To many the use of so-called ‘magic’ in a Christian service is at best a surprise and at worst incompatible. Most gospel magicians will make it clear, however, that there is no such thing as magic - only tricks - and that it is God alone who works miracles. One street magician uses the word MAGIC as an acronym for Me And God In Co-operation.
At the start of some gospel magic services I warn the congregation that the service will contain the use of cards and a range of magic tricks, and if anyone finds these unsuitable I invite them to leave - not the usual opening remarks from a preacher! What I do assure them is that the gospel will be preached, and that no one will fall asleep! No one has ever left!
I always explain that magic is one of four techniques: sleight of hand, gimmick, misdirection or bluff - and that bluff is the hardest. At its most effective magic is a combination of a number of these aspects. Our minds see what they know cannot be true, but accept the visual image. At the end the congregation is reminded that these are only tricks, but as Christians we know that God’s love is revealed only and supremely in Jesus Christ. This faith is not a trick but is real, true and certain because it has transformed our lives.
It is the gospel also. As magic deals with issues of transformation (the change of one material to another different one, such as water to silk), appearance and disappearance (the disappearance of a card to be found in a quite different location from where it was), prediction (predicting home telephone numbers, postcodes, favourite holiday locations etc), penetration (the apparent penetration of one substance by another) and fire magic (using fire to burst out of a Bible, wallet or our hands) it will readily be seen that these lend themselves to the themes of conversion, resurrection, God’s all-knowing nature, the word of God that cuts into our hearts and lives and the fire of the Spirit..
There is a range of classic magic items, most of them readily available, but the challenge is how to relate these to the gospel. Tricks used for their own sake are simply gimmicks and lead us nowhere. Good gospel magic illustrates and reinforces the gospel message. It pulls no punches but is direct and hard-hitting. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t do it.
Certain items have been developed as special gospel items, such silk squares with a picture representing Jesus or a dove, and magic Bibles that change from blank to black-and-white to colour. The Bible can also be used a production tool, producing a candle for the Light of the world, spring flowers for God’s love in creation and fire representing the Spirit at work in our hearts.
Card, silk, rope and fire magic will all be used, and individuals will have their own preference. Some will be street evangelists using magic as a point of contact; some will use the trick to tell the Bible story itself in an unforgettable way; and some will use magic to push home the call for commitment, and re-dedication.
It was some seven years ago whilst taking part on a Christian cabaret evening that I saw a gospel magician who was a local preacher. So effective was the presentation that my response was “I want some of that”. I wasn’t sure I could do it, for I was called to preach the truth beyond all truths. How could I use tricks? My perception since is that not only is it a most effective communication tool with children of all ages, but especially for the unchurched and fringe attenders. They will readily sit, listen and watch to see what will happen, and in doing so will hear about God’s love through Jesus Christ in a way they would not normally consider. Gospel magic is not simply a filler for another in-house church meeting needing a speaker, but a mission tool to reach those outside. It continues to take me to places the church seems often not to reach and, as someone who struggles to be an evangelist, it enables me to declare God’s love and call to people in a challenging way.
An article like this seems a clumsy way to communicate the effect of gospel magic but let me describe four tricks I use and find effective. I will describe the effect only, not revealing how they are done, for the motto of gospel magicians is ‘Keep the secret: tell the truth’.
~**In relating our amazement at Easter and what this means today, I ask for a ring from a volunteer in the congregation. They themselves place this in a wooden box and we tell how the Romans kept a watch on Jesus thinking he was safe. Moving the box from side to side we hear the ring slide about as we narrate the story of Holy Week leading up to the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. The box is placed in a prominent position representing the grave where he was laid. A loaf is then picked up and the meaning of communion explored, whether as memorial or as real presence. Whatever it is it surprises us! Turning to the box the giver of the ring opens it to find the ring has gone - as Jesus was gone. The magician breaks open the bread to reveal the ring, representing the presence of the risen Christ among his followers. This is a strong visual and powerful trick.*~~*A wooden framed mirror is used to represent the words of Philippians 2, how Jesus was full of glory, like a mirror bringing light into the world and showing us our real selves. But he laid his glory aside, and the mirror is covered with a newspaper - as Jesus took on humanity. Three wooden skewers are then pushed through the mirror, breaking through both sides of the paper, representing the nails on the cross: one cross plus three nails equals forgiveness. Though not broken in body, he was broken in spirit and the glass mirror is then bent in two. But Jesus rose again in resurrection glory: the mirror is bent back and the newspaper removed, as the shroud was left in the grave. The mirror is seen to be as it was at the beginning. Christ is risen!*~~*The congregation is shown an empty picture frame, and one member of the congregation chooses a card at random which is placed in a pedestal holder and covered. The person remembers the chosen card and looks in the pedestal to find it vanished, but now clearly framed in the picture frame. When this is the King of Hearts it represents Jesus the King of our hearts; when the Three of Hearts, God’s love in Trinity; when the Ace of Hearts, God’s word breaking into our hearts and transforming us. God’s love may be beyond our understanding but not beyond our experience!*~~*The work of the Spirit in our lives is described, and how ‘A cold Methodist is a contradiction in terms’, for we are called to be on fire for God. A bag is set on fire and the flames leap up, but out of the fire comes peace and certainty. The bag of fire is opened and a live dove is produced, symbolising God’s Spirit and the peace and covenant promise of God to all creation after the flood.**~
Gospel magic will only be for a few preachers, but I did not think it was for me until I tried it! I always ask people not to enquire how I did the trick, but to remember the message. This is gospel! This is magic! We keep the secret, but we tell the truth as it has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the miracle of new creation.
The Revd David Leese is the Superintendent Minister of the Epworth and Crowle Circuit and a member of the Fellowship of Gospel Magicians.
Headline Autumn 2006 pp 17-18