Evangelism as Deprogramming



Last night was a night of inspiration. Six motivated laypeople and I were discussing what good doctrine might teach us about current practices in our congregations, and the conversation turned to evangelism.

We returned to two ideas we had begun with five weeks before, as we began our look at “Lutheran Creeds and Confessions;” namely, that good creeds do not build walls of division; they should remove stumbling blocks that keep people from coming to God’s love in Jesus; and they should point to and praise God’s love rather than protecting the powers and prerogatives of the church.

The inescapable truth that kept hounding us all evening was evangelism must first and foremost seek to deprogram. Everywhere we look there are people whose minds have been poisoned by misconceptions about God and Jesus—misconceptions that, either intentionally or unintentionally, the church itself has planted.

It’s a sad truth. All of us sitting there are part of the church. We love the church. We find our identity and our nourishment in the church. And we have decided that there must be an invisible church, which is the true and pure source of God’s love in the world, and a false church which is full of misinformation and evil.

But when we get real and get honest, we must admit that there is no expression of the church in the world which has not, by sins of commission or sins of omission, sent the wrong message.

Jesus had to deprogram people about God. That was perhaps his major mission. From driving out the money changers to healing on the Sabbath to eating with sinners and tax collectors to warning people about the judgment and the first and the last, Jesus was all about deprogramming people—ridding their minds of poisonous  beliefs and habits.

Martin Luther had to deprogram people about God in Christ. Like all prophets before and after he rocked many boats to wake people up to the simple truth that we are put right with God and saved not by the quality of our good deeds or of our faith, but by the power of God’s love—“by grace we are saved.” For that he was a marked man—an enemy of church and state.

Things are still the same—only more so. Surely the most common—almost universal—response people have when they enter into a conversation with someone claiming to represent the church, is defensiveness. That defensiveness can be a kind of hidden reaction, rising out of shame and guilt, or a more overt one, rising from a decision to self-identify with the non-Christian world; but it is almost always some sort of wall erected against a distorted image of God. It is God the critic, God the demanding One, God the control-freak, God the rigid, God the perfect and God the punisher that people have in mind. This is the one who has such a blood-lust about sin that he would surely send everyone who ever lived to eternal hell if it were not for the willingness of his elder-son, Jesus, who gave of his blood on behalf of all the other siblings—you and me. That, my friends, is inviolable doctrine for many.

So, the very first thing any church member should remember when they set out to talk to the unchurched is deprogramming. And, of course, the hardest part of that, is that we must accept the task of deprogramming ourselves first.



About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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