Wednesday, October 05, 2005

More Comments Regarding Christian Coffeehouses

In response to my last blog post, which pertained to Christian coffeehouses, I received a thoughtful e-mail from Paul Ellingsen, a talented Christian folk singer who often performs with his band at the Celebrate Jesus coffeehouse in Forest Park, IL (at St. John's Lutheran church). Rather than reprint his entire letter, I'm simply reprinting my response to him, since that response contained the portions of his letter to which I felt a response was needed.

NOTE: Paul's comments regarding large organizations were in response to the portion of my blog (at the end) where I talked about my extremely ambitious plans for the Christian Artists' Resource Center.

Here is my letter to Paul.

Dear Paul,

I appreciate your perspective regarding the contents of my blog.

You write: "I question if the Lord really wants more big organizations, or just a handfull of people who are willing to follow the Lord with all their heart, all their soul & all of their mind. 12 apostles turned the world upside down."

My question: Why does it have to be an "either/or" proposition?

Yes, 12 highly-dedicated apostles turned the world upside down, but they did it by thinking big. Would you really be saying that they had turned the world around if there were still only 12 dedicated believers in Christ in the world today? I think not. If they'd been complacent about the status quo, one in which the overwhelming majority of the world was ignorant about Christ, you and I probably wouldn't be serving the Lord today, because we never would have heard about Him.

Big organizations and intense discipleship are not mutually exclusive. All other things being equal, church growth is a sign of spiritual health, whereas stagnation is a pretty reliable sign that something vital is being done poorly or not at all. This is not to say that all big Christian organizations are in tune with God's will, but it is to say that if they are out of touch with God, the cause is not the mere fact that they are big.

The automatic equation of small groups with deep dedication to the Lord is highly questionable. In any given Christian organization, regardless of whether it's large or small, some people will be more dedicated to the Lord than others.

The real question, it seems to me, is this: Is there a need for the type of ministry I envision when I describe my vision for the Christian Artists' Resource Center? It seems to me that there is. In fact, I would describe it as a desperate need.

Even a casual reflection on the state of society today will surely reveal that the Christian consensus which once existed in America has eroded significantly, particularly in big cities such as Chicago where liberalism is the predominant mode of thinking. That's reflected in our art, our music, our movies, and other aspects of our culture. If you don't believe me, spend a day or so browsing through the rock record racks at a place such as Tower Records. Pay close attention to the song titles. If you're like me, you will surely be appalled at some of the godless trash being disseminated today.

How can we as Christians be indifferent to this problem? Sadly, we often are. We may give lip service to the idea that we want to change the world for Christ, but if we aren't constantly evaluating and reevaluating our methods, and revising those methods as need be in order to maximize the effectiveness of our evangelistic efforts, it remains mere lip service. There's an old saying: "Insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." The truths of the gospel of Christ are timeless, but that doesn't mean that our evangelistic methods shouldn't change with the times in which we live.

Large organizations for the sake of large organizations are a waste of time and resources, but there are some legitimate reasons to seek the cooperation and assistance of as many people as possible when pursuing goals which require substantial material resources.Many of the things which need to be done in order to turn our culture around spiritually can only be accomplished by large organizations, or by numerous smaller organizations (including, but not limited to, churches) which pool their resources in pursuit of a common goal. The Church has the resources to do what needs to be done. The question is, does it have the desire? If we neglect to do everything we can do to save our generation, I believe we will answer for our apathy on Judgment Day.

You write:

"Quite a while ago I suggested to Darlene that we just advertise the Coffeehouse as "a Coffeehouse" instead of "Celebrate Jesus Coffeehouse", and she strongly disagreed with me. Later I was ashamed of myself as I thought, "Am I ashamed of the name of Jesus?" I see too many "Christian" performers who are afraid to mention the name of Jesus so that they will be accepted in secular venues."

I certainly agree that Christians, whether or not they are musicians, ought to be proud to proclaim the name of Christ (although it doesn't necessarily follow from that fact that they have an obligation to do that in every song they sing). But you're comparing apples to oranges here. I wasn't talking about the content of the songs bands sing once they're inside the coffeehouse. I was talking about the name of the coffeehouse itself. What's the point of having a roster full of music groups which boldly proclaim the name of Jesus, if the coffeehouse is promoted in such a way that most non-Christians never hear those musicians because they never go inside?

Do me a favor, Paul. The next time the Celebrate Jesus Coffeehouse holds its monthly session, ask the audience for a show of hands in order to indicate whether or not they consider themselves to be Christians. In fact, do that for the next several months, just to be on the safe side. I'll go out on a limb and say that I can virtually predict the results of such a survey already. I've been there three times now --- four, if you count the time when the only people who showed up were me and one other person --- and I have spent enough time talking with the people there to be able to say with a reasonable amount of certainty that hardly anyone who attends that coffeehouse is a nonbeliever. In fact, my perception is that the coffeehouse doesn't really do a very good job of attracting Christian believers who don't have a vested interest in attending. Last time the coffeehouse was held, I noticed that almost everyone in attendance was a musician who was planning or hoping to perform that night. Talk about preaching to the choir!

Personally, I think that evangelism should be one of the main reasons for running a Christian coffeehouse, and I would therefore characterize a coffeehouse which isn't regularly drawing reasonable numbers of nonbelievers as a failure. But even if the sole objective of a coffeehouse is to provide a place for Christians to meet, it seems to me that it ought to attract a wide spectrum of believers, not just Christians who are looking for a chance to showcase their talents!

In the early 1970's, I was a regular at a Christian coffeehouse in Springfield, Missouri. It was called the New Wine Coffeehouse. The name was subtle enough that unless you knew the scriptures, you might have no idea that it was a Christian coffeehouse. But I can assure you that the message of Christ was unequivocally proclaimed at New Wine. On most weekends, the place was jam packed with people from all areas of the city, many of whom were non-Christians who came to know the Lord as the result of the ministry (which featured nationally known performers such as Larry Norman, as well as a lot of local Christian musicians).

Another ministry which has done quite well over the years is one, founded by Rev. David Wilkerson, called Teen Challenge. That drug and alcohol rehab ministry was (and still is) thoroughly and unequivocally Christian, but its name was sufficiently neutral to attract people who would have been turned off by a more blatantly Christian name.

Chi Alpha, a college ministry run by the Assemblies of God, is yet another example. Again, the name is subtle enough that most non-Christians would be unaware of its Christian connotations. And again, I can assure you (having spent many hours in the company of the members of my local Chi Alpha chapter at SMSU in Springfield) that the gospel was boldly proclaimed at their meetings.

When I was in college, I briefly ran a Christian coffeehouse called The Brass Serpent. The name sounded like it could have been the name of a bar or restaurant, but those familiar with the Old Testament knew that the name had its origins in scripture.

If I were to run a Christian art gallery, I might call it Gallery 1212. The first 12 would refer to the 12 tribes of Israel, and the second 12 would refer to the 12 disciples. (You may notice, incidentally, that my current room number at Lawson House YMCA is also 1212.)

It's possible that you and I will have to simply "agree to disagree", but I hope that I've furnished you with some food for thought.

Additional thoughts pertaining to Christian coffeehouses will be forthcoming at a later date and time.

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