Help Us Not to Say Stupid Things
Editor's Note: In the fall of 2006, the Christianity Today board and select guests met to celebrate the ministry's 50th anniversary. As the celebration's keynote speaker, John Ortberg focused his address on what Christianity Today's must to do help keep evangelicalism and the church strong and thriving into the future. This article is adapted from Pastor Ortberg's address.
What does the world need from evangelicalism? And what does evangelicalism need from Christianity Today?
We need you to help us to be our best selves. Help us not to equate the faith with any human powered, one-sided political ideology. Help us not to write and publish and buy and read silly, shallow books. Help us not to say stupid things. Teach us to engage with our culture in ways that are civil and full of respect. Rebuke us when we are filled with hubris, when we want to believe and spread bad things about people with whom we disagree.
Help us to talk and think about things that matter. Mortimer Adler, the Great Books guy, pictured a great conversation where great minds from across the centuries gathered at the table to talk about those things that are true and beautiful and good. And you are our table, and you get to initiate topics, sometimes, about as often as anybody does. So, teach us to talk about something more worthwhile than in-house gossip about who's up and who's down and who doesn't get along with whom and what's the latest intramural squabble.
Teach us how to discern better. The apostle Paul said that we "have this treasure in jars of clay." And in our evangelical world we sometimes have a hard time figuring out where the treasure stops and the clay starts.
At its core the treasure is clear: "For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son." … "For God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." … "That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." The treasure is the evangel, the gospel, the Good News; and it runs so deeply in your leadership, present and past. You can hardly look at the picture of Billy Graham or hear a word from him without getting choked up.
The jar of clay is a little bit more of a mixed bag. We're part of a whole evangelical subculture that has nurtured us and shaped us and filled us with that same combination of affection and gratitude and embarrassment with which a 15-year-old regards her parents. And I think of all the mixed bag—the Gospel Horse, Veggie Tales, the Jerusalem Diet, the Bible Answer Man, The Total Woman, John Perkins, John Wimber, John Hagee, John Stott, John Piper, Johnnie Cash, John R. Rice; Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Draper, Jimmy Swaggert, Jimmy Packer. Jimmy Dobson, Jim Wallace. We are a diverse group.
And so we need you to teach us to center on the treasure.
We need you to be centrist, but not with a bland, middle-of-the-road, keep-all-the-constituencies-placated kind of centrism. We need you to teach us how to speak in a voice of passionate conviction from the best in our movement that is centered in our best understanding of the good news about Jesus and his kingdom.
We need you to be a voice that is scrupulously honest and fair to everybody, which engages our culture with a hermeneutic of charity and not always a hermeneutic of suspicion, and which calls us to live out those parts of the gospel that we evangelicals so often fall short on.
We need you to help us to think about what are the differences that matter and what are the differences that are just the goofy and superficial ones we adopt to make ourselves feel different.
We need you to help us put the hay down where the goats can get it. I love that phrase. It's from Garrison Keillor, the Lake Wobegon guy. He talks about a critic of Lutheran Pastor Ingqvist. And the critic says, "Every once in a while I wish he would just pound the pulpit so I'd know he wasn't preaching in his sleep. It's a lot of 'on the one hand this, and on the other hand that.' He never just comes out and says it. He never puts the hay down where the goats can get it."
There are some churches in our midst that know the goats and that are really clever about the goats and really good at getting lots and lots of goats, but they don't have any hay. And what's worse is they don't know they don't have any hay. And then there are some traditions where they have wonderful hay, and they love to dialogue about the hay, but they don't know the goats. And what's worse is they don't know they don't know the goats.
I think of the gap that exists in so many churches between the work of the best and brightest evangelical scholars and then the assumptions of church attenders—from issues like eschatology to Middle Eastern policy to Christianity and science to understanding that the gospel is something more than minimal entrance requirements for getting into heaven. Christianity Today, we need you to help get the hay down where the goats can get it.
We need you to inspire us. We need you to remind us of what we might yet become. We need you to do what Israel always needed her prophets to do—to paint a picture of shalom so beautiful that it moves us and quickens us and shames us and feeds us.
We need you to help us imagine an evangelicalism where the gospel is preached with all of its clarity and beauty, where people become so generous that it is true once more that "there were no needy persons among them," where learning flourishes and is prized, where hostility toward other races and ethnicities and immigrants and aliens is transcended by love, where Muslims and Buddhists and atheists perceive that there is this community that will seek to bless them and to love them, where the Person and teachings and presence of Jesus becomes the guiding reality.
There is a story about a woman who was going to die, and she called the pastor to her home to talk about what she wanted to happen at the funeral. She went through what Scriptures she wanted read and what songs she wanted sung. Then she said, "There's one other kind of unusual detail. I want to be buried with a fork in my hand." And he said, "Well, that's kind of strange. Why do you want to do that?" She said, "Well, because I want people to understand something .When I was at a banquet, my favorite part always came after the main meal was going to be cleared away and they were going to bring the desert, when the server would lean over and whisper into my ear, 'Keep your fork,' because a fork meant that something good was coming. Like pie or cake, like biblical food. And I loved it when they would say, Keep your fork. "I want you to tell people at my funeral that when they go past the casket and they look in there and they see me lying in that box and they see me holding a fork, I want you to tell them about that story. I want you to remind them to keep your fork. Something better is coming."
And so the day came and the funeral came, and everybody saw this woman, and they all asked the same question. What's the deal with the fork? And at the end of the time, the pastor told them the story about this woman and her hope. And he said that's the message: Keep your fork. Something better is coming.
Being an evangelical means this: "There is only one Name under heaven by which we are saved." Jesus alone is the Savior. Without Jesus people are in deep trouble. As evangelicals we have a passion to bring people to Jesus. And, Christianity Today, we need you because we forget. You are our table. You are our voice. You are our prophet. You are the keepers of the fork. Help us to be our best selves.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California and editor at large of Leadership Journal. This article is adapted from his keynote address to the board on the celebration of Christianity Today's 50th Anniversary.