The Command

[This won’t be short.  I’m not a gifted enough writer to say all this with fewer words.  My apologies.]

A pastor just asked me not to speak about Compassion International at his church.  I won’t name the pastor, the city, the church or the denomination.  None of these matter and I’m not out to harm anyone.  This is a colossal case of “there must be more to this story” (I hope there’s more to this story) and I just don’t know what that is.  What I know is this.

Our “free” contracts clearly state that I play for free in exchange for the opportunity to speak about Compassion International – even if a donation is made to me I still speak about Compassion.  This church didn’t want a concert but wanted me to sing in their services, to “lead worship.” A few weeks out from the services the church asked if I’d not only play in their four services but also play a concert.  Of course, we thought, even more people to present Compassion to.  Why wouldn’t we do that.  And that expectation of ours was made clear to the church contact: One concert, some church services, for free, I talk about Compassion every time I sing.  Deal? Deal.

Two weeks out we get an e-mail asking me not to sing my own music at the services.  Attached was a list of familiar songs I could choose from.  Not something I usually do, just because I don’t know other peoples’ songs any more, but I agreed.  If I have to play Chris Tomlin songs to present Compassion International to multiple services full of people I’ll do it.  A little late notice but absolutely.

It’s concert time.  No posters hung up around the church, no advertising on the local radio station’s web site.  The church activities calendar was posted around the place and guess what?  No concert on it.  There were about sixty people at the concert, from a church of thousands.  15 kids were sponsored. But the rest of those thousands would be at the church services and I was excited to share Compassion with them.

Before the first service I was told the rules: Ask everyone to stand for the first two songs, sit for the third and stand for the fourth, and don’t speak about Compassion. I was to only mention that I was touring these days for Compassion.  I was told to let the pastor give an appeal to sponsor kids. I thought, well, that’s even better.  People trust their pastor and if he gets behind Compassion they’ll get behind it and loads of kids get sponsired.  Sounds ideal.

I played my Tomlin, I said I was touring on behalf of Compassion International and said “I would love to see you out at the table after the service to answer any questions you might have about what they do”, and sat down.  Pastor got up, prayed about how he wanted the kingdom to come, made some announcements and said, I’m almost quoting here, “I used to sponsor a child through Compassion International for years but then I decide to get more hands on and involved in God’s work.  That’s why we started building our own orphanage in El Salvador.  But Compassion is here this morning if you’re not ready for that, if you’d be interested in sponsoring a child in the third world.  They’re a great organization.”

That’s it.  That’s all.  No explanation that “Compassion” is “Compassion International.” No mention of what they do or what it costs to sponsor.  4 kids were sponsored from that lackluster appeal to about 400 people on behalf of the more than 100,000 unsponsored children in 24 countries. 

Before the next service I decided to step it up and say more about Compassion.  I couldn’t let such a tremendous opportunity go by untapped.  Brody agreed more should be said as well.  But a messenger from the pastor joined us for a pre-servcie snack just then and said, “The pastor would like you to tone it down a little more and just let him slam dunk Compassion for you.”

“Like he ‘slam dunked’ it in the last service?” I asked rhetorically and with an immature amount of snarkiness I admit.  Awkward pause.

“Well, he’s concern about people coming to church and feeling hit up for something.”

“Something like taking care of the poor? He’s afraid of that?” I asked.  His faced turned red, I felt bad for him, but he stuck to his guns. 

We prayed.  I confessed that I was having a hard time obeying this pastor.  I was torn between two commands of God. The first is to speak for the poor and the second is to submit to this pastor’s authority.  What if authority won’t speak for the poor?  I was stuck and irritated, sure that there was more to this story than I was being told.  Had Compassion made this pastor angry at some point in the past?  Did he have a bad experience with an artist speaking in his church before?  Even if either of these were true, I reasoned, there’s no excuse for making a deal you don’t intend to keep.  And there’s no reason we couldn’t talk about those issues and agree on some middle ground. Maybe the pastor didn’t see the contract, didn’t know the arrangement until I arrived.  I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt but I still had a choice to make: obey the pastor or obey my own promise to Compassion and my own compulsion to speak for them.

I gave the pastor one more shot, thinking maybe the messenger would relay my “concerns” to him and he’d step it up a bit.  He didn’t.  4 more kids were sponsored from an even larger crowd of hearers on that go around.

I prayed and Brody and I talked some more about what we should do. Then I remembered a passage Brian once taught on in Galatians.  In Galatians 2 Paul was sent out by the leaders of the early church (John, Peter, Barnabus) to preach to the non-Jews and he was given only ONE command by them: remember the poor

It was his inauguration as a leader in the early church, the day he was sent out to make disciples all over greece and asia, the future of the Church might have depended on that moment, and what was he commanded to do as he left town?  Build stuff?  Do communion this way or that?  Immerse or sprinkle?  Form a denomination?  Write a creed?  Four songs and then preach?  Sunday school?  Elect deacons?  Appoint elders?  Start a seminary?  No.  Only one command was given: remember the poor.

The poor he was to remember were fellow Christians in Jerusalem who had lost jobs and property due to persecution but the point, I think, carries over.  The poor I care about are churches in the third world who don’t have the means to meet needs in their own neighborhoods.  Paul had a “calling” to preach the “gospel” but a command not to forget the poor.  And he didn’t.  He was “eager” to remember them.  Everywhere Paul went he preached or debated or argued or reasoned but he always took up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem.  He found a way to work it into what he did because he was commanded to do so, it mattered to God and God’s people and God’s work depended on it.

For whatever reason – I don’t know – this pastor didn’t want Compassion International talked about in his services and he wouldn’t talk to me about those reasons.  All that’s between him and Compassion.  They’ll deal with it soon I’m sure and mend any fences that need it.  For my part though I decided to do my job and ignore his instruction regardless of those issues.  But I only half did it.  I talked for two minutes in the next two services, no more, about what Compassion does.  I thanked the church and the pastor for already caring about the poor enough to build an orphanage and for inviting me to speak to them about other needs in the third world.  And I asked them to consider sponsoring a child as an act of worship, as a way of putting into practice the love for God we were singing about together.  No passing out sponsorship packets, no personal story or pictures or ten minute speech that I usually give.

In those last two services, when the poor were spoken for, 29 kids were rescued from poverty an hour later at the conclusion of the services.  I don’t know what this pastor’s issues were.  But I wonder:  Were they worth keeping 29 kids from being saved from poverty?  Because they almost did.

And I wonder about the kids who weren’t sponsored.  29 more kids could have been sponsored in the two services he “slam dunked” for me, when I didn’t do what I was commanded to do.  Never again.

If you’re a promoter or a pastor at a church I’m coming to in the future I want you to know that we’re a team, you and I.  I’ll gladly work with you on how to best represent Compassion International to your audience within your program and your faith tradition but I will not be silent.  I love the Church and I love ministering in the church but if the church gets in the way of the command again I know now which I’ll choose to obey.  This is non-negotiable, it is the reason I leave town every weekend, and it’s in the contract.

And if you’re out there thinking this pastor was wrong, there’s no need to bash him in the comments of this post.  Most people would think this guy was wrong, that’s no surprise that needs sharing.  So maybe we can talk about other instances in which two commands of God seem to contradict each other, or how your church has incorporated remembering the poor into their services or activities, or how you remember the poor through your work or life.  It’s easy to be upset with a guy who put his own agenda before the poor, it’s much harder to examine ourselves and see how we do the same thing.  Remember the poor.