Best of Michael Spencer: Wretched Urgency

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Note from CM: Today, we present Michael’s classic critique of revivalistic fundamentalism that introduced a key term into the post-evangelical lexicon.

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Wretched Urgency: The Grace of God, or Hamsters on a Wheel?

My friend and prayer partner just looked across the lunch table and said I didn’t look good. In fact, he said I hadn’t looked happy all week.

He’s right. I am troubled. I want to preach and I can’t for almost two more weeks. The war is occupying my time and my mind. I’ve had some discipline problems with my students, who are tired of being in school and caught up in the spring that has finally chased winter from their minds. I’m thinking about where to find college money for my daughter and how to buy her a car and why I can’t stop gaining weight. Don’t ask me how I am. I might tell you.

OK. Don’t bail out. I’m not usually a whiner about life. Since you, my reading public, really want to know, I’ll tell you what is bumming me out: I harbor unspeakable thoughts about my Christianity. Things you can’t say in most churches. Things that are disturbing to many evangelicals, especially my particular kind of Fundamentalistic Southern Baptist Arminian revivalists. Dare I say these things? It’s too late!

Well, if I do, someone is going to say I am just a narrow, anti-evangelism, anti-missionary, five point “aggressive” Calvinist. And you already know how I feel about that. Someone else will say, like Job’s friends, that I’m living in sin and making excuses for myself. Others will mail me a book or tape that will make it all better. I will run the gauntlet if I start typing.

None of this intimidation will work on me. I’ve been thinking these things for years, and they aren’t shadows. What I am going to to say is real, and I am going to bet that once I let the cat out of the bag, a lot of readers will write me and say they thought it too, but were afraid to say anything because they didn’t want to get in trouble or get preached at. So here we go.

I don’t think Christianity is about converting people.

The Background Paper

It might help to get a feel for where I came from. The Southern Baptist Church that evangelized and discipled me was very typical of America’s largest non-Catholic denomination in the sixties and seventies. We were the very definition of all things Southern (with some midwesterness thrown in) and all things conservative, independent, rural and Baptist. It was a big church in a modest city, but it was full of essentially country people. The prevailing wind was Revivalistic Arminianism of the kind represented by Billy Graham and any number of evangelists below him on the sophistication scale. When big-haired Texas evangelists came to down, they were right at home.

Now, essential to this church was the belief that everyone was lost except the Christians in Southern Baptist Churches who were saved on a date they could remember and sure of their salvation if repeatedly asked “Are you sure? Are you certain? Are you sure you’re certain?”. Roman Catholics and most other Protestants were lost automatically, just for showing up.. A few sincere strays might get in- like maybe the occasional Church of Christ guy- but infant baptizers and non-Baptists in general were “religious organizations” and not Christians. I kid you not. This was a major emphasis at our church. There were even serious discussions about whether independent Baptists were saved, since they didn’t participate in the Southern Baptist Cooperative missions program. (Not a joke. Entirely true.)

Now this environment created a definition of the Christian life that was oriented to one thing: converting people. Oddly though, the word “evangelism” was never actually spoken. The word was “witness.” Christians were “witnesses.” We were supposed to “witness” to everybody and at every opportunity. This kind of “witness” was entirely verbal and best done in hostile territory. We had Thursday night “visitation” and Saturday morning “visitation” all for the purpose of “witnessing.” We took classes in how to “witness,” classes that bore an amazing similarity to seminars on how to sell vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias. (“Mrs. Jones, after seeing the amazing usefulness of Jesus, can you think of any reason you shouldn’t buy him right now?”)  Stories of successful “witnessing” episodes were the stock in trade of every preacher I heard growing up. Every sermon set out to bring a person to faith in Christ at the altar, and then, to a militant commitment to be a “witness,” or as it was often put, a “soul winner.”

You can’t feel bad enough.

“Witnessing” was the single and sharp focus of the Christian life in my church, and we were suspicious of those liberals who didn’t see the constant urgency of aggressive witnessing to the lost. We weren’t quite out on street corners preaching at the by-standers, but we would have admired that sort of fellow, and we would have probably been told we should aspire to such boldness. The maniac preacher-guy who railed at college girls and boys, calling them whores and hell-bound for make-up, movies and smoking, would have gotten a big love offering at my church. In all of this, it was a short walk to feeling badly about my own sorry and pitiful Christianity. I didn’t fit the mold.

Feeling badly about things was a key part of the Christian life in my church. We called it being “burdened for the lost.” The ideal Christian lived in hours of weeping daily prayer, interceding and travailing for the lost. (Weeping was very important.) If we prayed adequately, the lost would be saved and revival would come. Every week. Our lack of prayer was always to blame for everything, as was our lack of support for door knocking and confrontational witnessing of every kind. If you weren’t willing to learn the “techniques” of soul winning, you were an example of Christians who didn’t love God or are if people went to hell. In other words, you were like me.

I will not take you down memory lane to appreciate what I did to myself and to others to try and become that kind of big game hunting Christian. I took classes that equipped me with outlines and questions. I wore buttons to start conversations. I left tracts. I visited friends and tried to steer the conversation towards “spiritual things.” I walked aisles and promised, again and again, to become a good Christian witness. All the while I felt horribly guilty, and knew that my preacher was right when he said that on the day of judgment, the blood of my unsaved friends would be on my hands. That verse haunted me for years, and I am not yet out from under its shadow.

Let me give you an example of this atmosphere. My youth and music minister, Bill, was a huge influence on my life. As a growing young Christian, we spent hours together. I owe him a great deal of gratitude as a mentor during some tough times in my family. He took an interest in seeing me discover and use my gifts and talents in the service of the Kingdom. One day I brought a book to Bill; a book I was excited about reading because it was taking me into a subject I’d never heard about at our church. The book was J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. This remarkable book of theology was way over my head as a teenager, but the premise was revolutionary to me: the basic fact of my life was living to know my creator. It was my relationship with God that was my basic identity. God was the center of the Christian experience, and salvation was an unfolding of the greatness of the Lord. All this stood in contrast to the version of the Christian life that was all around me.

Bill wasn’t excited about Knowing God. In fact, he seemed threatened and angry that I was reading such a book and excited about it. “Your purpose isn’t to know God. Your purpose is to win souls. That’s what you are here on earth to do- be a witness and win others to Christ.” That was his response. I can hear it like it was yesterday, and I still feel the feelings of contradiction that oozed over me.

This was the air we breathed. The Christian life was a life of urgent rescue, and not a life of wasting time on whatever “Knowing God” was all about. We were all on constant 911 calls. The rapture could come any time, and every Christian was given this day for no other reason than to win souls. If you were not on witnessing patrol or on your knees preparing or following up a witnessing call, you were a useless and bad Christian.

(Let me say that probably more than a few of you will read this, and have read other things I have written, and are now saying, “Michael, you are really screwed up. Get some professional help.” I agree with you, and given the choice of therapy, Fundamentalists Anonymous, or writing these essays, I’ve picked the cheaper and less traumatic of the three options. But you are right. It messed me up and I am not over it yet, not by a long shot. I’m not alone either, am I?)

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The Need For Speed

And thus was born my lifelong struggle with what I will call the impulse of wretched urgency in Christianity. It is my goal to help you to see it, and if possible, to convince you in joining me in renouncing it. For starters, let’s describe it.

We begin with the premise that the purpose of the Christian life is to persuade others to become Christians. Evangelism. Witnessing. Persuasion. These are the highest callings of the Christian. Why are you here? That others might know Christ. Heaven will be great, but the rewards are for the witnesses who spent their lives- and every bit of their energy- in getting other people to heaven. Nothing will be worse than to know that your friends are in hell because you didn’t tell them about Jesus.

The time is short. The rapture approaches. Or if you aren’t a rapturist, the need is to reach all the nations- or unreached people groups- as soon as possible. My hero- John Piper- says that no one can be saved without hearing the name of Jesus, so it is urgent we convince people to become missionaries. Everyone should go overseas and witness. Young adults should reconsider “worldly” careers and take the path of “extreme” missions involvement. Martyrdom is a great way to end your life and we ought to admire those who risk it or choose it.

Idleness is a sin. We need to be constantly and increasingly busy about the Lord’s work. More and more prayer. Become a prayer warrior and an intercessor. Claim people and pray them into the Kingdom. Ministry must always be the priority of every relationship. Wherever you are, you are accountable for the salvation of those around you..

Confrontation is no big thing. You do it if you love people. Constant communication of the Gospel is your true work.These are the hallmarks of a real Christian. He/she is busy witnessing. The church is busy growing and reproducing. Every Christian is involved in ministry- and all the training and preparation necessary for ministry- that takes a substantial amount of their time. (I’m pretty good at this!!)

The house is burning. We must be urgent and never lag in our mission. We are truly yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and dragging people out the one door of escape. We may appear foolish or even cultish, but it doesn’t matter. Growth. Numbers. Progress. Stories. Growing influence. Increasing territory. More boldness. More conversions. Larger churches. More events and groups and ministries and so on and so on.

Imagine a fellow starts a breakfast meeting with a few Christian friends. They drink coffee, joke and enjoy doing little or nothing. One thing is for certain. At some point, someone is going to say that the group is wasting their time. Right? Why aren’t they praying? Why aren’t they witnessing? Why aren’t they motivating themselves for evangelism or missions? All this talking and joking and discussing issues is just a waste of time. Christian are here to make a difference, and this group isn’t solving any problems or making a difference at all.

Recognize that voice? It’s in my head and it won’t go away.

Is That Really An Alarm in My Head?

Now, of course, all of this come with buckets of scripture. Go into all the world. The love of Christ compels us. You will be my witnesses. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He who wins souls is wise. Don’t let the master return and find you sleeping. You must be ready, for no one knows the hour the master will return.
Paul was urgent. Jesus was busy about his Father’s business. The early Christians preached the word wherever they were. The shepherds and the wise men were urgent in spreading the news. People Jesus healed ran up and down the roads telling about Jesus. Look at the man in Mark 5. Jesus casts demons out of him and he spends his whole life evangelizing and witnessing.

Read Christian history. Look at people like St. Patrick. Spurgeon. St. Francis. William Booth. Jim Elliott. Billy Graham. These people were urgent. Intense. Spending their lives in the service of the Lord.

Had enough? I have. My head is starting to hurt.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Anything worthwhile in life has an element of intensity and urgency in it at some point. Certainly, Christianity is a religion of realism and truth. The truth of the Gospel is an urgent message of pardon to be obeyed now, not later. It is a revolutionary message that is meant to be applied now, not in the by and by. Its truths ought to cause us to evaluate everything in our lives in the light of the “urgency” of the message. I yield this point without objection, and move on.

Further, there are some intense and urgent characters in the Christian story. Jesus is urgent. Paul certainly is in that category many times. Church history contains people who believed it was better to burn out than to rust. Some of those people have characteristics anyone can admire and often the lessons of their lives and teaching are valuable. I won’t argue this either, though I will say something about it all later.

What I will say is this: The “wretched urgency” that pervades much of evangelical Christianity isn’t Biblical. It’s a hoax, and a sick one. In fact, I will go so far as to say it is an outright distortion and perverting of the New Testament into saying something it never says, and ignoring plain truths it lays out for anyone to see.

A Christian may appear to be a fool at times. We are fools for Christ’s sake. But Christianity shouldn’t make us crazy. It shouldn’t break our mental and physical health. It shouldn’t fry our relationships and make us salespersons and hucksters. We aren’t hamsters on a wheel.

Turn off the alarm. It’s a hoax.

Things That Just Aren’t There

This all started for me when I noticed that there was no concern for church growth in any of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. Read it. Stop right now and go read it.

OK. Am I telling the truth? It says to hold fast. It encourages purity, fidelity, bravery and love. There are commendations and criticisms. But nothing about church growth. Nothing that says the agenda of Jesus for these churches was militant evangelism. I’m not saying there isn’t anything in these letters about evangelism. I am NOT trying to substantiate some kind of hyper-Calvinistic anti-missions philosophy. Far from it. I’m simply saying that in these two very important chapters summarizing the message of Jesus to these seven key churches in Asia Minor, there is no wretched urgency about evangelism and witnessing.

There is urgency about holiness, truth, and responsiveness to Christ. There is urgency about the Gospel IN the church, and among those who say they believe it. There is commendation for faithfulness in living it out. There just isn’t anything about church growth or aggressive personal evangelism. If you find it, you’re making it up.

How about the epistles in the New Testament? In those places where Christians are addressed as Christians, where is the urgency about church growth or personal evangelism?

Yes, I know that Paul is urgent about his ministry, but I don’t find his instructions for other Christians to be entirely in the same vein. I hear Christians being told to live quiet, peaceful, honest, generous lives adorned with integrity and love. Christians are told to be devoted to their families, to love fellow believers, and to live in such a way that outsiders cannot accuse or criticize. If they suffer for being a Christian, it should not be because they provoked a response through simply living the life Jesus taught.

Again and again, I look in the epistles for the kind of Christian experience that I was taught was normal, and I do not find it. The statements of urgency are not statements telling me to turn my house and life upside down in frenetic efforts to persuade people to join my religion. The urgency in Paul comes from his personal mission and his own vocation as a church planter. I can’t automatically apply it all to everyone else.

Shouldn’t we all be like Paul? No. Not if we aren’t apostles and church planters. Paul ran all over the world telling people to believe the Gospel, love Christ and live like it. We are to go back to our homes, jobs and communities and do exactly that. Preachers and missionaries have the urgency appropriate to their calling, as anyone should have the urgency appropriate in theirs. A parent has some urgency in parenting, but it has to be measured. A businessman or a teacher has some urgency, but again, in an ordered way. Christians look at their callings, their lives, their faith and apply the appropriate amount of urgency. We are not all told to sell all we have, give it to the poor and hit the road. In fact, that could be nuts.

What about urgent door to door evangelism? Ever run the phrase “house to house” in a computer concordance? Here’s what you get. The apostles went “door to door” i.e. home to home teaching and encouraging Christians when Christians were meeting in houses. (Acts 5:42; 20:20) Before sending them on a mission, Jesus told his disciples NOT to go house to house, but to find one home and stay there living a life of integrity. (Luke 10:7) And finally, busybodies go house to house stirring up trouble. You should stay home and be quiet. (I Timothy 5:13)

The fact that the New Testament does not command door to door confrontational evangelism completely overturned vast tracts of my own spiritual upbringing. It’s like a dark and terrible secret that was kept from me. Door to door Jesus salesmen were presented as the ideal Christians. Initiating attempts at conversion with people who didn’t know you was the very best definition of being a “witness.”

Listen to Peter’s description of evangelistic urgency to his first century audience: “1 Peter 3:15-16 15 but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” Live so people will ask. Don’t force feed them the question. Live the life. Live it plainly, but there is no guilt trip put on anyone for not accosting their co-workers once a week.

I cannot find the kind of Christian life I am talking about in the epistle to the Romans. Not anywhere. I have scoured the Corinthian letters and find Paul getting pretty intense about himself, but he’s usually telling the Corinthians they are a bunch of immature fanatics who need to take care out their own in-house garbage. As to their neighbors: 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” There is similar “urgency” about the lives of believers in 1 Peter 4:17 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?

The Corinthian letters particularly are important as an example of an extensive pastoral correspondence between a church planter and a group of Christians. If there were an urgency about “winning souls” and “growing churches” it would appear in more than just Paul’s defenses of his own motives and ministry. There is an urgency for holiness and obedience, but not about “witnessing.” Paul is passionately concerned with what kind of persons the Corinthians are, and seems remarkably unconcerned with their “Christian activities.” He has lived around them long enough to say “imitate me as I imitate Christ (I Cor 11:1),” and by that I do not believe he meant “witnessing.” He had imbedded himself in their lives long enough to say “Look at who I am and imitate that.” This was not a guy barnstorming and whipping up Christians for evangelism. He was saying live the life.

I do not find guilt-inducing, blood on your hands urgency in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians or Thessalonians, letters that are indicative of diverse pastoral situations and relationships. Each letter is consumed almost entirely with concerns and problems within the church. The “witness” Paul is working to shape is lives submitted to Christ in matters of doctrine and discipleship. He is not organizing confrontive door-knocking expeditions. The interactions between Christians and non-Christians are of this flavor: Philippians 2:15-16 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. And like the Corinthian letters, the urgency is the Christian mission as lived out by each person where God has placed them: Colossians 4:2-6 Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. 3 At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison- 4 that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. 5 Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

The Thessalonians, who had caught a bad case of “Left Behind Fever,” received this admonition: “1 Thessalonians 4:10-12 But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. In fact, it is remarkable how often the advice to the Thessalonians could be paraphrases as “Calm down. Live sensibly and morally. Stand firm. Be the sort of people who have an anchor for the soul in times when anything goes.”

Notice how Paul connects a thorough conversion of life with the influence the Thessalonians will have over others. Evangelism as an “activity,” seems to never be in mind here. A witness is what sounds forth from a changed and discipled like.

1 Thessalonians 1:4-9 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. 9 For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,

Here. Quote me. There is no urgent concern for converting people in the New Testament. Did you get that down? There is also no urgent concern for the numerical growth of churches by the efforts of members to convert others. There are no burgeoning church programs. There are no plans to train everyone to door knock and sell Jesus. There is an urgent concern for doctrinal and personal Christ-likeness. There is a concern for leadership, integrity, honesty and obedience to Christ in our personal lives. The idea that we are here to “win souls” and not to know and show God is bogus.

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The Gospel Road

What about the Gospels? Isn’t the ministry of Jesus full of soul winning urgency?

I think it has to be said that there are two kinds of urgency in the Gospels that have to be accepted. One is the urgency of Jesus in his own mission. Not a mission to convert, but a mission to fulfill all the Father had for him to do, up to and including the cross and resurrection. This urgency needs to be seen against how Jesus lived for thirty years before his ministry. He stayed home and was an obedient son, a carpenter and a productive, honest member of his community.

The urgency comes with his call to public ministry.

Scholars debate to what extent Jesus’ message was dominated by an eschatological “grip.” Some believe Jesus was convinced he was bringing on the end of the world as predicted by John the Baptist. Others, like George Ladd, are convincing that Jesus had an “already, but not yet” idea of the Kingdom, that allowed “urgency,” but did not bring the fanaticism of political revolution. This is an important aspect of this discussion, but should be pursued elsewhere. My point would be that Jesus passed on to his disciples a sense of “urgency” that the Kingdom had arrived and was coming “in force,” but he did not pass on the “wretched urgency” I am arguing against in this essay.

The second kind of urgency has to do with Jesus’ words to his disciples. He called them to leave their nets and come follow him. He called on others to make similar immediate and total changes of life in order to follow him. Some of Jesus’ interactions with perspective disciples majored on drastic response, and  he sometimes stressed not taking time to be overly concerned with ordinary matters. I also admit this kind of urgency is in the Gospels, but I disagree that it dominates the teaching of Jesus or defines the character of the Christian life in the way I was brought up. It is, precisely, the interaction between Jesus and his actual disciples in that situation and context. In that sense, it harmonizes with the first kind of urgency in the mission of Jesus.

If the Gospels are read with an interest to what they are saying to the “regular” Christian who heard them later, it is clear that the announcement of the Good News was “urgent,” but Jesus never instructed the ordinary Christian to convert people out of an urgent, “soul winning” mentality. The ordinary Christian was to believe the message, and consistently live a life increasingly shaped by the message and the Spirit. For instance, how should any Christian apply the lesson of the Gaderene Demoniac?

Mark 5:18-20 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.

Now this makes a fine sermon illustration for buttonholing and door-knocking, but that is a misuse and certainly is reading into the text. The power of the Gospel has done for all of us what Jesus did for this man. We are set free from the power of evil. We are in our right minds. Our response should be to want to follow Jesus. But Jesus commands that we go home to our friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for us. Even though the text seems to indicate the man became a preacher of sorts, it is because of his notoriety and gratitude, not out of guilt induced urgency. The command from the Lord was to go home and tell his friends, and that is what I believe the Gospel sends us to do, in whatever calling we have in life.

Am I Really, Really Wrong?

Am I wrong when I see Jesus healing, helping preaching and teaching, but sending most people back to their lives and families to live out their discipleship? Am I wrong that “urgency” in the teaching of Jesus isn’t of a kind that turns people into street corner preachers as much as it turns us into people who are salt of the earth and lights in the world wherever we happen to be? Am I wrong to sense that the focus on conversions, church growth and confrontation is not present in the New Testament, and a renewed focus on ordinary Christians living extraordinarily Christ-formed lives is needed everywhere? Am I wrong that “gowing” churches and their leaders are getting way too much attention, and the regular guy and gal trying to live it out at home and at work are not getting near enough attention?

I keep trying to see how this works out in two areas. One, what kind of person is a Christian? What should I be like? How should I feel? I cannot read the New Testament and conclude I should be full of the mindset and emotions of a person set on the street to make his living going door to door selling an unwanted product. I do not see a person overrun with guilt, but overjoyed in grace. I do not see the heaviness of a burden for the lost, but the joy of the saved visible and alive in the heart of the Christian. Hell, for all its reality, is not the reality that fills and motivates the Christian.

I think about this when I think of the many, many preachers who have passed through churches I’ve attended, and have hammered a guilt-dominated, wretchedly urgent, downright mean message of “you have to save the world” into the minds of passive Christians. It’s ugly, and I have come to despise it. It’s not the Christian life, and it doesn’t have the fruit of the Spirit anywhere.

The other area is what should my life be like for those around me? My family, co-workers and friends. What should they see and experience? This is a big area for me because I am a campus minister and I am charged with a certain kind of urgency in my own ministry setting. I accept that, and I always have. I don’t always like it, but even then, it is a joy to preach the Gospel. I glory and exalt in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and I revel in His Good News for my students. But I do not believe I am to be “wretchedly urgent” in a way that produces an obnoxious ministry, or a guilt-filled, terrorizing approach to students. Isn’t wearing this kind of urgency on my sleeve simply another kind of manipulation?

I am about to send my daughter off to college. What kind of a Christian do I want her to be, especially if her friends or roommate is not a Christian? Well, prepare to be shocked. I do not want her to be obsessed or distressed for their conversions. I do not want her plotting to confront them with the Gospel. I want her to BE a Christian, and live like one in the depths of her conscience and the details of her life. I want her to be a public Christian, associated with a church. I want her to be loving, honest, dependable, sober, humble and loyal. I want her to be mentally and spiritually equipped to live the life and speak the truths. I want her to be devoted to the Bible as the authority of her faith.

But I do not want her leaving tracts for her roommate. I do not want her miserable that her roommate’s salvation depends on her. I do not want her “burdened” and guilty. I do not want her friends talking about her in tones of dread when she is walking toward them, knowing she has to work out this guilt in efforts to convert them. I want her to be a person in whom they see a reality beyond religion, and a passion beyond the need to convert.

Frankly, I don’t care if she ever tells them they need to be Christians. If God brings about the opportunity, then that is wonderful and I want her to have the word of faith ready to share. But mostly, I hope she shows them everyday they need Christ, and that her life prompts  many discussions, questions and inquiries without necessitating plots and plans to force feed the Gospel to the disinterested.

It seems ridiculous sometimes to think that all our efforts at desperate and urgent conversions have not done the good that holy and beautiful lives, lived out in ordinary ways, could have done. God will always call people to cross barriers and go to the unreached and to start new churches. We need those whose lights burn brighter for a while in a particular cause. But I think about Martin Luther King, Jr. Changing the world, and committing adultery at the same time. I think of how many preachers and missionaries and people involved in evangelistic ministry burn out and burn up. I have always listened to the testimony of men like James Robison with great interest. While he was burning up the world with evangelistic zeal, he was dying inside. Now I see in him a holy urgency born of great grace. Tears and a burden, but not a miserable burden that defines his life more than the great laughter of the pardoning God. In Billy Graham I see the urgency, but I can also see that this does not define him. A humble and quiet rest in who God is and what God does.

If I’m wrong, write and tell me. If I’m right, and speaking to your own experience, tell me that, too. I want to know if I am alone in my error, or if I am right and speaking the truth, as strange as it may sound.

In the meantime, I will be accused of being a Calvinist, and that is fine, because only a vision of God saves any of us from despair. I will be accused of being anti-missions and anti-evangelism, but my life and priorities should refute that. What I want to be accused of is being a person without wretched, driving, guilt-producing urgency. I want all my urgency to be born of grace and mercy, and lived out in everything I do before the eyes of the Lord. Jesus should make me better than I am, and for that, I am urgent. I close with a passage that puts it perfectly:

1 Corinthians 15:10-11 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

29 thoughts on “Best of Michael Spencer: Wretched Urgency

  1. The top pic shows an older building behind the bridge, with a large arch light-well cut into the side facing the river. That’s the Renaissance Hotel; I stayed there last time I was in Pittsburgh. (Which was also during baseball season — the streets leading to the stadium jammed with crowds/vendors/scalpers and the fireworks shaking the hotel after each home run…)

    And in the second one, you can barely see the Pittsburgh Convention Center behind the bridge at the extreme left of the pic.

    Both these pics seem to have been taken at about the same spot, on the north bank of the river between the westernmost and center bridges. The top one is facing SW and the second SE.


  2. Mrs. Ellis,

    These are night time pictures of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania taken from the North Side or as the politicians call it “the North Shore”. I am going to assume Chaplain Mike took these on his jaunt to see the Cubs play Pittsburgh last Fall. In the first picture is probably the 6th, 7th or ninth street bridge. The tall building on the left that looks like a castle is the PPG building, the one immediately to the right of it is the Highmark building.


  3. I would add that the very early church’s struggle and evolution regarding its own perception and definition of itself in those opening years — along with the responsibilities and problems involved with maintaining a growing community of believers inside the city — had a delaying effect as far as the apostles making plans to spread the gospel beyond the bounds of the world they knew. First, they had to figure out if they were a reformed brand of Judaiasm or a more universal movement. Paul and his missionary works may have forced the answer on that one. And there is some indication in Acts that “the Way” was spreading on its own without direct action or mandate from the apostles.


  4. All of your pictures on this page are absolutely BEAUTIFUL!!! We would very much appreciate knowing exactly where and what these are. The top picture looks as though there might be a church in it. If so, we would like to know the name of it and where it is physically located. Please and Thank you.


  5. SFL =

    A website that, along with internetmonk, has managed to bring sanity to my life.


  6. Stuart, my understanding would be that publication of both the Gospels containing an account of the so called Great Commission and the Book of Acts would have been roughly contemporaneous, perhaps as early as the 40’s or as late as the 60’s, but as to exactly when, informed opinion would vary. The story is that the apostles drew lots as to where they would go, but as to when, who knows, possibly with the death of Stephen and the subsequent persecution. Accounts in Acts and Galatians have Peter and John still in Jerusalem early on and Peter at the Jerusalem Council around the year 50. The account of the Council in Acts mentions “the apostles” without naming them other than Peter. I believe the account of Jesus sending the apostles forth is accurate recollection and that they took this to heart, actually fulfilled it as best they could, if perhaps delayed, and not necessarily everyone going. Most of the apostles are reported in tradition to have been killed for their trouble, as was their Commissioner.


  7. –> “I don’t imagine that Jesus would appreciate me misrepresenting Him as a pushy jerk.”

    Yeah, in reading the gospel accounts He does seem more concerned with how He’s being represented (rather poorly by the Pharisees) than whether they’re winning souls. In fact, if anything, representing Him WELL and PROPERLY seems to be an element of winning souls!


  8. Can we date when the Great Commission was tacked on? Are the events in Acts more likely to be historical or written earlier than what we have recorded as Jesus’ final words?


  9. I think there’s a lot than can be said for timing and tact when it comes to the “witnessing” thing.
    Back in my “heathen” days, I can remember a couple of instances in which people approached me about whether or not I had a personal relationship with Jesus. I said “yes” just to get them off my back. At that point in my life, I had rejected the SBC-style Christian faith I had been raised in, and it just wasn’t a topic I was very comfortable talking about. When I went back to visit my hometown, I was pretty good at hiding my apostasy from familty and old Christian friends. But then came the day when I was interested in re-exploring the faith of my youth and seeing if there was something more to it. And that wasn’t the result of any particular person “witnessing” to me. It did have a lot to do with a group of Christian people who started inviting me to hang around with them in spite of the drug-addled, alcoholic, foul-mouthed, dirty minded wretch I had become. It was their friendship and, of course, the workings of the Holy Spirit inside me that brought me back. And during that season of change, I don’t recall that one of them ever tried to pin me down about my relationship with Christ or lead me along the Roman’s Road. With all that in mind, I try to be very careful about trying to impose Jesus on people. I don’t imagine that Jesus would appreciate me misrepresenting Him as a pushy jerk.


  10. Look in the book of Acts and you’ll find those same disciples who were given what we call the Great Commission still hanging around in Jerusalem and, in part, still centering their faith around the temple years after the fact. It’s ironic that it wasn’t until the persecution spearheaded by Saul (later Paul), that they actually started spreading out and carrying out Jesus’ mandate.
    And what exactly was that mandate? What would His disciples have understood His words to mean? I would venture that when He said “make disciples,” they would have understood that to mean going out, finding individual people receptive to the message of Christ, taking those people under their wing and instruction, and taking the time to mentor those people in the faith — basically doing for others what Jesus had done for them.
    Wretched urgency, on the other hand, pushes discipleship toward the back of the bus while putting mass prouduction schemes for mass conversion in the driver’s seat. Why take all the time and trouble to invest ourselves in individual people. That’s far too inefficient. In the words of Gov. Pappy O’Daniel: “We’re not one-at-a-timing it here. We’re mass communicating.”


  11. When “Saving SOULS” became THE only thing that mattered in that Kingdom’s economy.

    Souls(TM) — not people — the currency of Heaven.


  12. In my college days (late 1970s, heyday of The Gospel According to Hal Lindsay — tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick) there was a belief going around that even if you were Saved(TM), the ONLY thing God would be interested in at the Great White Throne was “How Many SOULS Did YOU Save?????” Your entire position in Eternity would be based on “Who SAVED the Most SOULS????” (With a big side helping of GUILT for Every Time You COULD have WITNESSED but chickened out and another SOUL was LOST to Eternal HELL.)

    And the End Time Prophecy clock was ticking its countdown; “Work for the Night is Coming! We might not have a 1978!!! Or even a 1977!!!” (tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick…)

    This led to some REAL insane pressure to Sell that Fire Insurance and even more insane high-pressure Witnessing Tactics to close that sale No Matter What. And I was actually on the fringes hanging around Campus Crusade — the Navigators had a really bad rep along those lines and there was a local “Fellowship” called “Studies in the Word of GOD” that out-Navigatored the Navigators.

    “What a Long, Strange Trip it’s Been…”
    — the Grateful Dead


  13. Trust me, Independent Fundamental Baptist was way, way, way worse than SBC. Still deprogramming…..


  14. I actually cringed when I wrote that. An expression that taking on a different meaning lately…


  15. Another wonderful classic essay! Thanks for re-posting this!

    I wonder…is there ANYONE here who didn’t, upon becoming a Christian, have at least one person talk to you about “now you have to go and save others”…?

    “Be Christ-like” sure seems to trump that idea.


  16. ‘You know, I don’t think I ever remember reading where Paul tells his churches that THEY are to be evangelizing. He certainly sees it is his ministry, and that of his companions, but not theirs. He encourages their support of his ministry but never tells them it’s their job’.

    YES!! YES!! AMEN!

    This is the truth! The local church, local members, local believers have a far different mission than endless evangelism.

    When did ‘thy Kingdom come’ get replaced with wretched urgency?


  17. “Wretched Urgency” as motivator ?
    When the One who prepares human hearts to receive the Good News offers fruit that includes ‘patience’ and ‘long-suffering’ ????

    I’ve never figured out the ‘ego’ thing about a Christian person who sees himself as the judge of another person’s state of salvation or damnation, and who regards himself as a ‘soul-winner’,
    when we know that, in truth, the work of the Holy Spirit is what brings about drawing people towards Christ, and that this sacred work is not bound by ‘time’ constraints?

    If anyone ever undergoes the experience of deep repentance, which some evangelical people have called ‘going under conviction’, they realize something is at work in their soul that is ‘more than’ the work of any human person. The only effective ‘draw’ I know of where a human person’s behavior makes a difference is when that person’s life reflects a deep humility before the Lord that is in itself a gift of the Holy Spirit; and it said among the Orthodox that these humble souls, even in their silence, can draw thousands to Christ.


  18. In all of this book-length sermon I kept waiting for Michael to deal with what I would call the number one cause of wretched urgency, what the church calls “The Great Commission”, tho Jesus didn’t call it that. Did I miss it? In my experience, this one short directive to his main followers, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” is regarded by some as the most important words in the whole Bible, and may account more than any other factor in making Christianity an obnoxious and despised religion in the eyes of many.

    I don’t discount the importance of the words, and I’m assuming they were actually spoken by Jesus, tho the account reads somewhat like an add on. But he spoke the words to his eleven main disciples, those who had been with him for all of his ministry, day in and day out, watching what he did and learning to do it themselves. The whole point to calling them as followers, students, disciples, was to learn this so they could in fact be sent out into all the world. You could say that it was with these words that these eleven disciples became apostles, those sent out. They were in fact commissioned by God, probably even more so than the Blues Brothers, and while there were some others for awhile who were regarded, more or less, as apostles, I would hold that I do not fit in that category, and I would question whether in fact you do. The apostles got their directions direct from the mouth of Jesus, not out of a book.

    As to the words, “make disciples of all nations,” I’m not sure exactly what that means. I don’t think it was necessarily talking about wholesale conversion of entire countries, tho apparently that did happen from time to time. I don’t think it was talking about meeting once a week on Thursday evening to study a book about proper behavior and correct dogma. I’m guessing it probably looked much like what things looked like during Jesus’ ministry, walking around from place to place, healing ills, dispelling demons, teaching interested folk about what God did thru Jesus as Messiah, and likely picking up a few people who wanted to come along for the ride and could stay behind some day to do this on their own.

    Yes, there was an element of urgency, but the wretched part seemed to involve almost all of these special folks coming to what looked for all the world like a very bad end, which is how our word “witness” got turned into “martyr”. Not so sure the Baptists feature that part of the deal in their figurings. If you want to come knock on my door to convert me to whatever particular religion you hold to, I’ll let you in and listen to what you say. There is a strangely fascinating element to this mentality. The Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped coming. Too many questions I would guess.


  19. Michael’s essay seems to evoke a very deep longing for God that his early evangelical experience could not satisfy, but even more, seemed to want to suppress.
    It may be that in realizing that truth that Michael could no longer stay where he began his Christian life. But in his journey to find his way towards a more authentic Christianity, fortunately for us, Michael wrote down his thoughts and shared them.
    That his writings touch so many chords in those of us who read Michael’s thoughts is a tribute to his honesty and to his gift for insight. We who have benefited from Michael’s work will always be grateful to him for sharing it, and also be grateful for those who help carry on his work on this blog.


  20. I couldn’t begin to count all the sermons, Bible studies (and SBC literature), and denominational meetings (not to mention revival services) I attended where I heard about ‘blood on our hands’. And I also can’t quantify all the guilt I had back then as a result of this ‘misunderstanding’ (and all the time I wasted trying to convince people to come to Jesus – out of MY guilt).

    Now imagine that supercharged by Late Great Planet Earth (any minute now… any minute now… any minute now…) and Jack Chick Great White Throne/Lightbulb God scenes. God’s Hell-gun pressed to the back of your head, with one up the spout, hammer back, and safety off. “WITNESS! WITNESS! WITNESS!”

    After 40 years, the damage is still there.

    The traditional ‘sharing your faith’ and thinking you will change someones life (even with God’s help) in fifteen minutes is naive, ineffective, usually offensive, and really non-biblical.

    It’s a High Pressure Sales Pitch, nothing more.
    ABC = Always Be Closing, Always Be Closing, Always Be Closing.
    “And if you sign up NOW, there’s more!!! A FREE Rapture Boarding Pass with each Fire Insurance policy!!!!”


  21. I spent most of the first 30 years of my faith (from age 19) in that Southern Baptist pressure-cooker Micheal describes. I couldn’t begin to count all the sermons, Bible studies (and SBC literature), and denominational meetings (not to mention revival services) I attended where I heard about ‘blood on our hands’. And I also can’t quantify all the guilt I had back then as a result of this ‘misunderstanding’ (and all the time I wasted trying to convince people to come to Jesus – out of MY guilt). When I read this essay a few years ago it rang so true I sent it to a friend who is still in that boat (and suffers guilt all the time over all those people to whom we will fail to ‘witness’).

    That idea was first challenged (for me) about 13 years ago when I was working on a Ph.D. at Durham University (which I didn’t finish). I was sitting in the office of one of the world’s top NT scholars, meeting with him and my supervisor about Paul’s concept of discipleship (and whether he even has one – which is questionable). During this discussion he said, almost as if he hadn’t thought of it before, ‘You know, I don’t think I ever remember reading where Paul tells his churches that THEY are to be evangelizing. He certainly sees it is his ministry, and that of his companions, but not theirs. He encourages their support of his ministry but never tells them it’s their job’. I left that meeting with a passion to do exactly what Michael did – read all of Paul’s letters again!

    I think Michael is absolutely right. I have come to realize that there is probably no ‘individual mandate’ for evangelism in the NT. It is a ‘church thing’. If you read Acts, it is the story of how the ‘church’ fulfills the great commission. Sure, there are individuals, like Paul and Philip, who engage in evangelism, but they are ‘apostles’ or ‘evangelists’ (really church planters) – people with specific callings.. The pattern seems to be: church planted, people come due to relationships with members, somewhere along the way they believe. This pattern is also supported (in our day) by sociological research on religious conversion (e.g. Rodney Stark and ‘network theory’). The traditional ‘sharing your faith’ and thinking you will change someones life (even with God’s help) in fifteen minutes is naive, ineffective, usually offensive, and really non-biblical. Amen Michael!


  22. I’m reminded again that Michael was a brilliant writer and it’s great to read these. What he says is right, and his courage and honesty shine through.


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