Not long ago, I went “shopping” for a gutter protection system for our home. We’d lived in the same house for twenty-one years, and in that time seen the trees in our subdivision grow from knee high saplings to forty foot giants whose leaves cover our yard and fill our gutters every autumn. Clearly, it was time to stop ignoring what was happening in the No Man’s Land where the shingles meet the fascia and get serious about some gutter protection.
So I did the research and narrowed the final choice down to two contractors. I scheduled sales calls on successive days; that way I could evaluate each product and each pitch with the competition still fresh in my mind.
And that’s when the fun started.
Each sales agent was prompt, well-groomed, and extremely friendly. Both knew how to make me feel as if I’d just made a new friend – “Oh, you went to PRINCETON?! Tell me more!” “You’re a PASTOR?! Let me tell you about my church background!” “You grew up in TEXAS?! I lived there, too!” – and not just someone trying to persuade me to sign on a digital dotted line when our conversation finished. Both of them gave me the highlights of their system, complete with gleaming facsimiles of that which would ultimately go on my house.
And then came the time in each pitch for the “and here’s why we’re better than the other guys” moment. To heighten that contrast – and to enhance my viewing pleasure – both brought samples of the other guys’ product. The first sales agent (selling a filtering product) brought out a dingy, dirty, corroded sample of the comprehensive gutter system I was due to explore the next day. I tucked that away. “Wow, that product sure looks crappy in comparison,” I thought.
Until the next day, when Comprehensive Gutter Guy brought out HIS sample of the filtering system. Guess what? Dingy, dirty, corroded! A mirror image of a different product. All of a sudden I knew the schtick.
And I knew the impact: by belittling the competition, both men diminished their own product.
Did you catch that?
By belittling the other, they diminished themselves.
And that’s a lesson every preacher needs to learn.
Within the preaching craft, it’s all too easy to build “straw men” of your opposing viewpoints – caricatures of atheism, other major religions, or even opposing theological perspectives – all so you can easily knock them down.
It’s easy to do and it often energizes your core constituents. How do I know that? Because I’ve done it. More than once.
Yet in the 21st Century, I believe it has become more imperative than ever NOT to engage in that kind of “other belittling” that ultimately results in “self-diminishing.” More skeptics than ever before are watching and listening – in fact, many of them have likely grown up in your church – and so your strategy when engaging differing worldviews needs to be especially deft. As Carey Nieuwhof says, “Ridiculing someone rarely makes them want to embrace you or what you stand for.”
Can I hear an “amen”?
Here’s something I have tried to adopt recently. It seems to be a minor adjustment, but I believe it has paid some major dividends. Several times a year, it seems, I do feel it vital to contrast Christian truths with the perspectives of other religions and philosophies. On one recent Sunday, I pointed out that the “scandal of grace” really does separate the Christian faith from every other belief system on earth. This is particularly true when you contrast the Gospel with Islam. So in introducing that movement in the message, I simply said, “Our Muslim friends believe differently …” My words didn’t water down the Gospel – perish that thought – but it did elevate the imago Dei in each and every Muslim by calling them “friend.”
Similarly in a talk that centered on the ultimate return of Christ (a message I love to give because it allows us use the phrase “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead”), I pointed out that such a view of history with a BIGGER BANG at the end point contrasts with the endless cycles embedded in Hinduism. Again, one word made all the difference in tone: “Our Hindu friends don’t believe time and history are headed somewhere . . . ” My prayer was to challenge their belief (and clarify ours) while championing their dignity.
Why? I don’t want to diminish myself or my message by belittling others.
These days, people are less interested in what you are against than in who you are for.
And that’s true whether in Gutter Protection or Gospel Proclamation.