritual growth comes from the Spirit working inside of us through faith in Christ. If we focus on that, I think the behavior will follow. By focusing on the externals of behavior modification, we fool ourselves into believing that we’ve made progress while the core of a person’s heart may never have been touched. I also think there is something imprisoning about focusing on externals. Like we create a shell that projects a good image on the outside, but that same shell acts as a cell or a cocoon that encapsulates the heart. Light doesn’t come in, and where that happens true repentance and spiritual growth can’t occur. We fool ourselves into believing that we’ve made great changes by getting a guy in a suit, all the while the inside is just as broken as ever.

    • Anonymous says:

      3. Personal judgement based on appearances. They may not be the same thing, but they are clearly connected. My interest in having this discussion is to challenge people to think about this stuff at a foundational level, to challenge some presuppositions. You could replace ‘dressing better’ with ‘coming to church every Sunday’.But… you know the great thing about straw men is that you can beat the heck out of them.

  2. Erin says:

    Good stuff, Brad.

    Playing Devil’s Advocate here… What
    about Jesus’ words about good/bad trees and good/bad fruit in Matthew 7 and 12
    and Luke 6? It seems to be saying that what you see on the outside (words and
    actions) are an indicator of the condition of one’s heart.

    I think I know the
    answer, but perhaps you can address it, as well (because I know I’ve
    heard stuff like this from Christians).

    – Erin

    • Anonymous says:

      It used to cause me a great deal of trouble that Matthew 7 began with an admonition against judging and then proceeded to give several examples of things that needed to be ‘judged’ between. I think the reconciliation of these thoughts for me lies in thinking of the latter ‘judged’ as ‘discernment’. We’re supposed to be wise, shrewd, good stewards, etc. How can we without making the call on some things? We have to use discernment.

      In your specific question, I would put the emphasis on ‘fruit’. We’re supposed to look at the produce of a person’s life and draw some conclusions from there. Sticking with the two analogies at play, a farmer can drive a beautiful tractor and have the latest in harvesting gear, but if his fields produce no harvest, he isn’t really much of a farmer.

      At the Streaming Conference last week at Rochester College, we did a ‘community scripture reading’ of James 2:8-13 (read the scripture aloud and then discussed it with a neighbor). The thing that stood out to me is that there is supposed to be visible, almost tangible evidence for demonstrating your growth in Christ. There’s no excuse for being that old, grumpy, angry man/woman at church.

      So perhaps we can think about it this way: In spiritual things, such as the fruits of the Spirit, loving your neighbor, etc., there should be external signs. Other externals don’t really reveal anything significant about a person.

      • Erin says:

        I’ll also point out that, in the context of those passages, particularly the Matthew passages, Jesus just finishes talking about recognizing false teachers/prophets, rather than referring to followers of Christ.

        In fact, in Matthew 7, Jesus proceeds to talk about recognizing disciples of his.  Jesus states that it isn’t outward “religious” actions that will cause him to recognize you…only those who have a relationship with him are recognized.

  3. Paula says:

    Wow, I am so glad I finally got around to reading this. 

    We Americans are too caught up on looks and social standing. I’ve had countless people tell me that they won’t attend the worship service with me because they don’t have “church clothes”.  I tell them that doesn’t matter but can’t help thinking of them every time I dress on Sunday morning and park next to the expensive cars in the parking lot. 

    We preach one thing. Too often we live another. I’ve been changing my view on this over the years though. My kids wear jeans on Sunday mornings. I used to balk about their clothes. Now I’m much more concerned about their souls.Thanks for this, Brad. And thanks for sharing your view. I’ve got to go back and read the other posts now 🙂

    • Anonymous says:

      Paula,

      Thanks for stopping by. I’ve had several ‘I don’t have church clothes’
      conversations as well. I’ve always reassured them that it was okay, but deep
      down I’ve never been sure. I’ve seen people treated poorly for their
      clothing, which is sad.

      Be sure to leave your thoughts on the other posts as well.

  4. Chad says:

    The first thing I tell people when I am talking about our church is that esntre down to earth folk, and you can wear what you want.
    Sometimes I wear shorts and if I really want to start a conversation a ball cap. The older folks love it when I let my son do it. But we do take them off for prayer.
    My 2 cents
    Chad W. CChristian

    • Anonymous says:

      Chad – Thanks for commenting. I’ve decided I want to dress like you
      when I grow up.

      The thing I loved about BRCOC from the first Sunday I was here was
      that people can be accepting of others, dress included. As I waited to
      preach on my interview trip a guy climbed over me wearing a Marlboro
      tshirt. He didn’t seem uncomfortable and no one seemed bothered.

      And I love it when you wear a ball cap. You need an Arkansas
      Razorbacks one, though.

  5. Wayne Skutt says:

    “The inconsistency is glaring. The lack of authenticity is offensive.
    When we elevate the importance of external things over that of spiritual
    things…” Brad you just seemed to have described good ole regular life. Sometimes depressed suicidal people wear nice suits. so what…some times they dress like Chad. In fact so do child molesters, murderers and adulterers and the also the saints of God. I don’t find it offensive at all nor inconsistent. It just is. So you merely observed that we don’t often know whats going on in other peoples lives. I am not real shocked by that. Or is it possible that your powers of discernment are rather weak. The thing is if your offended by the lack of authenticity in people, my fantasy is that your going to spend a lot of time offended. I like men in nice suits, I think it looks great. Very distinguished. I was always impressed with Gene Graham a long time brother from this area. I don’t think in all the years I knew him he wore anything but a suit.  I have crossed other nice looking guys in suits that also ended their life with suicide. They still looked good. In both cases, I didn’t really know what either had planned for the evening. Nor was I offended their choices.

    • Anonymous says:

      Wayne – Thanks for stopping by the blog. Don’t miss the fact that I’m
      thinking in an organizational sense here. Also, I’m talking about making
      spiritual judgements on external factors. Erin introduced a great discussion
      regarding this issue. I never said that wearing suits was wrong, just that
      devising spiritual presuppositions about people because of what they wear is
      wrongheaded.

  6. Ben Skutt says:

    I find your account of the gentleman in the suit to be the most interesting in this essay. Not to discredit your opinions or writing, but simply because you stumbled upon a moment of pure humanity and reflected it to us. I’m uncertain that any writing or opinion can overcome the truth within moments such as the one that you have portrayed to us.

    I have a few observations.

    First, your inclination toward supposing the suit was worn due to vanity. I applaud your authenticity after the fact (it would have been easy to have left that part out, no one would have been the wiser, but you chose the path of honesty.) I’m not certain my mind would have not stepped to a similar place which leads me to ask, do we as christians have a prejudice against those that dress “well” to assume that they are vain? I think that Brian was perhaps hitting on this point. Should we assume that the person that dresses poorly is therefore NOT vain? Perhaps the poor dress could represent a stubborn pride-fullness: I REFUSE to dress up for church because I am RIGHTEOUS and it is about what is INSIDE. Lately I’ve decided to dress better when I can. I believe that dress is part of communication and I wanted my dress to communicate the person that I want to be read as. I wanted the external to communicate the internal. My question would be, when you have the opportunity to communicate the internal through the use of the external, why do otherwise? Certainly give to the poor in secret, but definitely don’t hide it under a bushel.

    Secondly, I strongly disagree with this gentleman’s assessment of himself, “Here I was, rotting on the inside and all these people cared about was how I looked on the outside.” I don’t believe this man was rotting on the inside, but HURTING on the inside. I think saying he was rotting is a representation of what he felt of his self worth. As you say, he was battling with depression. It appears to me that this man viewed his internal self as abhorrent and that no one noticed. I would disagree. Notice the method in which he approached his suicide. He researched ways, he was mindful and planned, he was concerned that the children would find his body, he wanted to look nice as he died. Were we to change WHY he was doing these things, they would sound like they were coming from a kind caring man with concern for his children, a careful and mindful approach to tasks that lie ahead of him, and a desire to look nice for those around him. Were they for any other reason, this man’s actions would be admirable. I say this to say that it is obvious that this man has internal value. Is it certain to say that when people wished that more men would be like him they saw his mindfulness of others and the respect he showed to those around him by dressing nicely? Perhaps not, and perhaps I’m misunderstanding entirely. I just hate for us to think of this man as an example of “good” on the outside but (and I don’t want to use the word bad, because I don’t think that’s what you are implying) “not good” on the inside.

    Thirdly, when we refer to the inconsistency perhaps I view the suit as a symbol. The man did not know how to change what was inside but he certainly knew how to change what was outside. And perhaps that was what this man was doing. For me this hearkens back to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 5:1-4) which says, to paraphrase, that we groan longing to be clothed with our heavenly bodies because we are burdened and that we do not wish to be removed of them but to be swallowed up into our heavenly bodies. There’s no way to “dress up” a broken soul. We see it broken when we look in the mirror regardless of how we cover our bodies. But perhaps, somewhere deep, this gentleman hoped that the external could heal the internal. Perhaps he hoped that by looking of value he could BECOME of value.

    It reminds me of the Fable of the ugly man who was given a beautiful mask to cover his ugliness. He wore it for many years until one day he removed his mask and his face had taken its form and he now was beautiful.

    Here are my 2 cents: Out to in, in to out, which is the way goodness travels? Does discipline not nurture the soul? Does restriction of the bodily indulgences not strengthen the heart? What good is a change of the soul if no one around you benefits from the transformation in the external world?

  7. K. Rex Butts says:

    Excellent!  When we allow the external to define our spirituality, whether it be in the form of a 3-piece suit or “Church attendance”, we are no different from Hindu’s expressing their spirituality/religiousity with the bindi dot or Jewish man wearing his kippah.  But we like being able to think that our spirituality can be measured by external factors because that allows us to avoid the much more difficult task of having our inner-self renewed.

    Grace and Peace,

    Rex

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