Being a pastor means I give a lot of talks but it also means I hear a lot of sermons/talks/messages/preaches (pick the one that fits the tradition you’re familiar with). Here’s another secret you’re not supposed to know. Sometimes we lie when we preach.
And by lie, I mean we illustrate our talk with something that happened in ‘real life’ and the story though ‘real’ and ‘true’ is also what my teacher in high school called, um, “fiction”.
I’m taking a risk in confessing this. And while I’m about to share stories from others I’ve heard fib, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes when I’m telling a story I’ve gotten the facts all wrong. Sometimes I don’t realize it and sometimes I do but don’t care. When my wife catches me, the intentional and the un-intentional, she calls me on it and doesn’t let me off the hook. I try to set the record straight before she does it for me. And believe me, she loves to do it for me.
Often if you just think about the story someone is telling you know it can’t possibly be true and we sort of hope you don’t think about it. We play fast and loose with details sometimes because details, we’re pretty sure, don’t really matter. What matters is the point we’re trying to make. As long as the point is true, details are just tools, the means that the end justifies.
I was caught up in the drama that unfolded around the James Frey, “A Million Little Pieces” debacle. I had read the book and was willing to believe it but really found elements VERY difficult to swallow. The bloody plane ride, the no-drugs dentist, the romantic trip to the crack house, some things just smelled fishy. Ah, hell, forget fishy, they smelled like a pile of crap. It was a great yarn and part of me hoped it was true despite the crap detector that kept going off in my brain every time I picked up the book. Lots of people felt the same way.
Frey showed up on Larry King with his mom. His freakin’ mom! And the Oprah arrived on the show as a disembodied voice and made the most astonishing statement. “The facts aren’t important, the essential truth of the story is all that matters.” On the Oprah’s website message boards (yes, I’m a member, sigh) the debate raged and the posts were equally divided by those who wanted to expose the lies and those that loved the story so much they knew it had to be true. It was true, they insisted, and it had changed their lives. The word of the Oprah was enough for them.
As someone who runs in circles where I hear Christians make the exact same sorts of comments but replace Frey with a Christian author/speaker/leader and “AMLP” with the title of their talk or book, the comments made me a little uncomfortable. I understand the Crusades better having waded into and through the passionate responses from both sides on that message board.
In the end though, it turned out to be a thousand lies and the Oprah changed her mind and instead of benevolent momma Oprah, James came back to her show to appear, sans his own mommy, with the righteously indignant ‘thou shalt pay’ Oprah. It was quick, ugly and everything my old Baptist Sunday School teacher used to tell me that judgment day would be like.
I’m flashing back to all that to say this, I think James would probably still be going strong if he’d have avoided the Oprah and taken his story to the huddled masses of Christians around the world who seem ready, willing and happy to open wide and swallow.
There are two videos out that make some great claims about what God can do in cities where the local church leaders get people together and ask Jesus to be the Lord of the city/area/region. The videos are well done.
Don’t do what I did though if you want to enjoy them.
I contacted people from the places in the video and asked about the claims. I talked to journalists, pastors not in the video and some public officials. It was actually pretty easy. Most hadn’t even heard of the transformation that had taken place in their area. I got to be the first one to tell them about it. Very cool.
Yesterday I got a nasty shock. There’s a very hip and cool pastor (these words can go together, seriously) who wrote a book that I really like. In the book he tells a story about planting the church he leads, a huge church now, 10,000 people in just a few years since it started. Having planted the church here, where I’m one of the leaders, about 4 years ago, I read this part with great interest.
My shock came from reading someone else’s blog and picking up on a comment from the Marching Ant. Apparently the story in question left out some key details. After I read up on those details I was on MSN with my friend Shelley who sometimes wins contests here and frequently posts to keep me honest. Here’s the transcript of that conversation:
B: Have you ever read ** **?
S: No, not yet but I feel like I have because I’ve heard so much about it. Why? Do you recommend it?
B: Yes, I do, but I read something today that has me bummed a little and is connected to my ‘Confessions’ post that I started.
S: So what did you read?
B: Ah, well, in the book, ___ talks about the start of their church and about he and a few friends had a dream to start a church that did things differently. He talks about how they didn’t know what to expect people-wise the first Sunday but he says it didn’t matter, he didn’t care if 13 people showed up, even if that was all it ever was and when someone brought a sign to put out front, he said, “No.” He said that people needed to want to come so badly that they would find them without a sign.
S: Hmmm. Interesting. Make people hunt for you…
B: And on that first Sunday they just had no idea what would happen. Then he says, reluctantly, ‘cause numbers really don’t matter, but it matters, he says because it’s part of his story, that about 1000 people showed up that first Sunday.
S: Oh man!
B: Yeah, pretty cool. Pretty miraculous really and he says he’s never been to a church growth conference or read a book on church growth or how to plant a church.
S: I hate him already…
B: Here’s the thing, this is what I read, it turns out that ______ was on staff at a church in the same city for 4 or 5 years and that church of 5000 people, under the leadership of a very well-known pastor, sent him out with 1000 people to plant the new church.
S: oh, bummer! So he took about 1000 with him?
B: Yeah, currently I’m working on a new blog titled, “Pissed Off with ____”.
S: And he just failed to mention that small detail?
B: Yeah. 1000 people, with the well-known senior pastor’s blessing and endorsement apparently. He had been speaking at the established church and developing the group that would become the new church for a while.
I mean, it’s not like he said he had lunch with Jesus and turns out he has a couple of kids or something but his whole point of that story in the book is about “look what God can do when we give up”.
S: Wow, that’s crazy and deceitful, is that a major part of ** **? …about the church plant?
B: It wasn’t a church started with 1000 new believers, it was a church of followers who had been built up for this plant to be leaders. Even I could build the fastest growing church on PEI if I started with 1000 freakin’ leaders! Look what the Spartans did with just 300! Of course…they all died…forget that example.
That details is important in one chapter but even more important in creating a picture of who ____ is.
S: Yeah, it makes a huge difference, for sure. So, are you going to write a strongly worded letter?
B: What I’m going to do is invite him to speak here, get Delirious to lead the worship and guarantee a crowd, do the whole thing at the Civic Centre in front of 1000 people and then right after I introduce him and hand him the mic, I pants him.
B: But don’t tell anyone, I want it to be a surprise…
My point is simply this, just because someone stands up and tells a story at church, in a book or on a video, and they’re ‘good people’, it doesn’t mean that sometimes details don’t suffer for the sake of a good story. We need to keep our brains engaged and we also need to hold each other accountable because once people find out we’ve left out some important details they’ll wonder what else can be believed.
And I want to be clear on something. I am not suggesting that these people I’ve talked about have set out to deceive (don’t laugh). I’m really not. Sometimes you tell a story that you believe to be true, or you believe in “the essential truth” and that’s enough. Lots of people I know communicate for effect more than they do for accuracy. We all know people like that. Sometimes we forget things, sometimes things just enlarge in our memories and other things diminish. Sometimes we just want to make a true story funnier and the bits we add don’t change anything. But sometimes we tell BIG FAT LIES.
I do think it matters, and I do think we need to watch what we say but much more than that I think we need to pay attention to how we listen and what we buy at face value.
The best part of all of this is that, as with Frey, those who love the guy hate people who call him on his lies and in the church, when someone popular gets called for distorting truth those who are keen for them will accuse you of judging others, tearing apart the body of Christ, being negative and cynical and a million little names. When legend collides with reality we always seem to prefer the legend.
My next confession will involved the prophets I’ve met. No, seriously, it will. I’m letting you know my intent so we can all see if any call me today to talk to me before I write it…