This is Part 3 of a series on This I Used to Believe.
Last time, I shared an amazingly good example of evangelism. This time, I share an amazingly bad example …by the same person!
This American Life aired a show called This I Used to Believe, which featured a conversation between Trisha, a self-described lapsed Catholic, and Coach Hogan, an evangelical Christian. This segment caught the attention of another radio program called Last Words Radio, and they began their discussion by stating, “One thing we’re not doing is critiquing Coach Hogan.”
I will not be so kind.
As I shared in part 2, Coach Hogan used a football game as a conduit for the gospel. This powerful story touched many people including myself, and a woman named Trisha Sebastian. I won’t repeat what was broadcast — you can catch that in part 1 — but will dive straight into Trisha’s interactions with the coach.
Email Sets the Stage
When Trisha read the story of the football game, she emailed Coach Kris Hogan. She wrote, “I’m a very lapsed Catholic leaning toward agnosticism who has seen too many people who claim to be Christians behaving in a very unchristian way,” and went on to thank him for being “an example of being a good Christian.” So off the top, we know a little bit about Trisha’s journey of faith, and that she was impressed by the coach’s Christlike example — impressed enough to email a stranger.
Kris emailed her back the same day. I immediately noticed Christianese: “my spirit was pressed,” “my heart is heavy,” “exhortation,” “bless you.” These should have been red flags, an indication that here is somebody who does not speak the same language as normal people. But neither Trisha nor the host, Ira Glass, mentioned this. They seemed willing to shrug it off, so I did the same. Yes, this comes back to bite us later. But for now…
Kris expressed concern that Trisha was “leaning towards agnosticism because of the actions of Christians,” and offered to dialog with her about “the idea of God.” I find this strange. Trisha had expressed her skepticism about God, but also expressed her openness toward a “good Christian example,” which ultimately points to Jesus. There is a common assumption that one needs to believe in God in order to believe in Christ, so we need to lay “God” as a foundation and then build “Jesus” on top of that. But the point of openness varies from person to person, and in our culture, I bet there are a growing number of people who believe in Jesus first, and believe in God because of that. (To reach New Agers and spiritists, it might make sense to begin with the Holy Spirit instead.)
Anyway, Trisha was not sure that she wanted to hear “his pitch about Christianity,” but replied to explain that the main thing that caused her to begin questioning her faith was the death of her friend from cancer. She declined his offer, and thanked him again for his example.
This is where things begin to get interesting. Three weeks later Kris wrote to her again, explaining that he had tried to let her email go, but that God kept waking him up in the middle of the night. I recognized this, and so will many of you who have had similar experiences: the Holy Spirit is at work, and Kris was sensitive to this leading. I began to get more excited as I listened, wondering what this Spirit-led person would do.
Now at this stage, Trisha has explained a fair bit of her journey away from faith in God. She has stated that her friend’s sudden death was the big turning point. And we listeners know (and I assume she explained to Kris) that she found comfort in the idea that her friend’s death just happened, for no cosmic reason. She is a little weirded out (and intrigued) that a stranger — a celebrity, even — would told her he has a message from God for her.
Like I said, I recognized things up to this point. To me, so far, this all smacks of God.
But once the phone conversation began, I recognized something else.
Phone Call #1
So now we reach the meat of the show, when Trisha and Kris actually talk on the phone. Trisha opens with a biggie: “I’m just wondering what you think God’s message to me right now is.”
The first job of a missionary is to listen.
Kris opens well enough, by sharing his side of the story, about how God keeps waking him up at the same time every single night. …By the way, Kris? I understand this. But to a normal person, it sounds really weird. It would help if you would say something like, “This is going to sound weird, but…” or “Isn’t that bizarre?” And I’m positive there is some kind of prophetic significance to the times 1:30 and 4:04.
Kris then launches off into his discussion of God. Wait, wait. Dude, why are you talking? Why aren’t you asking Trisha to tell you more about herself? The first job of a missionary is to listen, to form relationship, to build mutual trust. What do you do for a living? What things do you share in common? What was your Catholic upbringing like? Tell me about your friend, what was she like? How did you cope with her death? What are you doing now? It’s only as one listens that one can discover what God is already doing. We aren’t bringing Jesus to godless people; Jesus is already there, and we need to cooperate with him.
But no. They talk for an hour so only snippets are aired on the radio show, but it sounds like Kris spends the time on apologetics (rational arguments) for the existence of God:
- The second law of thermodynamics (entropy) as an argument against evolution and therefore for creation. Yeah, I remember learning that one. By the way, it’s a misapplication of the law.
- Arguing against the Big Bang. Huh? This just confuses me.
- Arguing against evolution. Again with the huh? If you take a normal person and pit faith against science, faith will lose. This is a false dichotomy.
- Subjective vs. objective good or evil. Though it became awkward, this has its roots in solid writing by C.S. Lewis. (The first section of Mere Christianity is “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.”)
- “Of course, [Hitler] gets his worldview from Charles Darwin.” This is not only arguing from misinformation (Hitler was in fact a creationist), it is the use of the logical fallacies Guilt by Association and The Hitler Card.
Worst of all: When a person has lost someone dear to cancer, telling them about someone else’s miraculous healing from cancer is about the worst approach I can think of. At best, it raises difficult questions; at worst, it creates defensiveness and hostility. (I believe in divine healing; Kay & I learned the five-step model of healing prayer, and we have seen some weird stuff! We also saw a couple who was unusually gifted in praying for healing lose their son to leukemia.)
Kris does hit on an important bit by explaining that God does not answer every prayer positively. But comparing “winning the lottery” with “not letting my friend die” is an emotional stretch. Still, the point is taken, that God may have a larger plan. Then why not say that? Why not wonder, “Maybe God has a special plan for your life that you wouldn’t have stepped into without your friend’s death?” Explain that the kingdom of God has come but not yet in its fullness. Explain that a lot of sucky things happen in the meantime, but that God’s specialty is turning suffering into beauty. Jesus taught extensively about the coming of the kingdom of God, but for some reason his followers often seem unaware of it.
During Trisha’s debriefing with Ira Glass, we hit one of the saddest twenty seconds I have heard on this show:
Trisha: “And now I’m still left with all these questions.”
Ira Glass: “Is there any small part of you that thought he might be able to put the religious message in some way that would finally make sense to you, like he would say to you…”
Trisha: “I was… Yeah.”
Ira: “You did hope that.”
Trisha: “I really did hope that. I, I… Deep down, and I’ve said this to so many friends of mine, I really want to believe again.”
This was followed by one of the funniest twenty seconds: Ira offers simple, God-focused comfort to Trisha which touches her, and comments on how sad this is, since he doesn’t believe in God. As Terri said in her comment on part 1, “If God can use an atheist moderator to touch her soul, shouldn’t we learn some better ways ourselves? Ouch!”
Ira Glass, you see, speaks Trisha’s language. Kris Hogan does not. This is crucial to understand: Just because we both speak English does not mean we speak the same language. One of the first tasks of a missionary is to begin to learn the language.
Phone Call #2
So they try another phone call, being clear that the purpose is to discuss Trisha’s questions about why God allowed her friend to die. It’s a good question. It’s a tough question. And from my perspective, even a direct question like this should not have an immediate answer, but be treated as an invitation. Trisha is exposing a very sensitive part of her heart, and that calls for respect and an exchange of trust.
Again with the Christianese.
But Kris Hogan doesn’t waste any time sticking his foot in his mouth: “This is the most common question that folks who are anti-God ask.”
Whoa! In a single statement, he slaps Trisha as “anti-God,” and dismisses the possibility that earnest followers of Jesus also wrestle with that same question. Amazing. Now I don’t want folks to rush to the coach’s defense, because as you will soon see, I’m not blaming him.
And then he starts talking about sin, and that “we live in a fallen world.” Again with the Christianese: sin, fall. These terms are meaningless to Trisha, or worse, misunderstood. As Leonard Sweet says in his new book So Beautiful,
This requires not only a new ability to tell the story but also a fresh way to reframe the story for “a sinless society,” a mission field where people don’t see themselves as “sinners.”
How difficult would it be for would-be evangelists to stop using the word “sin” or “fallen” and start using the word “broken”? “We live in a broken world. God has a plan to heal it, and that plan centers on Jesus Christ. And God is inviting you to be part of that plan.” Yes, this is more than a semantic change; it requires a complete rethinking of what the gospel is in the first place.
Don’t Blame the Coach
OK, now that it looks like I’ve gone on a total anti-Kris Hogan bent, let me be clear: I don’t blame him. He responded to God’s annoying wake-up call. He reached out to Trisha. He took a huge risk in agreeing to taped conversations that would be edited for radio. (How many of us have the guts to do that?) And in the end, despite all the things I critiqued, the show concludes with, “But in the weeks that have followed, he has accomplished this: Trisha has been thinking a lot more about God, she says. She doesn’t really believe just yet, but she says she’s open to it.” Though I give his evangelism a poor grade, God still used him! (That is good news for us all.)
So who do I blame? After I listened to this show, I shared about it with my wife over lunch, and she nailed it. She said, “I blame his teachers.”
“What?” I said, surprised. “Explain.”
“The coach was doing his best with every tool he had been given. He was taught this stuff, just like you were taught it, and it’s pure crap. The teachers are totally to blame.”
Most of what you were taught about evangelism is now irrelevant. Actually, in a post-Christian society, it’s worse than irrelevant — you may inadvertently be practicing “devangelism”! For your outreach to be effective, you must adopt a missionary mindset and missionary methods. If you have a teacher who is talking about evangelism without training you to be a missionary, walk away and find another teacher. With the Holy Spirit guiding you, that teacher needs to be a “native.”
It might be someone like Trisha.
This I Used to Believe series: