the seduction of the stage

This has been another full summer. It started in May with a two week doctoral residency in LA. Yesterday I just got home from a week-long vacation split between Destin and New Orleans. In between, I spent two weeks in Durango, Colorado speaking at a CIY Move event and another week in Cleveland, Tennessee speaking at the same event. These three weeks are what has led me to temporarily resuscitate my blog.

This was my tenth year speaking for CIY. Christ in Youth is a wonderful, Christ-centered organization that annually blesses the lives of tens of thousands of young people by challenging them to be sold out to Jesus and to his kingdom. I have dear friends who work tirelessly for this organization. I would be a fan of CIY even if I never spoke for one of their events again. Move is their high school event which takes place at various sites across the country during the summer. It has been an enormous privilege to be able to speak at Move and events like it through the years.

But speaking at events like Move is also one of the most dangerous things that I do in my job. Admittedly, I don’t have the most physically dangerous job in the world, but stepping on that stage always feels like I’m jumping into a live spiritual conflict with the worst parts of me.

The conflict takes two forms. The first form I’ll call technique. I’m stealing the word from philosopher Jacques Ellul. Ellul characterized most of modern life as the takeover of technique. Without going into too much detail, technique manifests itself in our undying faith in technological and “data rich” solutions and strategies for every human dilemma. Once you start seeing it, it’s hard not to see it everywhere. In baseball. In higher education. In our obsession with personality tests. And in worship.

When technique takes over worship it becomes a product. “Let’s get you mic’d up.” “There’s a ninety-second bumper video, and then you’re up.” “Did you talk to the band about how you’re ending?” “Will you pray?” “Do you want the band to play keys over your conclusion?” “Watch the timer. The session went way over yesterday.” “The booth needs to check your mic one more time.” I’m not saying any of this is wrong. Much of it is actually necessary. But if you’re not careful it becomes easy to feel like you are merely a cog in a production machine carefully calibrated for maximum “spiritual” effect. You begin to feel programmed, artificial, and rehearsed. The stage makes you less of yourself than is healthy.

The second form of the conflict is the opposite. The stage seduces you to think more of yourself than is healthy. I had a conversation years ago with a student who I was very close to. He was brash and confident in ways that were so over-the-top that it was often kind of endearing. He asked me how I had come to speak at events like Move. I asked him why he cared. I already knew the answer. He had his eye on the stage. It was his goal and ambition, maybe even his destiny. Did I mention this kid was confident?

I told him what I tell any student who asks me questions like this. I tell them that the real action isn’t on the stage. The real action is in the crowd. I show up, preach a few messages, and fly home. I’d like to think that I’ve done some good, but I wouldn’t be so bold as to call that “ministry.” The ministers are the ones who live with these students, who know their lives, who agonize over their defeats, and revel in their victories. The ministers are the nurses like my wife who’ve taken a week of vacation to invest in high school students. The ministers are those like my friend Patrick, who actually works for CIY, but took a week to volunteer as a leader for my son’s youth group and helped to change his life. I usually tell people like this student that until you learn to serve, you’re not ready for the stage. In fact, the stage is the most dangerous place for you to be. You want the stage for all the wrong reasons.

I’m speaking from experience. I am so easily motivated by flattery. I am so thirsty for applause. As I step onto stage, so many of the thoughts that sneak into my mind center on myself. “Will they laugh at my first joke?” “Will they think I’m clever?” “I’m not sure this shirt is cool enough.” “Why don’t I own any of those jeans with all the rips in them that the band leader wears?” “I hope I impress them.” “If I’m not good enough, will they not invite me back next year?” These are toxic questions for any speaker to entertain for very long – especially a speaker given the sacred task of leading people closer to Jesus. My persistent fear isn’t that somehow the stage won’t be enough for me. My fear is the day when the stage is enough for me, that day when all I want is the stage, when all I want is to be known, to be important, to be impressive.

The student I mentioned earlier eventually found a stage. He travels the country now as a stand-up comic. He’s gotten fairly successful. In the off chance that he’s reading this, I hope he knows that I love him and that I’m even proud of him. I just wish that there was enough room on his stage for Jesus. At the end of the day, I guess that’s the danger of the stage – that there is only room enough for you. The first conflict introduced by the stage crowds out the Spirit, while the second moves Jesus out of the spotlight.

A popular meme has been circulating on Twitter for a few weeks. It begins with the words “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but…” It has become a popular way to introduce random non sequiturs that might not be relevant beyond a smallish group of people. A blog post like this kind of falls in that same category. “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but stages are dangerous things.”

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