Two radio segments illustrated a certain truth.
“This American Life” carried the story of Julian Koenig, who wrote memorable advertising slogans for companies like Timex and Volkswagen.
The most startling bit from the episode comes in this line from Koenig: “Advertising is built on puffery and at heart, deception, and I don’t think anyone can go proudly into the next world with a life based on deception.”
And “Fresh Air” carried an interview with Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show.” Stewart says what he does isn’t journalism. “I call it Googling,” he clarifies.
When the interviewer almost belligerently insists, “But that’s journalism!” Stewart says simply: “We don’t fact-check [and] look at context because of any journalistic criteria that has to be met; we do that because jokes don’t work when they’re lies.”
Those two stories – those two ideologies – have been ringing in my ears. I can’t shake the relentless, gut-feeling that somewhere in between non-journalist comics and advertising geniuses that the Spirit is saying something to the churches.
Tony Campolo tells an apocryphal story of Peter and Paul arguing at the gates of heaven.
Peter insists Paul is letting too many people through, and Paul insists he is only letting in the folks Peter had on the list.
Eventually, Paul approaches Peter with a wry smile and says, “I figured it out. Jesus was in the back, boosting people in over the wall.”
The joke both heals and stings – like most any medicine that’s actually good for you.
Churches ultimately avoid comedy and stick to marketing because we want to make it easy for folks to understand, easy for them to come to Jesus, easy for them to get beyond theological jargon and tough questions and immediately into some nascent, purer form of discipleship – a holy grail of perfect, perhaps even thoughtless, understanding.
But let’s be honest: This Jesus-following thing isn’t easy. That’s the truth.
It isn’t easy to get your teeth kicked in and then tell your attacker, “You missed a few in the back!”
It isn’t easy to tell your developmentally delayed child that when someone calls him stupid, he should ask that kid to play with him and be extra nice to him.
It isn’t easy to watch people with better advertising bring people to a church 15 miles away when you’re faithfully trying to be the presence of Christ in their community.
It isn’t easy to listen to others call you a liar or a heretic – or to say your ministry is invalid because you’ve chosen not to accept easy answers about the Bible and what it might really mean.
But it’s easy to lick wounds.
It’s easy to say, “Well, they’re wrong. I’ve got the real Jesus.”
It’s easy to say, “Fight back. Call him a meaner name, write something snarky on his Facebook wall.”
It is easy to shout them down. And it’s always easier when you can find somebody to be “them.”
A few months ago I went to hear a “controversial” pastor speak. Outside the church were a dedicated few with tracts, sandwich boards, megaphones and protest signs – all warning us to enter the church at our eternal peril.
At the end of the night, during the question-and-answer, someone asked the pastor, “How are you holding up?”
After muttering a few words about how he was doing OK, the pastor stopped and said, “I can tell you this: These two weeks have been the hardest two weeks of my life.”
The entire crowd started clapping. The young pastor downplayed it, but then took a visible deep breath.
I like to think he was drinking it in – this room full of people who were drawn to the fact that someone could be honest about life, faith, God, the Bible and all the questions those things spark.
What if we walked around with sandwich boards that told the truth? What if our slogans were “I’m sorry” or “The greatest of these is love” or “I don’t have it all figured out”?
Maybe it would be refreshing. Maybe people would think we were strange. Maybe it would be truth-telling.
Or maybe it would be just writing short sentences like Julian Koenig. Maybe it could be filled with grace – or at least we could be in the process.
We need more comedy and less advertising. The irony that many churches now refer to their congregants as “Christ-followers” and not Christians shows that we cannot easily be trusted with names, logos and language without somehow tainting them.
What could happen if our churches told the truth about heaven and hell – about what we know and what we don’t? About leadership? Wealth? Government? Sexuality?
It might get a laugh. It might or might not draw a crowd.
As Jon Stewart knows, jokes don’t work when they’re lies, and people rarely give themselves to anything that is easy.
They most often only give themselves over fully to something that has drawn them in and captivated them – a story that has awakened something within them. When a person finds that thing, they’ll lay their life down for it.
It’s funny – most people call that “the truth.”
TreyLyon and his wife, Jen, are CBF field personnel serving as urban ministry coordinators in southeast Atlanta, Ga. You can read his blog at soulache.posterous.com or learn more about their work at thelyonfamily.org.