Mocking the Misguided: Matthew Paul Turner and Our Brothers and Sisters in Christ

For Christians who are trying to faithfully be in but not of the world, one of our chief concerns should be the rhetoric and tone we use to share and defend our faith. If we use a style of persuasion that is incongruous with our faith (for example, arguing that Islam is dangerous to American Constitution rather than sharing our faith with Muslims and seeking to live with it peacefully), then at best we will be ineffective and at worst we will bring serious dishonor to Christ. In a recent series of posts (Part 1 and Part 2), Matthew Paul Turner has challenged the all-too-common rhetoric of evangelism which asserts that we merely need to share the “simple” “truth” of the Gospel with strangers without actually making an effort to love them and speak to their specific needs. While Turner is right to criticize this style of evangelism that is offensive in all the wrong ways (the gospel will always be offensive, but we do not need to give additional offense to help it out), his language seems to suggest a fairly one-dimensional view of those who engage in this style of evangelism.

Turner tells the story of going to lunch with a couple who rather bluntly witness to their waiter while the poor kid tries to work his job and be polite to these overzealous Christians. Insofar as the story is representative of a type of evangelism which prioritizes the subject of the Good News without acknowledging the importance of the recipient of that news (thinking that says, “my job is to hand someone this tract, regardless of who they are”), the story is a good starting place to discuss what it actually means to share the Gospel. And Turner is certainly right that this couple, Shawn and Katie, were inconsiderate and perhaps even arrogant in their witnessing. That said, I was disappointed to find that Turner’s tone was often quite condescending towards this couple.

For example, he describes how he made his “best attempts at pretending to be really interested in hearing more about Shawn’s opinions of what he called the ‘brilliant theology’ of Ned Flanders.”

Why was it necessary to give us this information? What do we learn about Shawn that helps us understand why his witness was poor? From what I can tell, all that this quote contributes is the implication that Shawn is a bit of a cultural Philistine. He likes to think that he is hip and edgy because he applies theology and popular culture, but really all we can do is feign interest in his opinions.

He writes: “Our food arrived, and as they ate, Shawn and Katie plotted as to how they would seal Timothy’s spiritual fate, and hopefully before he brought the dessert menus.” Why this language? “Plotted”? “Seal” his “fate”? Is there no possibility that they genuinely were concerned for this kid?

Or take this quote from Turner’s second post in which he describes the angry email Shawn sent him after their lunch: “Apparently some of his questions were more important than others, because they were in all caps. Most of his questions involved his curiosity about what I believed were Christianity’s absolutes. ‘THE NON-NEGOTIABLES,’ he called them, the list of beliefs that, according to him, added up to ‘A TRUE CHRISTIAN.’” What do we gain learning that Shawn used all-caps in an email? The knowledge that Shawn was arrogant and a tacky writer?

Let me again stress that Turner is right to chastise Shawn and Katie for an approach to evangelism which was fundamentally insensitive and counterproductive. But I would like to humbly and lovingly suggest that there is a more gracious and biblical way to deal with situations like these, one which applies more broadly to all criticism within the church.

In Philippians 1:15-18, Paul describes two groups who were sharing the Gospel after his imprisonment. The first group shares out of love, the second out of rivalry. But note what Paul concludes in verse 18: “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice.” Paul publicly rebukes those were preaching out of rivalry by describing their motives as “pretense.” He does not conclude, as some Christians today might have, that since they are proclaiming Christ then he will not speak out against them. No, he very clearly describes what they are doing as wrong. However, he takes one more step, a step that is counterintuitive, and says that as long as they are proclaiming Christ, he will rejoice!

This passage has troubled me for a long time. I would like to say that whenever someone shares the Gospel using a coercive, manipulative, selfish, un-doctrinal, shallow, unsensitve style then they must not be truly proclaiming Christ. But Paul challenges this natural notion in me. He seems to be saying that the better attitude is a complex one: rejoicing and being thankful while still strongly rebuking and condemning. Thankful that just as Christ works through my arrogant rhetoric and mistaken doctrines to bring Himself glory, He also uses people like Shawn and Katie.

For all my revulsion over theologically vacuous and aesthetically inane Christian movies, music, and t-shirts, I believe that we have an obligation to rejoice in God’s sovereignty and grace. And this rejoicing, if we let it take its natural effect, requires us to “hope all things” about those who make such offensive “Christian” works; it forces us to acknowledge the loveliness, beauty, passion, selflessness, commitment, and love which often drives Christians to make really bad art, to proclaim the Gospel through corny bumper stickers, and to annoy waiters with untimely and insensitive questions. If the church in America is to mature out of ignorant, unloving, and unbiblical “fundamentalism” (in all its manifestations), it can only happen if we make the double movement of exhorting and rebuking those who cause offense while rejoicing that Christ is still proclaimed and loving them as recipients of the same grace which covers our own grievous failings.

I want to thank Dianna and Jared for the Facebook discussion that sparked this post. It is always a blessing to be challenged by thoughtful friends.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • matt

    Well said! The mocking, condescending tone is uncalled for and entirely too common when Christians talk about other ‘misguided’ Christians. I understand not wanting to be associated with Christians who do wrong things, or even right things with wrong motives. But we are brothers and sisters, and we should not desire disunity. If we are mature in Christ, we should seek to help the immature or misguided.

    From what I’ve read of MPT’s blog (I’m guessing 15-20 posts over the years), he seems to be more concerned with distancing himself from these types of Christians than criticizing constructively. Don’t get me wrong–I tweet bad church signs. But in our daily lives we have to be willing to engage misguided Christians with love just as much as we should engage non-Christians with love. And I’m sure Turner does, but I have not gotten that impression from my admittedly-limited reading of his blog.

  • Alan Noble

    Here are a couple additional thoughts that have been knocking around my head since I finished this post last night: The call of Christ disrupts commerce. Jesus called fisherman who were in the midst of their work. He did not wait until it was acceptable to talk to them. He did not wait until they could both talk at a safe, neutral zone where both parties could objectively evaluate the merits of His call out side of the messy particulars of lived life and then make a rational decision to follow or not follow Him. Similarly, I think we should praise Shawn and Katie in Turner’s story for rejecting the secular myth of the neutral space of discourse. They recognized that the Good News should not be confined to the spaces that our culture has been “safe” for discourse: Internet forums, classrooms, debates, etc. No such neutral space exists, and even if it did, the Gospel would not recognize the false, human authority of such boundaries.

    That said, there are some practical reasons why it was inappropriate for them to witness to the waiter: they were preventing him from honorably during his job, they were forcing a level of intimacy upon him without developing the trust and demonstrative love necessary for intimacy, and for the most part they were unconcerned about the particulars of his life. So, I still think Turner is right to criticize the couple’s witness, but I do think we can commend their refusal to privatize faith or restrict it to the “market of ideas.”

  • http://cmonfatso.wordpress.com Sierra

    Have you personally talked to him about this or are you just kind of doing the same thing you’re accusing him of doing?

  • Justin

    I would think that MPT wasn’t just criticizing how they were sharing the gospel, rather, the gospel they were sharing.

    Can MPT be a bit abrasive at times? Sure. He and I have gotten into it in the comments on his blog before.

    But as I see it, the way you share the gospel shows what kind of gospel you believe. Is a gospel that proclaims good news to the poor one that can be airbrushed as a sales pitch at a restaurant? I would say, probably not. The gospel isn’t, in my opinion, something that can be sold… Rather it is a life conversation. It’s not a formula, but a proclamation.

    And there are many ways to be a proaimer of the gospel that don’t involve formulaic, manipulative, tactics. Treat your server like a fellow human being, made in the image of God. Leave a gracious tip, even if the service was poor. Be genuinely concerned for and loving towards people. That is the gospel. Getting someone to admit they aren’t perfect, then threatening them with he’ll if they don’t mentally ascent to some principle is not the gospel.

  • Matt

    I think some people take what MPT does, and misinterpret it to be malicious or detrimental to the Kingdom. I disagree, personally I see it as satire. As such, it needs to be read as satire. Looking at what the couple did at lunch–perhaps that will enlighten someone who may take a harder approach to spreading the Gospel and make them re-evaluate how they approach it in the future. As someone who left the church for a long period of time, and then returned many years later, its refreshing that voices like MPT are out there. Sure, I don’t particularly agree with every post or word, but I think it keeps a lot of us honest. I’m sure I’m not the only one to realize that its very easy to become insular within the Christian community, and therefore lose touch of what the reality of how our actions are represented. Sometimes seeing something and realizing the ridiculousness of it is a way to rehab and change. Just my $.02

  • Matt

    Also, I realize my name is the same as MPT, but I assure you it wasn’t him posting. Haha.

  • http://www.holyhomo.com Holy Homo

    I understand your point, however, I find funny that you put so much emphasis on what MPT decides to write or leave out of his post. Why did he mention Flanders? Or that Shawn wrote in all caps? Um, because he wanted to, because he made the choice to, because of his freedom of speech, because if you go through his blog you will see that the guy certainly has a sense of humor, one that many may find abrasive, but that lots more have grown to find refreshing. On a good note, I’m glad that he is engaging people that otherwise would want nothing to do with a post on evangelism. And well, apparently it sparks good conversations.

  • Alan Molineaux

    Seriously missing the point here I think

    The rejoicing that Paul is doing is in the conflict that the other proclaimers are doing to his own work not in their good intentions.

    He rejoices that even this issue will work out for good to him.

    It is more of an internal dialogue for the Apostle.

    I am not sure how that has bearing on the great work that MPT does.

    I think you have probably set up a straw man here.

    Al

  • http://www.ConfessionsofaChurchGirl.blogspot.com Sparrow

    Thank you for this considered response treating MPT more respectfully than he treats his counterparts.

    As entertaining as sarcasm, diatribes, and cutting rhetoric can be, it seems like they are on-par with the shallow evangelism MPT so bitingly criticizes. How does mocking one another show the love that ‘shallow evangelists’ and ‘offensive fundamentalists’ fail to show? As guilty as I am of MPT’s kind of pining and venting, I recognize that when I do it, I am behaving just as arrogantly as those I am rebuking. Usually it is a way to escape having a more difficult, vulnerable kind of conversation or to avoid feeling and reconciling difficult emotions. It’s just easier to ridicule someone else than it is to accept responsibility for how I am showing up.

  • Alan Noble

    Sierra,

    That’s a great question. I wrestled with that a bit last night, trying to decide whether I should send him an e-mail or post this publicly. In the end, I decided to post it publicly because I felt that this was an issue that is much broader than MPT and so it’s something that I think (hope) many Christians can benefit from wrestling with. And since I don’t feel that I was calling for MPT to repent publicly or something like that, I didn’t think that it would be rude to use his posts as examples of a broader tendency to be uncharitable towards fundamentalists. Plus, still think that I agree with the heart of his posts, so I conceived of this post as a refinement, rather than a fundamental disagreement.

    Perhaps I should have talked to him personally first, bu.t I get the sense that he’s the kind of guy who is open to dialogue about these kinds of things

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    As editor-in-chief, I would add that about 60% of what we do here at CaPC is respond to the writings, statements, and works of other people whom we have never met in a public way. We respond to these things because they are in and of themselves public – they are already “out there” for people to see.

    If we were rebuking him for private sin, that would be another thing. Instead, what we are doing is exchanging ideas about evangelism, dialogue, and exhortation. If I write something publicly, I would expect that writing to be addressed publicly. It makes sense, it’s efficient, and it’s an act of love toward those who may have read the original article in the first place.

    In short, it fulfills the key mission of our web site, to cause our readers to be thoughtful about the things they consume – even if they’re written by a fellow blogger.

  • http://www.anotherjohn.com John

    I’ll agree with your idea about the better way to respond to situations like these. I read most of MPT’s blog. There have been several occasions I thought he was condescending and arrogant in his own way as he furthered himself from fundamentalism. Anything that smells in the least bit fundamental is almost always posted as appalling or absurd.

    That said, I appreciate a lot of what he has to say, as someone who associated first with fundamentalism.

    And yes, as long as Christ was preached in some way, Paul was content. If he thought you were unsettling, however, he wished you castrated.

    Thanks for your thoughts. Stay blessed…john

  • http://jesusneedsnewpr.net mpt

    I appreciate and value your take on my blog post, Alan. Like your editor wrote, if something is public, I certainly think it’s fair game for critique. So thank you for this dialogue.

    The main gut of your critique seems to revolve around some of the descriptions of Shawn and Katie. You wrote: “I was disappointed to find that Turner’s tone was often quite condescending towards this couple.

    For example, he describes how he made his “best attempts at pretending to be really interested in hearing more about Shawn’s opinions of what he called the ‘brilliant theology’ of Ned Flanders.”

    Why was it necessary to give us this information? What do we learn about Shawn that helps us understand why his witness was poor? From what I can tell, all that this quote contributes is the implication that Shawn is a bit of a cultural Philistine. He likes to think that he is hip and edgy because he applies theology and popular culture, but really all we can do is feign interest in his opinions.”

    MPT: I suppose my first response would be this: If it’s truth, what’s wrong with sharing that information? You seem to “know” the type of individual that I’m describing, so as a writer, didn’t I do my job? You related to “Shawn” because most Christians know a Simpson’s loving youth pastor. In some ways, you answer your own question. You point out a section of my post that you deem to be a “disappointment,” and ask why I included this information, then you go on to explain why you think I included this information. Isn’t that what writers aim to do, to describe with detail (and some personal opinion) that the reader is able to picture the individual and come to his or her own conclusions?! I mean, you related enough to Shawn as a character to offer a rather detailed opinion about why I included these details. Now, how this information is condescending, I’m not sure. I didn’t make the details up. Perhaps my writing “my best attempts at pretending to be really interested…” in what Shawn was talking about implies something ugly or snobbish about me. But again, it’s true. While these details don’t exactly make exact commentary about Shawn’s “witnessing” techniques, but they certainly offer the reader a clearer picture of who Shawn is/was.

    You then critique this description: “Our food arrived, and as they ate, Shawn and Katie plotted as to how they would seal Timothy’s spiritual fate, and hopefully before he brought the dessert menus.” And then you write… “Why this language? “Plotted”? “Seal” his “fate”? Is there no possibility that they genuinely were concerned for this kid?”

    I have no doubt that Shawn and Katie cared about Timothy, and they certainly cared about their version of the gospel. My use of words like “plotted” “seal” and “fate” is little more than creative license. I could have certainly written that “I watched them create a plan” to witness to Timothy. But that’s not very creative.

    And then you write…

    “Or take this quote from Turner’s second post in which he describes the angry email Shawn sent him after their lunch: “Apparently some of his questions were more important than others, because they were in all caps. Most of his questions involved his curiosity about what I believed were Christianity’s absolutes. ‘THE NON-NEGOTIABLES,’ he called them, the list of beliefs that, according to him, added up to ‘A TRUE CHRISTIAN.’” What do we gain learning that Shawn used all-caps in an email? The knowledge that Shawn was arrogant and a tacky writer?”

    What do you gain? A clear picture of how Shawn’s email was written. By that description, you know exactly what kind of email he wrote. How is this a bad thing? Remember: I’m not writing this as a reporter who’s offering a non-partial take on the experience. I’m writing it from my experience, how I saw the experience. Honestly, I think that description offers much insight into Shawn’s passions, etc. And again, it’s the truth.

    Now, I will give you this: the post certainly could have been written without all of the above descriptions. Still, I don’t think that including them undermines the main point of the post or lessens the value of what I was trying to say…

    But let me ask you this: Why didn’t you include the paragraph that I wrote about my father’s perspective on faith being much like Katie’s perspective?! Those two lengthy paragraphs are certainly unnecessary to the point of the post as a whole. By relating Katie (somebody I didn’t really know) to my father (somebody I love and value), I was attempting to humanize the experience, to shine light on me, my own story, and how I was able to “believe” that I understood Katie and Shawn’s perspective on the gospel. But certainly, those paragraphs about my father were my attempt to balance the post. I certainly didn’t do that perfectly. But that was my goal.

    While I do think your critique is a bit one-sided (you seem to pull random quotes from a piece that, in my opinion, offers much more than simply “condescending” descriptions about Shawn & Katie), but I always learn from these sort of critiques. I’m hardly a perfect writer and critiques like this push me to try and become better at expressing my story. So thank you for that. And I mean that sincerely.

    Thanks again for your thoughts… (And forgive my grammatical mistakes and HTML mistakes. My 3-year-old is hanging on my hands, legs, and back as I write this response…)

    Peace.

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    I don’t have a lot more to add beyond the fact that I’m really glad this discussion is happening. Alan, I like your initial addendum in the comments about “forcing a level of intimacy on him” and being “unconcerned about the particulars of his life.” That, right there, is why I react often quite viscerally to the sort of “drive-by evangelism” MPT was talking about. If we really cared about the eternal souls of those we’re talking to, wouldn’t we make greater effort (besides asking “do you go to church?”) to get to know the person and where they stand on the issue before witnessing to them?

    I’m reminded of Christmas ’09, when I was stuck in NYC before my India trip because of storms in the Midwest. I ran into a street preacher near Rockefeller Center, and struck up a conversation. He assumed (because I was walking around NYC alone on Christmas day, and had asked him to explain his sign [which I can't recall accurately what it said]) that I was a non-Christian, and proceeded to “witness” to me. He clearly had an agenda to get through, when all I wanted to do was have a conversation. And I think when we make a great error as Christians when we assume that simply telling someone the Gospel story is a “proclamation of Christ.” But then, you already know that from our FB discussion.

    Good food for thought, though.

  • http://Www.expressivechurch.wordpress.com Claire

    I haven’t read the original blog post and will do in a minute.

    I was an atheist/agnostic for a long time. Pushy and brash evangelism made me think badly of Christians, so I don’t quite agree with Paul. However, perhaps that style of evangelism did work for other people.

    For me, some of those really ridiculous Hollywood movies about demons and conspiracies and angels kept God in my mind in my days before belief. So that was a witness that worked.

    My faith isn’t like those movies but I remember them fondly.

  • Carol

    Like everyone here, I’m glad that this discussion is happening. I’ve been reading thru James with my husband and his exhortations in chapter 4 is what I’m thinking of as I read these posts by MPT and CaPC. James encouraged believers to be peacemakers, to be gentle, to be open to reason and not act out of bitter jealousies and selfish ambition.

    I think we need to keep each other accountable on how we witness because witnessing to non-believers is what we’re called to do. I think it’s important to remember we’re just the channel, the spotlight isn’t supposed to be on us and how great we are at evangelism. Instant response shouldn’t be the goal – a deep and abiding relationship with the person we are witnessing to that will prayerfully lead to them accepting the gospel should be the goal.

    Thanks for challenging all of us to witness effectively.

  • Laura

    Some may think MPT was too hard on Shawn. But I think it was the other way around (look at Shawn’s criticism of MPT in the parking lot and his SNIDE E-MAIL later (written in just about that same “tone of voice”). I get fed up with judgmental people–and I’m trying not to be one.


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