Monday, January 17, 2011

Witnessing - Setting Our People up for Failure

Has someone ever "set you up for failure"? This is when they train you or prepare you in a particular task... but fail to give you a complete picture with all of the information that you need in order to be successful. It can also happen when you are properly trained, but you are sent into a no win situation where your efforts are totally wasted. In either case, you walk right into the task so unprepared that you are almost doomed from the very start.

In retrospect, you can look back and see that the fault did not lie with your effort but with the one who sent you on this foolish mission. In my experience, church evangelism programs (with very rare exceptions) do this horrible deed almost better than anyone. It's no wonder then that well-meaning Christians hate the idea of sharing the faith and live in constant anxiety about it. This is why they will tell 40 people about the great new pizza place that just opened up in town, but choke and sputter at the thought of talking about how Jesus delivers sinners from eternal damnation. I'm here to tell you that it is not their fault. This is just a classic case of "live and let live".

In World War I, the generals charged with overseeing and conducting the war ran across a problem that became known as "live and let live". The idea of trench warfare had proven itself to be so futile and abhorrent to the trench fighters on both sides that a spontaneous spirit of co-operative non-aggression became rampant. In simple terms, everyone got it in their heads that there was no reason to climb out of a trench and die when one could just sit in a trench and do nothing. We live. They live. Everybody wins.

In many ways, this was the inevitable response of bad command decisions. The tactical blunders of WWI that pitted ancient military tactics against modern weaponry forced both sides into a protracted, horrible war of unending static misery. This analogy fits well with modern evangelism because--if you ask enough individual Christians--you will find many who describe witnessing in ways that are shockingly similar to a WWI trooper getting up out of the safety of his trench and running across the bomb-scarred no-man's land only to gain a few feet of actual territory for his side at best or get mowed down by raking machine-gun fire at worst. Is this what Our Lord's Great Commission is about? Really?

The initial response to "live and let live" was equally foolish and counter-productive. Generals in the rear instinctively accused their soldiers of cowardice and dereliction of duty. This could not have been further from the truth in most cases. The truth is that every man has his limits and those limits are reached far quicker when there is no clear objective or hope. Based on this false assumption, the planers and decision makers addressed the problem in the only way they knew how: through ineffective and institutional means. Propaganda and motivational training was ramped up. Several countries turned to harsh treatment, intimidation, and guilt to try to push the Soldiers back into line. Raids and assaults against the enemy were institutionally planned and carried out in order to keep up the offensive spirit in the ranks and discourage sedentary behavior when there was a perfectly good war to be fought. These measures met with mixed success and never actually got rid of the "live and let live" mentality which survived all the way through the end of the entire war.

It got so bad that the commanders in the trenches (themselves firm advocates of "life and let live") would send detailed false reports back to the rear of attacks against the enemy that never happened. There is a historical account of one British general who sought to deal with this particular problem using an institutional metric (physical evidence) to authenticate his previous metric (the report)... an approach which seems to be the only managerial solution these days! He required that every report of an attack that was sent from the front include a little bit of German barbed wire to prove that the unit had actually gotten out of the trench, crossed no-man's land, and reached the enemy line. It was from this enemy trench that the German wire could be recovered. The general confidently reported that this would help him prove the veracity of the reports he was getting.

...but metrics don't solve all problems. There is another historical account of British troops going out into no-man's land and finding an entire spool of German barbed wire. They took it back to their position in the trench. Each time the frontline troops had to send a false report to the general, they would snip off a piece of their stolen German wire to send it with their reports.

The reports were still false. The attacks still never happened. "Live and let live" was still in place. Only this time, the general's own solution had blinded him to the continued existence of the problem and further obscured the actual cause: the failure of the war itself to create a climate where individual Soldiers could actually win and survive.

I submit that the Christian church in America, as an institution, is setting Christians up for failure in a very similar way when it comes to witnessing to the lost. It is clear that the bad tactics and training that we are receiving in the trenches are not working. As the mission field becomes increasingly static and individual congregations begin digging trenches, the institutional leadership from all kinds of denominations and sects is turning to the only thing that it understands: propaganda, guilt, increasingly outdated advertising strategies stolen from secular business, and (of course) unverifiable metrics. "Go cut off some some barbed wire for me as proof of the execution of your duties and send it in with your report."

In response, the "generals" at the institutional level are increasingly coming into contact with the Christian version of "live and let live" which is further exacerbated by a culture that encourages everyone to just stay out of people's personal business. The zeal of the individual witness is draining and everyone can see the Christian soldiers just sitting in their trenches. People feel as though they have reached their limits. They have no hope of success. They know that what they are being told to do and how they are trained to do it just does not work in the real world. They sit in their trench and "live and let live". They send less and less money back to the rear to support a tactical engagement that they no longer believe in for a spiritual war that they honestly just don't want to be a part of anymore. They are tired. They just want to go back to "normal"... which they define as a life which does not involve slogging it out in this horrible trench with this horrible burden of witnessing.

What is the solution? It is certainly not collecting barbed wire or pushing exhausted troopers even further beyond their breaking point. The church as a whole needs to go down to the trenches and identify the source of the problem. The policy of "live and let live" is a response to being "set up for failure". Our training is wrong. Our tactics are wrong. Our metrics are wrong. We are metaphorically sending individual Christians out to the mission field to die and we don't want to admit that problem lies with the institutional paradigm that the church has bought into.

We need to go back to the drawing board. We need to evaluate these problem areas of training and tactics. We need a new approach--a soldier centric approach--that equips individual Christians with proper apologetic and proclamation tools and points them in the right direction: the places where they can do the most good and observe the most success for their effort.

Going back to my pizza example at the start of this long diatribe, the pizza place has no institutional system for setting up its customers as witnesses and yet the word of mouth takes care of itself. Why? Because no one needs to be exhorted to tell their friends about a place to get a good bite to eat. It's just common sense. Why doesn't the gospel translate to the same "good advice" that you tell a friend about because you care about them? There are a whole host of reasons, but chief on the list is the fact that the church has psyched Christians out by making witnessing out to be some daunting chore instead of a simple, clear, and blessed message of "good news" which is a Christian's privelage to joyfully share with others in the freedom of the gospel and not from the threats and demands of the law. In over thinking the problem, we have approached the issue from the wrong direction with the wrong set of presuppositions for so long that whatever witnessing does take place in the public square is happening in spite of our efforts rather than because of them.

You can be sure that I am going to be thinking about this topic through the Epiphany season. Expect more posts on that analyze various aspects of this problem... a problem that I, myself, have been a victim of for far too long.

No comments: