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Phone Call

I have learned, over the course of nearly four years being a solo pastor in a small church with no office staff to handle phones, to be wary of answering calls with unfamiliar area codes. At best, these tend to be automated telemarketing calls or faxes (there are people out there who still fax, apparently) and I can easily hang up the phone and move on with my day. At worst, they are eager representatives (frequently relentlessly cheerful young women with southern drawls—unless it’s Promise Keepers calling) from large, usually American, religious organizations who are seeking my/our support for some upcoming event or initiative or massive multi-site networked “experience” that will revolutionize my ministry. These calls are much more difficult to extract myself from. I am never rude, but I’m afraid I don’t give them much by way of encouragement. Usually by around the second minute of our phone call, I can sense the exasperation bleeding through the line all the way from Tennessee. 

This morning, a strange area code appeared. Against my better judgment, I answered the phone. A man with a thick accent began to speak.

Goood mahning sah! My name is Humberto, and I am calling on behalf of the ______ Evangelistic Association. Would you agree, that one of the church’s major problems is that our young people are not being evangelized?

I thought about this for a second, and began to respond, “Well, I’m not sure I would put it exactly like that, but…”

And sir, would you also agree that all churches need to have better tools to evangelize their young people?

“Um, well, yes, probably, but…”

And sir, did you know that there is a conference coming to your area by video link that will equip you to evangelize your young people and train them up in the way of the Lord!

“I did not know that.”

Sir, this conference will bring back the fire of the Holy Spirit to your ministry and your young people will come back to church! Can I say that you will attend?

Many things went through my head at this point. Things like, “Do you really think that 1970’s style evangelistic methods are the missing ingredient to drawing millennials back to church?” and “Are large-scale video conferences with high-octane hyper-enthusiastic speakers the tool for the job in every context?” and “Is a lack of evangelism really the problem here?” and “Do you think your diagnosis for what ails the postmodern church might be overly cognitive in nature or that sometimes young people have decent reasons for leaving the church?” and a whole host of other less-than-enthusiastic responses to the services he was offering.

But what I said out loud, was more of a halfhearted and lame, “I’ll think about it and get back to you.” Mercifully, Humberto seemed reasonably pleased with this response. Or, at least not obviously displeased.

I sighed with relief, imagining my ill-advised phone conversation to be nearing its completion. But before I could disconnect, Humberto had one more question for me. “Before I let you go, is there something I could pray for you about?” I don’t tend to spend a lot of time praying for (or being prayed for by) total strangers on the phone, so I was a bit taken aback. Oh, um, well, I guess you could pray for the week ahead… For our Maundy Thursday and Easter services… That they would, um, go well? I imagined that Humberto was probably thinking I was the lamest pastor in the known universe by this point.

But Humberto said, It would be my pleasure, pastor… what is your name, sir? “Ryan,” I said. Well, Ryan, let me pray for you. Humberto began to pray. And pray, and pray and pray. His language soared as he prayed for all kinds of things that buttoned-down Mennonites tend not to pray for. Or, are too afraid or respectable or enlightened to pray for.  He uttered phrases like “the fire of the Holy Spirit!” and “rushing roaring winds.”  He used words like “revival” and “glory” and “majesty.” On and on he went, louder and louder his voice grew. He prayed that Pastor Ryan would be a MIGHTY servant of the living Lord!! I squirmed and shuffled my feet, embarrassed at my lack of both mightiness and servanthood. But Humberto kept right on praying. Loudly. For me.

And the longer he prayed, the more I began to think—for the first time in our conversation, I’m embarrassed to admit—about Humberto as an actual human being instead of as an inconvenience. I wondered what part of Africa he was from (I was reasonably certain his accent came from that part of the world). I wondered what he had seen in his lifetime. War? Famine? Persecution? None of the above?  I wondered about the ways in which he had experienced the risen Christ as his Friend and Saviour, Liberator and King. I wondered what had led him to work for the _____ Evangelistic Association. I wondered if perhaps this organization had introduced him to Jesus once upon a time. It occurred to me that perhaps the reason Humberto spent hours on the phone reaching out to reluctant pastors like me was because he was profoundly grateful that once upon a time someone from a far off place had reached out to him.

I thought about that for a minute.

Humberto’s prayer reached its crescendo in its closing words.  We pray these things in the MIGHTY name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, RISEN from the dead, glorious LOOOOOORD of Life and head of his church!!  Aaaaay-MEN!!  Amen indeed.  Humberto was breathing loudly into the phone.  I half expected to open my eyes and see chariots descending from the sky or Jesus himself riding on a white horse.  But all I saw was a banana and a half empty cup of coffee on my desk.  I smiled, and thanked Humberto for praying for me.  My pleazhah, sah!  he said.  And you know what?  I absolutely believe that it was.

I don’t think that I will be attending or viewing the videoconference put on by the _____ Evangelistic Association in order to “revolutionize my ministry” and “bring back the young people.” But in the end, I’m grateful to have had the chance to speak with Humberto. I appreciated his prayer for me very much, superlatives and all.  I’m glad that I picked up the phone.

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. LIly #

    That’s hilarious, Ryan….I love it. Everything that’s wrong and right about church in one fell swoop…

    At least you still had half of the coffee left. 🙂

    “Is a lack of evangelism really the problem here…or that sometimes young people have decent reasons for leaving the church?”
    Yeah… I can *somewhat* appreciate attempts to “get people back to church” by people who profess something like “getting people saved is the most important thing, and getting them to church will do that” (like this man, I am supposing), but (speaking as a young person) mostly, attempts to discuss the “major problem” of “young people leaving church” just look kinda patronizing, like “Oh, I know what would be a good idea! Let’s talk about this and write all kinds of articles about it and publicize this ‘major problem’ as if there weren’t any young people around paying any attention whatsoever! They’re not gonna care if we talk about them *within earshot*!” I mean honestly some of the opinions/allegations that seem to exist out there about “young people who leave the church” could be enough to make one want to stay just for the sake of not being lumped into such categories….
    What bothers me is that not many people seem to think it’s okay for anyone to ever decide that they just need a break from “church” for a while. As someone I know likes to say, ‘After all, Jesus needed a break! Why do you think he went into the wilderness for a month?’

    Anyways, my two cents. Thanks for the laughs.

    April 1, 2015
    • Ryan #
      April 1, 2015
      • Lily #

        Ummm….nice picture Ryan?

        April 1, 2015
      • Hmm, well that’s weird. I posted a comment and then it just disappeared. See comment about “internet magic” below. 😉

        I don’t remember exactly what I said—it was undoubtedly very insightful. And humble. I think I just remarked that I could see how it would be frustrating to be on the receiving end of frequently patronizing “analysis” of a problem. And I think I enthusiastically affirmed your decision to stay in the church to upend the problematic categorizations. 🙂

        April 1, 2015
  2. LIly #

    Woah, my icon changed….weird. I dunno how these things work.

    April 1, 2015
    • It’s internet magic. Nobody understands it.

      April 1, 2015
      • mike #

        Magic….or a sign from God. Last year I wrote a blog comment (on another site) pointing out my need for an occasional “sign” from God to assure me that I’m at least moving in the right direction. After hitting ‘send’ I looked over my comment and behold, a cross sign+ had somehow been inserted into the text at a most opportune point. I’m still in Awe of this happening.

        April 1, 2015
      • That’s really cool, Mike. I need those signs every now and then, too. So glad that God meets us in our need.

        April 1, 2015
  3. If you wish to make inroads with the young, make better disciples of their parents.

    Youth, in our privileged culture, allows for experimentation and excess in all different directions. For the many, it will take into their late twenties and thirties before their compulsive self absorption leaves them empty and longing for something that fulfills; brings peace and contentment. Hard work, sacrifice and a commitment to others, real community, lies at the heart of this peace…. And whom shall they serve?

    If their parents have made sincere effort and example of Christian life, a child comes “home” again. If not, the many political agendas that hide self interest behind the pretense of service, will prevail. Love, the essential give and take of human existence, is hard wired within us. Bob Dylan once sang,…”You’re gonna serve somebody”…words of truth… The question is who and what.

    Better to leave the machinations of culture and it’s technologies to the false prophets. However beguiling they be, all mature minds know they exist to serve the market place and self interest. Real faith is taught slowly, persistently, authentically, through the example of our lives.

    Cling to the Eucharist, cling to the Mass, cling to Scripture. Cling to God where you find Him. Make prayer a daily ritual, for you and your family. In spite of your short comings, it is this example that will or won’t convert your children.

    “As the Father does, so does the Son.”

    April 1, 2015
    • I agree with much of what you say here, particularly the “who are you going to serve?” part and this line: “Real faith is taught slowly, persistently, authentically, through the example of our lives.” Amen, amen, amen.

      I get a bit nervous with this passage, though:

      If their parents have made sincere effort and example of Christian life, a child comes “home” again. If not, the many political agendas that hide self interest behind the pretense of service, will prevail.

      I have known parents who made precisely these efforts and set precisely this example, yet their kids have walked away from faith. I can’t imagine blaming them for their kids’ lack of faith. I also know of parents who have not done much at all when it comes to faith formation, and their kids have embraced a vibrant life of discipleship to Jesus Christ on their own. Of course, good Christian parenting can be hugely influential and is to be preferred always. There are no formulas when it comes to this kind of thing.

      April 1, 2015
    • Lily #

      It’s not my intention to be rude, and I don’t know who this comment was aimed at (no one in particular, perhaps?), but some of the things you said seem a bit contradictory (as well as pretty representative of the quite frankly frustrating opinions that (older? more adult?) adults seem to hold about teenagers/young adults and/or “faith formation”). The following really isn’t aimed anyone in particular; just, my thoughts; I hope no one will be offended. And it’s not my intention to try to draw anyone into a long conversation (sorry Ryan 🙂 )either, but I just thought I would put them out there, because, umm, I think these kinds of topics seem to often be really one-sided.

      1 – you talk about the “privileged” culture of youth and the “compulsive self-absorption” of young people (and the “many political agendas that hide self interest behind the pretense of service”) and then in the next breath you say “Love, the essential give and take of human existence, is hard wired within us.” Wait….what? I may be a bit biased here because frankly I’m a bit tired of getting the feeling that quite a few adult-adults, especially the churchy-types, think a lot of young people (a) don’t care anything about anything but themselves and their interests and (b) stop subscribing to “faith” as some kind of illogical-intellectualized-temper-tantrum against the path of “hard service” that it presents. Or something like that. But I’m just not sure how it can be logical to think that we are all, to some extent, hard-wired to try to love (however badly we may fail) and simultaneously think or give the impression of thinking that most young people are basically self-interested jerks who don’t try to love/care about/work for anything/anyone beyond what it can do for them. I mean, sure, we can be self-absorbed jerks, but hey – so can everyone else.
      2 – “Better to leave the machinations of culture and it’s technologies to the false prophets. However beguiling they be, all mature minds know they exist to serve the market place and self interest.”
      I think there’s probably more stuff in church that exists mostly to “serve the market place” and “self-interest” than people like to think. (I mean, why are people always talking about how to improve the ‘worship experience’? Really?! and other such things)

      April 1, 2015
      • I agree, Lily, it’s very easy to caricature youth/young adults. Too easy. I know many young people who give of themselves in sacrificial ways to causes that they believe in. The fact that they’re not in church might have as much to say about the church as it does about them.

        At the same time, I do think that our particular cultural moment in the postmodern, hyper-technological West does lend itself quite easily and naturally to fostering unprecedented levels of self-absorption. Not just for the young, mind you. It’s a problem for all of us. We are increasingly becoming curators of our own digital worlds and identities. We have little patience for anything that would dislodge us from the centre of the worlds we create and maintain for ourselves.

        April 2, 2015
      • lily #

        Re the hyper-individualized west….I wouldn’t argue with you there. Not at all.
        (And here I am online. Yay. Ah, the irony….does not escape me. But I’m sabotaging my own comment, aren’t I? Whoops.) But, I will say: I often think that it’s ironic (and….confusing) that church is always talking about being “community” and not being self-absorbed, and then it often seems to go around acting more or less like an amoeba (or at least feels like one). Collectively self-interested, or something…..Just my impression.

        On a different note…just, I wonder how many, umm, ‘older’ (?) people don’t go to church and no one pays attention due to (a) their parents, or anybody else, aren’t paying attention anymore and (b) something like, “the young are our future” syndrome, or something like that…..

        April 2, 2015
      • Yes, there are churches such as the one you describe. But there are others, too—many others—who are oriented (or at least trying to be oriented) away from self and toward others. Generalizations about “the church” as a monolithic entity are a tricky business…

        And, yes, there are plenty of older people who don’t go to church… and who don’t get the “airtime” of the millennial generation. I suppose the hand-wringing could easily, on one level, be reduced to anxiety about the future of the church. Present demographics do not seem to portent a rosy future…

        April 3, 2015
  4. mike #

    hahahahaha….Love it!! As I’ve said before, for a preacher you have such a Great sense of humor about things. 🙂
    I usually get several solicitation calls throughout the day at work(and at home too) and it tends to ruin my day. I have no patience with these “cold call” scam artists and I often get very rude and nasty with them. I recently read somewhere, Buddhist I think, that of a solution to this annoying quandary might be to try and empathize with the person on the other end of the phone by imagining that this is the only job they could manage to land and that they are earning a minimal wage and trying to survive on it while living under God knows what conditions. This advise does help but it still demand a lot of effort on my part.

    Last year I discovered a brilliant technology that some Telemarketers are now using that utilizes a series of recorded scripts that can converse with you in which you cannot discern that you are dialoging with a recording. Evidently someone(or a computer) is on the other end monitoring the “conversation” and can activate the appropriate response to any routine questions people might ask. I discovered this by asking a non-routine question and then realized “it” could not answer it appropriately and then “it” hung up. Very sophisticated and clever.

    April 1, 2015
    • Thanks, Mike. Good strategies to keep in mind!

      April 1, 2015
  5. Hey Ryan, Paul here. In no way am I blaming parents for their children walking away, particularly parents whose faith is an authentic best effort. Rather I am saying this is the best evangelizing tool we have. Let the child who hears the call to another place go. When the emptiness of the journey becomes apparent they will return to what they now know to be the better place. The strength of families, like the strength of faith, is in our giving of ourselves to the needs of the other. No one loves us like our families.

    My children, like I before them, have legitimate grievance with their parents, yet when all is said and done who else would spend a lifetime working to feed, cloth, house, educate and entertain them/me but a parent who loved them. Looking for nothing but appreciation/love in return? Families are far from perfect. Some tragically imperfect but when they die, and they are often under attack, a sure and true path to God dies with them.

    Since the sixties western culture has encouraged individual priorities (self absorption) over collective ones ( otherness/ true love) It is to be expected then that most kids since that time would step away from Christian faith. Christian faith, properly understood is a surrendering of self interest to the interests of God through community. Paradoxically it is in this “death to self desire” that the true self is revealed. The lover who gives the best of themselves. The one who builds up others as they in turn build up her. We are not meant to have what desire would encourage us to take. We are meant to have what others would desire to give us as if in giving to us, they were giving to themselves. I have what you freely share with me. You have what I freely share with you. No one should make personal possession purely for the purpose of the self, an objective. This kind of materialism is the root of all sin. Work and earn so as to enjoy in and share the bounty. Let others treat you in kind. This is love, nothing less.

    Capitalism does not know Christ. It is the camel through the eye of the needle pathway to God. It is not family. It is the part of the world we are explicitly told to be in but not of.

    All self interest will wither and die. All tribal interest, all politics as well. There is but one path to life. Jesus Christ, He who emptied himself even unto death on a cross. This life and all it’s material passions and self absorption’s is our time on the cross. We must die on this cross if we are to live….

    Lily I feel you have so badly misconstrued my words that it wouldn’t serve either of us well to respond to your concern. Hopefully this comment you gives you a better picture of my point of view.

    I will say this though, there is a “youth” born into all of us in this privileged time and place that needs to be put to be outgrown. That needs to die if we are to live.

    April 1, 2015
    • I will say this though, there is a “youth” born into all of us in this privileged time and place that needs to be put to be outgrown. That needs to die if we are to live.

      Well said, Paul. I absolutely agree.

      April 2, 2015
  6. Larry S #

    Ryan, good post. Thanks for reminding me that Telemarketers are people too. Interesting to read about being prayed for over the phone.

    I’m not too good with telemarketers. An opening line seems to be, “hi how are you?” I think the question is a technique to get us answering questions in a positive, polite way. A while ago, after a hard day at work, I answered a telemarketer’s “how are you” question by going into a running dialogue about being really lonely and how I was hoping someone would call and then went into detail about all my woes until I had the caller worried that I was suicidal. Funny at the time, but likely not my best moment. Although I never answer the “how are you question” when that is the first words I hear when I answer the phone.

    On my good days I remmber that the caller is some poor guy trying to make a buck. I will admit to playing the Microsoft people that phone me trying let them log onto my computer because they know I have a virus. Eventually I tell them I have an Apple, they get mad and hang up.

    If u want to listen to someone really giving a telemarketer a run for his money do a google search using: telemarketer phones a murder scene. It’s classic. I found it

    April 1, 2015
    • mike #

      hahahahaha….that’s a hilarious video, Larry, and a great come-back on the Microsoft scam.

      April 2, 2015
    • Larry, I pity the poor telemarketing soul who draws your number 🙂

      April 2, 2015
  7. Kevin K #

    Hi Ryan, I immediately identified as a fellow solo pastor left alone to attend to the phone when I’m at the church.

    We don’t have call display at our church, so every time the phone rings I play a game of ‘church phone caller roulette.’ Will it be someone in crisis? Will it be someone calling to offer a brief word of encouragement? Will it be our worship coordinator with details regarding our Sunday service? Will I have won a cruise? Will my wife be calling to spare me the embarrassment of forgetting to pick up milk from the grocery store on my way home?

    It’s an adventure almost every time, to be sure.

    For the most part, it’s a pretty good gig as we are a smaller church, and quite honestly the phone doesn’t ring that often.

    Thanks for sharing, and in so doing providing some company when it comes to the obscure adventures I often find myself wrapped up in.


    PS When is the post coming about the interesting things people mail to a church and that you’ve come across as the church’s de facto mail sorter?

    April 2, 2015
    • “Church phone caller roulette!” Love it.

      Blessings to you as well, as we make our way into the climax of the story this week(end)!

      (I have one of those posts about interesting mail half-written. 🙂 We’ll see if it ever sees the light of digital day… )

      April 2, 2015
  8. Joyce #

    Since this is apt–have you seen the April issue of Maclean’s magazine which has a large readership? The cover has a depiction of Jesus and wording: The Science is in. JESUS SAVES! (Seriously) That last word in parenthesis in theirs, not mine. The article inside is about young people and belief in God.
    By the way, I very much enjoyed your piece.

    April 2, 2015
    • Thanks for the tip, Joyce. I’ll have to check out the article.

      April 2, 2015
  9. Randy Myers #

    Ryan, thanks for sharing an experience in humanity.

    April 3, 2015

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