Monday, September 22, 2008

Artificial Intimidation: A Streetcar Named "Too Late!"

So, he was a preaching machine- no doubt about it. As a traveling evangelist, his role was to get people up to the altar, "get 'em good and saved," and then let Jesus and the pastor handle the rest of the details like ... overcoming addictions, breaking habits, salvaging the marriage, etc. And he was good at it.

Question: What does it take, after all, to convince someone to come to the altar?
Answer: Fear.

So, his final story went like this (with apologies for the gender bias): "Jerry was a man just like you. The Lord was tugging at his heart, saying, 'Don't wait another moment! Come and accept the new life the I'm offering you right now!' but he didn't do it. He sat there thinking that maybe one day, maybe even tomorrow, but not today. 'Not today, preacher,' he said that night, thinking he had an endless string of tomorrows. But, as he walked home from church that night, with his heart heavy and his mind lost in turmoil, he stepped right in front of a streetcar and, WHAM!, that was the end of it all for him. In the next instance he was facing eternity always regreting that he waited. He waited too late. Oh sinner, don't wait too late. Do it today..."

That was one pretty darned effective story- I remember it now many moons later! I don't recall if it resulted in anyone there getting 'saved.' After all, it was a Sunday evening service and, really, who is going to be in a Sunday evening service aside from people who are already buying into the whole idea? At best, my guess is, this story would be working on someone who, perhaps, was not quite the perfect Christian, someone who might have some flaws in the personality, or who might be the type who carries guilt around heavily, etc. A little fear can go a long way for someone who is already the nervous type.

Do you want to know what was going on in my mind at that time? It was something that consumed me for the rest of the service and I couldn't not think about it. It was the question:
What the heck is a streetcar? I mean, I never even saw one of those things for real until I visited San Francisco years later while in college. A streetcar? Is this the best this guy can do, is to give us some example from 50 years ago? And, how did he know what that unfortunate guy was thinking? Did a rescue worker hear him say in his final breath, "I was at a church and felt the Lord tugging at my heart and I did not get saved because I thought I had many tomorrows left and now I went and walked right in front of a streetcar because my heart was so heavy and ..." Geez, by the time he was done they could have operated on him three times.

To me, at the sagacious age of 8 or so, this was the stupidest story I had ever heard, totally made up, and one of the things that got me started on what literary critics call a "hermeneutic of suspicion." Okay, of course I didn't know at that time that 'hermenutics' was the theory of interpretating messages, but I was really starting to get the 'suspicion' part of that phrase. And, for the first time, I was beginning to understand that what I alway thought was "powerful preaching" was little more than conjuring up some artificial intimidation. So, that's what I'm thinking about this week. More to come...


  1. Yes, I remember as a young youth pastor receiving a promotional mailing for a video called "Reservation Unconfirmed". The basic plot, a group of kids are tragically killed in a car accident. They arrive at the gates of heaven which actually turns out to be a fantastic spa/resort. Those with confirmed reservations go right in. Those with no reservation get turned away. But then there is one girl whose reservation is "unconfirmed". She, of course, is the girl who is active in youth group, sings in the choir etc. but has yet to definitively give her life to Christ.
    This video, so said the brochure, would "electrify" my ministry.


  2. Well Mark, I am sure this evangelist traveled from Hampton to Richmond to preach this same sermon in the church of my youth. It's a familiar tactic and a still used as an attempt at "conversions".

    I always found it crazy that evangelists loved to preach on Sunday night when the folks who were in church Sunday night had already consumed the cool aid! There is nothing like preaching to the converted to fill the prayer rails with people in mortal fear that they could overwhelm a sovereign God and loose their standing in God's covenantal plans if they didn't "lay it all on the altar".


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