Making the Pitch

This last year I started working with
my son in his construction business.
It is a small business, and
Daniel is also the most important salesman
for the company. He has taught me
a thing or two about selling. He is very
good at what he does.

One of his favorite movies is Tin Men,
a comedy about two not-so-good aluminum
siding salesmen who are eventually
hauled before their state Sales Commission
for corrupt sales practices. Daniel
knows what is ethical and what is not,
and avoids that stuff as well as that
which is illegal. He still relies on creating
urgency, answering objections, and
closing the deal. He is an accomplished
pitch-man.

In the world of salesmanship, creating
urgency seeks to move the client to
sign the contract now instead of later.
There needs to be a reason to make the
big decision on the spot, and that reason
needs not only to make sense but it must
be compelling. It is for this reason that
many states have laws allowing the consumer
three days to make a change of
mind or heart: good closers are not good
closers for no reason.

It has been my observation that most
hugely “successful” evangelists and pastors
have one thing in common: they are
good closers. They may have other things
in common, but my ears hear the close,
and whenever I hear it, my heart sighs and
shrinks back in a moment of discouragement.
Making the Pitch
It ought not so to be. Whatever selling
windows might entail, selling God as a
commodity to be accepted or rejected on the
basis of the consumer’s perception of value
is at best silly, and at worst disgusting.

I am not here criticizing the caricature
of the God-peddler. Those who
fall for the king and the duke of Twain’s
Huckleberry Finn probably deserve what
they (don’t) get. I even have little sympathy,
frankly, for those who fall for the
Copeland-Hagee-Hinn brand of snake-oil
evangelism. Instead, I am concerned
about the fact that some of the most reputable
evangelical voices in legitimate
circles trivialize God and the gospel message
by relying on a manner of “closing”
their crowd–whether in person or via
the media–that is based far more on acceptable
marketplace techniques than on
theological soundness. It is clearly not the case, at least with those of whom I
am now speaking, that this is done for
the purpose of manipulation. Hear this
well: the problem with too much preaching
that properly seeks response from the
hearer is not manipulation but a profound
diminishing of the place of God and a simultaneous
exaltation of the place of humans
in the universe.

Let me illustrate this on a totally human
level. I teach high school math, largely
to students who see no value in math at
all. The last time these kids will ever see a
quadratic equation is the second semester
of their required Algebra I course in high
school. And this is undeniably the case.

So how do I “close the deal” so that
these students will choose to pursue their
Algebra I course? I could say, “This
is a required course, and if you don’t
pass it, you will not graduate from
high school.” This is the equivalent
of the preacher who says, “You either
accept Jesus as your Savior or you
are going to go to hell.” And asking a
9th grader to think about the consequences
of not graduating from high
school is about as effective as talking
to most people about what happens
when they die.

Instead, I come right out and acknowledge
that probably few if any of
them will ever use Algebra I again,
and so talk at length about the human
brain. Factoring an equation may
not be relevant for what you end up doing
with your life, I argue, but what the brain
has to do in order to factor an equation is
something every brain has to learn to do
in order to live successfully as an Edith
Head-like costume designer, a Michael
Jordan-like athlete or a Warren Buffetlike
businessman. Life requires that the
brain learn processes, attend to detail,
and be able to complete a complex stepby-
step process accurately from beginning
to end.

My students get this lecture at length
at the beginning of each school year, and
periodically in little reminders throughout
the year. Most nod and get to work,
realizing the benefit. Some do not. They
don’t believe me. They don’t care. It
doesn’t make sense to them. Whatever.
They just say no.

This is equivalent to what happens
in countless churches in the minds of
countless listeners from the mouths of
countless well-meaning preachers. The
preachers mimic the ad from one of our
local weight-loss clinics: “A new you is
waiting if you’ll just make the call.” The
preachers mimic my pleading with my
students: “Choose to learn math for a
better future.” And all of this is great if
you are selling windows, weight loss clinics,
or math.

But not if you are preaching the gospel.
Putting windows, weight loss clinics
and math courses before the bar of human
evaluation is right and proper.
 
Hear this well: the problem with
too much preaching that properly
seeks response from the hearer is
not manipulation but a profound
diminishing of the place of God
and a simultaneous exaltation of
the place of humans in the
universe.
 

Customers are free to buy or not buy windows
from my son the contractor. Overweight
people are free to use or not use a particular
weight loss program. Students
are free to pass their math course or to
choose not to. Individuals have to evaluate
the evidence, and make decisions. It
is their right to do so. Windows, weight
loss clinics, and math classes comfortably
stand before the evaluative capacity
of the human mind.

Does God?

The question is silly on the face of
it. Is God waiting in heaven “softly and
tenderly calling,” as the Moody-era hymn
would have it, wringing the divine hands
hoping against hope that someone will
“heed the call” ? Or does Francis Thompson
have it more right when he likens
God to a hound seeking the lost soul:
“Still with unhurrying chase,/And unperturbèd
pace,/Deliberate speed, majestic
instancy,/Came on the following Feet…” Is God’s claim on the human life
and heart properly placed at the bar of
human reason, to freely evaluate and accept
or reject as seems fitting to his best
judgment?

In the Eighth Book of his Confessions,
Augustine of Hippo poignantly describes
his coming to grips with the call of God
on his life. His was a violent wrestling,
churning with inner doubts of the logic
of the gospel, rumbling against his passions
for the women in his life. Hearing
a nameless child from a neighbor’s yard
cry out “Take up and read,” he seized the
Bible, opened it randomly, and fell upon a
portion of Romans 13:13-14: “Not in carousing
and drunkenness, not in sexual
promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife
and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus
Christ, and make no provision for the
flesh in regard to lusts.” Now hear the
words of Augustine himself:

No further would I read; nor
needed I: for instantly at the end
of this sentence, by a light as it
were of serenity infused into my
heart, all the darkness of doubt
vanished away… [f]or thou convertedst
me unto Thyself… .

Augustine’s powerful testimony declares
the truth that the Gospel does more
than invite acceptance, it compels obedience.
It seems to me that we have largely
lost this crucial aspect of our knowledge
of God. We have placed God and the gospel
on a plane with all other consumer
goods, to be chosen or rejected according
to the reasonable evaluation of the
human mind. This God, this subject-to-the-human-mind “God,” is not God at
all. Similarly, by offering God like we offer
windows and weight loss clinics to a
client, we elevate the human mind above
God’s claim on every life that touches
this planet.

 

To put this absurdity into perspective,
we must realize that if human choice
is the final determiner of whether or not
an individual bows before God, then God
must be grateful when a human heart
embraces him as Lord.
God, then, would
speak the words of the Southwest Airlines
flight crew, thanking the public who, among
many choices, chose to fly with their airline,
thus keeping them in business. Lucky God
that we have decided to follow Jesus!

But the Scriptures from one end to
the other are full of commands to follow
the Lord our God. To the nations God
says bluntly, “Worship the Lord with fear
and rejoice with trembling. Do homage to
the Son… .” (Psalm 2:11). The ancient
prophets wailed against the apostasy of the
people of God and cried out, “Return to me
with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping
and mourning” (Joel 2:12). Jesus did
not ask the fishermen to check him out for
a while and then decide what they wanted
to do, but summarily commanded them,
“Follow me.” When Paul implored the Corinthians,
“We beg you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20),
we need to hear a heartfelt exhortation to
obey the command that each of us be reconciled
to God!

God is not waiting passively in heaven
to see what people are going to decide to
do. Even as God pronounces judgment on
God’s people, there is a pronouncement to
intervene and restore: “It will come about
after this [judgment] that I will pour out My
Spirit on all humans” (Joel 2:28), and to the
ones upon whom God “poured out… the
heat of His anger” God says “Do not fear, for
I have redeemed you; I have called you by
name; you are Mine!” (Isaiah 42:25; 43:1).
The Lord leaves those safe in the sheepfold
and runs after the one who has strayed
(Luke 15:4). None of us are “born… of
blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the
will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). John
later reminds us that “We love because he
first loved us” (I John 4:19). Simple and
well-known declarations, these truths need
to control the way we talk about following
God.

There is a very simple way to do this
better. We know two things: God is in
charge of the human heart, and humans
are fully responsible to follow their Creator
and Savior. Both of these truths must be
reflected in the way that we talk to people
about God.

To unbelievers, the gospel of salvation
must be clearly and passionately explained.
We are broken humans because we have
abandoned our connection with our Creator
and have decided to decide how to best live on our own, and we can clearly see the
mess we have made of it.
 
What the Father decreed, the Son
accomplished on the cross, and
the Spirit will certainly carry out in
the hearts of the people of God.
God the Father, God the Son, and
God the Holy Spirit are one God
who work in perfect concert,
accomplishing what only God can
do in the human heart.
 

The mess is not God’s biggest concern, however; it is our rejection
of God as our Lord: we do not seek
God and his direction for our lives. God
is not God; we are gods. This separation
from God is called “death,” and carried to
its conclusion will mean eternal separation
from God. To bring the dead to life, God
took on human flesh in the person of Jesus
of Nazareth, who died crying out, “My God,
My God, why have you forsaken me”–he
was separated from the Father so that we
need not be separated from the Father. He
died in our place.

This is the gospel. The gospel is not
“new life is available to you.” The gospel
is not “you can live forever in heaven with
God.” The gospel is not “your life can
turn around to something satisfying,
meaningful and wonderful.” The gospel
is not a pitch, a sales talk designed
to point out the benefits of buying
into the product. And most certainly
the gospel is not “And you can have
this too if only you will place your faith
in Jesus Christ.”

If we simply adjust our language
slightly, we can get it right, and if
enough of us do it often enough, we
have a shot at slapping our arrogant
narcissistic culture upside the head
with the reality of God. Simply say
something like “Christ did this; you
must follow him. You owe him your
allegiance.”

That’s it. Focus on the responsibility of
the listener, not on how his or her response
is the ticket to some certain set of benefits.
The benefits are sure to come, and there
will be time for the one who has bowed the
heart to God as God to learn about them
and to enjoy them.

But “that’s it” does not make this an
emotionless appeal. How can the mess of
our abandonment of God, met with the
mercy of God in Christ, be dispassionate?
How can anyone share the gospel without
a broken heart for the one who is separated
from God? Can we, should we, beg people
to follow Christ? Of course! We’d better or
we demonstrate that we haven’t grasped it
ourselves.

But it is false to convey the message
“God has done all he can do, and now to
make it work, you have to do your part.”
That is false. Faith is from beginning to
end a gift of God alone. It is not “our part.”
What the Father decreed, the Son accomplished
on the cross, and the Spirit will certainly
carry out in the hearts of the people
of God. God the Father, God the Son, and
God the Holy Spirit are one God who work
in perfect concert, accomplishing what only
God can do in the human heart.

Is this much ado about not much? If
you believe that, I suggest you look around
at the state of the church of Jesus Christ in
the West. I see Christians taking obedience
“under advisement,” and rarely soberly contemplating
what it means that they are followers
of the God of the universe. I believe
this largely arises out of the message they
responded to when they became Christians
(“If this makes sense to you, accept Jesus
as your personal Savior.” “If you become a
Christian, your life will turn around”), as
well as the messages they hear almost
weekly at church (“If you want the blessings,
release God’s power in your life by
making the right decision”). All of these
statements have a basis in truth, but
stating them to make following Christ an
optional decision of a sovereign human
will keeps Christians big and God small.

Is that what we want to do?

Asahel Nettleton was an evangelist
in New England in the early 1800s. His
biographer, Bennet Tyler, tells the story of
a man whose commitment was clear to a
sovereign God in the matter of seeking a
response to the gospel. When his message
was completed one evening in December 1820, his biographer records that Nettleton
did the following:

He requested them to retire without
making a noise. “I love to talk
to you, you are so still. It looks
as though the Spirit of God were
here. Go away as still as possible.
Do not talk by the way, lest you
forget your own hearts. Do not
ask how you like the preacher; but
retire to your closets, bow before
God, and give yourselves to Him
this night.”

He continues: “From this the flame spread
over the parish… the things of eternity
filled the people with awe.” Indeed. When
God is proclaimed as God, and treated
as God in the manner of the pitch, great
things will happen. And whatever happens,
we can be assured is the work
of God and not something that will be
quickly cancelled in the three-day right
of rescission.

Terrence Kenney is a pastor
and high school teacher and
is also the author of Yearning
for a Year: Story-Based
Meditations for an Intentional
Journey through the
Church Year.