Pastor Tim Christensen’s video hit every major news outlet by Sunday evening. Pastor of Gold Hill Lutheran Church in Butte, Mont., but lifelong San Francisco 49ers fan, Christensen made a prank video Sunday morning with his congregation. The joke was that he was abbreviating the Sunday worship service to under a minute in order to catch the 49ers/Panthers playoff game. By Sunday evening most major news outlets had picked up on the video. Some people thought it was kind of funny. Others thought it was one of the most irreverent things they’d ever seen.
There’s a reason that I sometimes wait a week or so to post on “newsworthy” items like this. I’m often less interested in the event than I am the reaction to the event, by Christians and non-Christians alike. In an instant gratification, social media world, there’s an added caution for Christians to be accurate and gracious in their responses, not just first. Our first responses are generally visceral. This is problematic in that the natural disposition of our hearts is an inclination toward evil (Gen. 8:21). Consequently, Christians always need to pump the brakes on the first thought, feeling, and impulse that they experience.
So, how do we react to Pastor Christensen?
And, as I’ve mentioned before, if Timothy Keller has taught me anything, it’s that there are three basic spiritual responses to everything:
- Irreligion (which often falls in line with liberal-minded self-indulgence, or “younger brother” behavior, cf. Luke 15:12), or…
- Religion (which often falls in line with conservative-minded self-righteousness, or “elder brother” behavior, cf. Luke 15:28-30), or…
- The Gospel (the response of someone who is clearly recognizing that they are a sinner saved by the grace of God)
So, Tim Christensen’s joke has been met with varied responses.
Most in the predominantly secular media have seemed to see Christensen’s behavior as merely a cute display of fandom. Understandably, many Christians are bothered by that. Religion, almost by definition, is the thing which people hold as the central truth of their heart, the meaning of their existence. So it’s almost awkwardly insensitive to make light of such things, something professional comedians have known & debated for years.
In an interview with YAHOO! NEWS, Christensen, who, after the joke, did actually conduct a full worship service Sunday morning, said, “I preached the good news…I was talking about Jesus changing the water in to wine; the ordinary into the extraordinary. I really have a deep respect for my work. I just also have a sense of humor.”
I’m guessing we could debate the quality and refinement of Pastor Christensen’s “sense of humor.” Maybe his sense of humor works in Butte, MT. Let’s at least acknowledge that humor can be fairly subjective at times. That said, I think there’s probably an objective reason that Christensen doesn’t have his own late night talk show. Anyone who thinks what they’re doing is hilarious to the degree that it needs to be filmed and broadcast, all while they’re mocking what many hold sacred, and it’s ultimately “not really that funny” – this is someone who is perhaps a little out-of-touch with humor and social appropriateness. Consequently, I’m less offended by Christensen than I am embarrassed for him.
Jerry Seinfeld once remarked in a Seinfeld episode that he was offended that his dentist, Tim Whatley, had converted to Judaism just to tell bad Jewish jokes. And someone asserted to Seinfeld, “Oh, so you’re offended as a Jew?” And he replied, “No, I’m offended as a comedian.”
What I’m suggesting is that Pastor Christensen’s “joke” was in poor taste, but I’m not sure it was simply because of bad theology. I think it was, at least in part, because of his unique, niche (I’m being kind here) brand of humor. I know the theology of his church body and I don’t agree with it, but I’m guessing this is more the product of him being just kind of a weird dude.
Honestly, I feel for him. I’ve personally said SOOOOO many stupid things throughout my life. I’ve done SOOOOO many stupid things throughout my life. If anyone knew the idiot I’m capable of being to the degree that I know it…..ugh, I shudder to think. I’m so thankful that people haven’t been holding a camera during some of my lowest, most disrespectful, most irreverent moments.
But there is precedence for all this, you know, i.e. supposed spiritual leaders acting like fools. Wasn’t it David who, when subtly confronted with his own sin, foolishly said, “As surely as the Lord lives,the man who did this must die!” (2 Sam. 12:5)? Wasn’t it Jonah, who in considering the very mercy of God that rescued him, was disgusted by that same mercy being extended to Ninevites, and therefore said, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God…Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jon. 4:2-3) And what about the great St. Peter?!?! Wasn’t it Peter who, moments before his betrayal of Jesus, almost comically proclaimed , “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (Matt.)? I WISH foolish moments like these were jokes. Rather, they’re just painful evidences that Christians, even clergy, often do and say very stupid things.
While many of the irreligious are dismissive of Christensen’s antics, many of the religious have been quick to grab the biggest stones they can find to hurl, perhaps quick to point out that THAT Lutheranism isn’t MY Lutheranism and is discrediting the good name of Lutheranism. Herein lies the great and painful irony of denominational elitism though. If you arrogantly bash a pastor of another denomination, you’re either at that moment counterproductively 1) driving away people from your own church, or 2) habituating people in your church to believe that their rightness with God is based on doctrinal accuracy rather than grace. Even if you discount the moral ramifications of slander, it’s an unwise practice to point out the unChristlikeness of another in an unChristlike manner yourself. It’s maddening. It’s delusional. But that’s what pride does – it blinds us.
I’m not defending Tim Christensen’s lapse in judgment. I’m not anywhere near okay with his theology. I’m simply acknowledging that my judgment is inherently no better. And if you have the attitude that yours is, you’re inevitably bringing as much or more damage to your own denominational name (even more, to the name of Christ).
The quote I always roll out in these situations is from English writer and Christian apologist, G.K. Chesterton, who famously wrote in to his London paper, “Dear Sir: Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ I am. Yours truly, G.K. Chesterton.”
Irreligion leads you to be dismissive of Christensen’s irreverence. Religion leads you to suggest Pastor Christensen (or his church body) are what are destroying Christianity (or the good name of Lutheranism). But the gospel leads you to say, “Yep, I’m a sinner just like Pastor Christensen. But by God’s grace extended through Jesus, my Savior, I’m forgiven.”
So, be gracious, as God has been gracious to you. Grace really is the hallmark of distinctly gospel-driven Christianity. Morality is great, but if Christianity is defined by morality, your Mormon neighbor might be a better Christian than you. Doctrinal accuracy and Systematic Theology are great, but if doctrinal aptitude is what defines a true believer, Jesus never would have told the chief priests that the prostitutes and tax collectors were entering heaven before them (Matt. 21:31). No, Christianity is defined by sinners saved by grace alone. Believing this, we then act like it, which means that the hallmark of people who really believe and understand the gospel of Jesus Christ is this: they will show grace to others, because they themselves have been saved by grace.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)