Publicity Stunt or Personal Journey?

Buffalo road sign at Delta Junction, AlaskaPublicity stunt or personal journey? That’s what I’m trying to figure out about the latest pastor (well, he’s now no longer a pastor) to embark on something unorthodox. A California man – a former Seventh-day Adventist pastor and former adjunct Christian college and seminary professor – has embarked on a year of living without God. Ryan Bell’s New Year’s resolution (I think this qualifies as a New Year’s revolution) is to “do whatever I can to enter the world of atheism and live, for a year, as an atheist.” He’s also blogging about his experiment.

I usually roll my eyes and wax on to poor Saint Sam, pontificating on my personal disgust of pastors who use publicity stunts to elucidate their message without realizing that their stunt only patronizes the issue because awareness isn’t the problem. Changed hearts and behaviors of their congregants, in combination to policy changes that tackle the underlying issues that contribute to their issue-du jour, is what is really necessary. I know. You probably got lost in all that verbiage. You now know what Saint Sam must endure.

Let’s see. We’ve had the Mormon bishop in Utah who disguised himself as a homeless person, hanging out before the service. We had the Tennessee Methodist minister who went undercover as a homeless man for a week. We had Florida pastor who issued a 30-day sex challenge to his congregation. He also wrote a book about it. Then there was the Texas pastor who challenged his church to a week of “congregational copulation”.  Her and his wife followed-up their sexperiment by putting a bed on the roof of the church building. He and his wife also wrote a companion sexperiment book.

Before you groan again, I’m only going to mention two more. Rick Warren, of The Purpose-Driven Life fame, confessed to needing to lose 90 pounds and asked his congregation to help him do it. His church collectively lost 250,000 pounds over the course of a year. It’s all in The Daniel Plan book. Rick Warren’s life has always been an open book, most recently with the suicide of his 27 year-old son who struggled with mental illness.

Even I have talked about the Food Stamp Challenge. This one has circulated among clergy, community organizers, food pantries and others for several years. It has been effective is bringing awareness to the difficulty of adequately feeding a person on $4.38/day or $133.41/month. But that’s where it stops – awareness of how difficult it is to eat on $4.39/person/day. It doesn’t begin to address the real difficulty a person or family has living a subsistence life. We have a kitchen, a rack of spices, other items already in our pantries, and don’t need to “trade” our food stamps to buy toilet paper or soap. Doing the food stamp challenge doesn’t begin to educate us on how depressing, humiliating, exhausting and frustrating it is to be poor in our society.

And that’s my point. Life is a complex, chaotic connection. A publicity stunt may bring an awareness that there is an issue. Homelessness, lack of intimacy in relationships, unhealthy lifestyles, food insecurities, and doubts in one’s faith are issues some or many of us face. But they didn’t become issues in our life or the lives of others overnight. A host of factors and choices contributed to the reasons these are now issues in someone’s life. And they are not all factors or choices that any one person has ultimate control over. It’s only one piece of a larger puzzle with many if-this-then-thats or if-this-or-thats.

It still takes a personal journey and, often a commitment to public policy informed by a personal journey, that will ultimately determine whether something was merely a publicity stunt or truly an act of transformation. Sadly, most fall into the publicity stunt with an added financial book bonus. The personal journey is much more difficult, takes much longer, and can be lonely or isolating. I do know this: publicity stunts don’t change anything.

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