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For your encouragement and instruction…here are some articles relating to the ministry of the Christian Illusionist…
NOTE – The articles on this page follow one another. Just keep scrolling down.
Article #1. “Gospel Magic: Brief History and Specific Purpose
Article #2. “The Dumbing Down Of Things I Care About”
Article #3. “Not Just About The Music”
Article #4. “Does Every Trick Need A Message?”
Article #5. “Is It Time To Go Full Time?”
Article #6. “Twenty-Five Years…”
Article #7. Where Have We Been
Article #8. The Gospel Is Not An Excuse For Doing A Magic Trick
Article #9. When Humor Makes A Message Memorable
Article #10. In Defense Of The Hippity Hop Rabbits
Gospel Magic: Brief History And Specific Purpose
By Duane Laflin
A critical question for gospel magicians to ask themselves is, “Why do I do gospel magic? A matter gospel magicians must guard themselves against is the temptation to use the church and ministry settings as an excuse to do magic. A gospel magician is a “magician.” Magicians typically enjoy showing their tricks to anyone who will watch. More than a few magicians are diligently on a search to find audiences for their magic. The quest for an audience can lead a performer to think, “Hey, I can do my magic for churches!”
Gospel magic happens in churches and other places, but it is not about viewing religious events as an “easy audience.” It is about using magic to reach people for Christ and to teach spiritual truth. Gospel magic must happen with proper motivation. Proper motivation comes from the heart. Proper motivation is guided by belief that God can use the techniques of a magician, in tandem with biblical lessons, to evangelize and edify.
The history of gospel magic provides a reminder as to why gospel magic was done in the first place and why it yet should be done today.
The Short History Of Gospel Magic
In light of history, the art of using magic tricks to convey spiritual truth is relatively new. The first book on gospel magic Seeing Truth: Object Lessons with Magical and Mechanical Effects was published a little more than one-hundred years ago (1910). The International Fellowship Of Christian Magicians has existed less than seventy years. Apart from reference to the work of one Catholic priest, there is no record of the work of any gospel magician before the year 1900.
However, a connection between magic tricks and religion does go back more than four-hundred years. In 1584 A.D. an English gentlemen, by the name of Reginald Scot, published a book titled The Discovery of Witchcraft. The fundamental purpose of his book was to educate the public to the fact that witchcraft was not real. He was hoping to stop the persecution which occurred in those days of people who were thought to be witches. Unfortunately, much of the persecution was done by the established church. People who believed themselves to be spiritually minded were doing terrible things to those who they thought were using the power of the devil.
In his effort to bring the truth to light, one of the things Scot did was expose the work of conmen and entertainers who could do seemingly miraculous things. He gave detailed descriptions of their devices including explanations of how to do sleight of hand with money, how to do card tricks and how to restore something seen broken or torn. Chapters of his book contained information on how to create shocking effects such as pushing metal into the eye and bringing it back out through the forehead, or making one’s nose seem to be cut off and then come back into place again. There are many who say his book was the first real book on how to do magic tricks.
By showing the reality of sleight of hand effects and optical illusions, Scot was trying to keep the church from error. Some paid attention to his work and gained important understanding. Others rejected his work and claimed he too was in league with the devil. It is a popular belief, not clearly verified but seemingly true, that when King James the First came to the throne, an effort was made to burn all obtainable copies of Scot’s book.
About two hundred fifty years later the ministry of Giovanni Melchiorre Bosco took place. He was an Italian Catholic priest who, when yet in his youth, had been exposed to the methods of circus performers and magicians. Bosco had a heart for underprivileged children and used his magic tricks to win their confidence and teach them about God. Biographies of Bosco tell of him doing magic shows for groups of children, then afterwards preaching a short sermon. As his ministry continued, he eventually started using some of his tricks as direct illustrations of spiritual truth. According to the National Catholic Register blog of January 31, 2017, Bosco was especially good at tying three ropes together to form one seamless rope in order to explain the mystery of the Most Blessed Trinity.
Bosco, commonly referred to as Don Bosco is seen as the Patron Saint of Catholic Magicians and, specifically, Catholic Gospel Magicians. Associations such as the Society of American Magicians and International Brotherhood of Magicians have respect and appreciation for his legacy.
Don Bosco left this world in 1888. His ministry involved teaching and writing. It is logical to assume there were those, living in days immediately after him, who were influenced by him to use magic tricks in their own ministry.
It is also logical to assume, in those days, there were others beside a Catholic priest who used magic in ministry. In the year 1910, around the world from Italy, a man by the name of Rev. C.H. Woolston, who was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, published a book, Seeing Truth: Object Lessons with Magical and Mechanical Effects. The book contained forty-three gospel magic illustrations plus chapters on the use of magic tricks in ministry.
On the dedication page of Woolston’s book these words are found:
“To the one-hundred thousand little children who have both seen and heard these object lessons.”
That means, leading up to 1910, Woolston had already been busy in gospel magic ministry. To reach one hundred thousand children, his work as a baptist preacher doing magic tricks must have been going on for some years previously.
Another preacher, the Rev. J. Wilbur Chapman, testified to Woolston’s effectiveness by writing these words as an introduction to Woolston’s book:
“Ministers heard him with profit, Sunday School teachers caught from him suggestions which strengthened their own work; while children thronged every service he conducted, and sat in wonder and amazement, as he, by some simple object, gave them a warning concerning sin, or a vision of the savior.”
Once again, such words indicate active ministry with gospel magic in America before the year 1910.
Of special significance is the prelude to Woolston’s book which was written by the great magician Howard Thurston. Thurston said:
“I believe in this unique method of teaching great and important religious truths. In the early history of the church false teachers used the art of magic to disturb the peace and confuse the thoughts of the faithful. This they did by the performance of false miracles and a sham display of supposed supernatural powers. In this book the author who is a famous illustrator has employed the art of magic to illuminate and illustrate the holy truths of our faith and so in this day of light and grace magic has become a teacher and defender of Christianity.”
Although there is little historical information to aid in gauging the influence of Woolston’s book, it definitely did have an impact on Christian ministry. Five years after the book’s release, in the introduction to a second gospel magic book titled, “Penny Object Lessons,” authored by Rev. Woolson in collaboration with Rev. Frank B. Lane and Evangelist Homer Rodeheaver, there is reference to a movement known as the Use of Magical Objects in Spiritual and Moral Teachings. The statement is made that “All others who use them” (reference to magical object lessons) “have gotten their ideas from Dr. Woolston and Dr. Lane.” A key phrase in that statement is “all others who use them.” People were reading Woolston’s book and applying what they learned.
According to Stan Adair, in his book What A Fellowship (A history of the Fellowship Of Christian Magicians), in 1911 Rev. Woolston started a group for men and women who wanted to use magic tricks as object lessons in ministry. The group was called, “The Gospel Illustrators Of America.” In following years this group held several conventions where their creative teaching methods were passed on to others. Sunday Schools and churches across America were influenced by their work.
From the early 1900’s until 1953, gospel magic continued to be a tool used in ministry. Here are a few news clippings from the span of those years. As well, during that time a variety of books on the subject were published including: How To interest the Young In Bible Truths (Charles B. Donle -1919), Magic For Ministers and The Conjurer In Church (Rev. T. V. Vorhees – 1928), Junior Magic Sermon Talks (J.B. Sessler – 1942), Talking Object Lessons (Rev. Elmer Wilder – 1942), Conjuring For The Clergy (Dr. Michael St. John – 1947), Magical Object Lessons (Rev. J. B. Maxwell -1949), More Magical Object Lessons (Rev. J. B. Maxwell – 1950), Still More Magical Object Lessons (Rev. J. B. Maxwell 1951?), and Lessons In Scripture (Rev. Donald E. Bodley – 1951). Those who know general magic history will be impressed to learn that, in 1928, Harlan Tarbell (author of the famous Tarbell Course in magic), released a book on Chalk Talks for Sunday School. This means the famous magician was also involved in ministry work.
Note: Other books were published as well. It is doubtful anyone has a complete list of the gospel magic books put into print during the early to mid 1900’s.
A major event in gospel magic history occurred in 1953 when the Fellowship Of Christian Magicians was formed. The first meeting of the group was November 27, 1953. It happened in San Francisco, California. During the early years of its existence this group had its struggles to keep going, but it did survive to become the primary source of communication and education for gospel magicians for the next sixty years and more on a worldwide basis. At its height, the organization had thousands of members and was represented in many countries.
The Fellowship Of Christian Magicians, better known as FCM, continues until this day, but in recent years has been on the decline. Over time many organizations have their ups and downs. In the present, the FCM seems to be struggling with adjusting to the unique demands of the 21st century, but current leadership is determined to make the adjustments and see the organization once again thrive.
In the early 1980’s, in an effort to assuage concerns among Christians about the appropriateness of using magic tricks in a church setting, the term Christian Illusionist was coined. Pastor and gospel magician Duane Laflin introduced the term by way of first applying it to his own work and then, in 1988, sharing it with the annual convention of the Fellowship Of Christian Magicians at Winona Lake, Indiana. In a lecture he explained how he had tried using other terms such as “creating surprise for the eyes,” to put church leaders at ease about magic. Through trial and error he discovered that the term “illusionist” did not seem to have the same negative connotations “magician” did. Churches who would not book a Gospel Magician would book a “Christian Illusionist.” The word illusionist was less controversial because it seemed to indicate the performance to consist of only things that deceive the eyes whereas “magic” seemed, at least to some, to indicate a supernatural effort. (It is of interest that in European countries the word “Conjurer” has the same effect. Christian groups there deem it less controversial than the term “magician.” In the USA “Conjurer” would be just as controversial, maybe more so than “magician.”)
From the mid 1990’s forward a number of young gospel magicians have adopted the title of Christian Illusionist and become busy doing programs for churches. Among them are Brock Gill, Harris III, David Laflin and Brett Myers. (A check of the internet will reveal a long list of individuals who now refer to themselves as “Christian Illusionists.”) These performers are aware of the Fellowship Of Christian Magicians and appreciative of its members, but tend to keep themselves separate from the organization. Their approach and style is more current and “hip” than that of the traditional gospel magician. These “Christian Illusionists” seem to enjoy broader acceptance by church and ministry groups than do gospel magicians. They are valued and used for many events.
The important thing is whether a Christian Illusionist or a Gospel Magician (or a mix of both), magic continues to be a vehicle for illustrating the gospel and presenting spiritual truth.
At this present time there are many people in many places around the globe who use magic tricks in ministry. Therefore the history of gospel magic is not over. It will continue to be written by Christian magicians who take it further forward into the 21st Century.
Practical applications of the history of gospel magic
#1. To expose fakers and deceivers
The work of Reginald Scot with his The Discovery of Witchcraft is a reminder of one of the practical purposes of modern gospel magic. It is a tool for reminding Christian people of the need to be wise about fakers. A person who tells people he is going to fool them and then does so as entertainment, can convey the need to watch out for those who will fool for illicit reasons.
In Matthew 10:16 Jesus Christ told His disciples to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” God’s people are to be informed and discerning. They are to understand that, even apart from supernatural happenings, there are many mysteries in this world. No one knows everything. There is a need to understand and guard against Satan’s devices (II Corinthians 2:11). There is a need to guard against human devices (II John 1:7). Christians have a spiritual responsibility to be reasonable. In the book of Acts, in nine different places, we are told how the ministry of the Apostle Paul involved logical and sometimes lengthy explanations. (Acts 17:2, 17:17; 18:4, 18:19; 19:8, 19:9; 20:7, 20:9; 24:25). Rather than being afraid of things that challenge the mind, Christians should appreciate intellectual challenges. The mind must be applied to sorting out the difference between fact and myth. A magician who uses the tricks of his trade to illustrate biblical concepts can help people do this.
A great example is Danny Korem. His first profession was that of a professional magician. In particular, he was a mentalist. As time went by he developed a deep interest in the psychological and social aspects of deception. He became motivated to investigate claims of paranormal powers and to expose those who fraudulently claim to have psychic abilities. Now he is a sought-after speaker who comes in to churches, civic groups and government agencies to help people protect themselves from fakers. His knowledge of the work of a magician is used to stand against those who want to deceive the public in the worst possible ways.
An equally great example is Andre Kole. Mr. Kole has now retired his touring show. There was a time when he traveled the world with his illusions. After amazing and mystifying his audiences, He would tell of his faith in Jesus Christ. His primary focus was sharing the gospel, but he too worked to expose fraudulent claims of supernatural power. His book, Miracles or Magic? which deals with such subjects as ESP, fortune telling, UFO’s, and astrology, is a great resource to those seeking spiritual understanding.
Recently (January of 2017), Rod Robinson, Dr. Toby Travis and Adrian Van Vactor teamed up to write Unmasking the Masquerade: Three Illusionists Investigate Deception, Fear and the Supernatural. The description of the book is:
“Three internationally-known illusionists boldly reveal the powerful secrets behind the supernatural, psychic ability and the limits of Satan: – Do some humans have supernatural powers? – Is it possible to read minds? – How do psychics get their secret information? – Could the miracles of Jesus have been an illusion? – Should we be afraid of Satan? Solid answers and amazing personal stories make this a fascinating read.”
Once again we have magicians working to help the public become aware of the techniques of deceivers.
#2. To attract an audience
As a Catholic priest, Don Bosco saw many children outside the church who he knew would not be interested in coming to the church. He realized the necessity to attract their attention through means other than the church. Magic tricks were his tool. By way of entertaining the children and becoming their friend through his performances, he won their confidence. Once he had their confidence, they would listen to him as he told them about God.
A wonderful modern example of this same understanding is, once again, Andre Kole. As an illusionist he was able to take the gospel to seventy-nine countries and millions of people. He often worked in secular situations such as college campuses where he challenged unchurched and unbelieving young adults to know the truth of Christ. By way of the interest he created as a magician, he was able to reach audience
Felix Snipes (December 20, 1933 – June 11, 2010) was one of the most effective evangelists ever used by Southern Baptist churches. He has been inducted into their “Hall of Faith,” which is, for evangelists, similar to baseball’s “Hall of Fame.” For years Felix traveled America sharing the gospel on nearly every weekend. Many came to salvation through his work. Felix was a skillful magician. He used magic tricks, mentalism and comedy to attract audiences. His programs often brought record attendance. His work is another example of magic being an attraction which leads to exposure to the gospel.
In the New Testament, Romans 10:13 declares,
“For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
The next verse, Romans 10:14 asks,
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
This Roman text is making it plain that people must hear the gospel in order to believe it. If they are to hear the gospel they must be in a situation wherein they are exposed to the gospel. For true evangelism to occur, believers must interact with unbelievers.
It is common for modern churches to find themselves facing a problem in the effort to interact with unbelievers. The problem exists because unbelievers usually are not interested in attending church nor overtly “religious” events. People who do not know the Lord are not attracted to testimonies of faith and the preaching of the gospel.
If churches are to reach those who do not care about church, they must create points of connection through things that do interest unbelievers. Magical entertainment is something that interests people from all walks of life. Not only is it a legitimate use of magic, it is an effective use of magic to create events which attract audiences that churches might not otherwise reach. A gospel magician can do his tricks to bring in a crowd. Then he can tell the crowd about a God who loves them and a savior who made it possible for them to have everlasting life.
#3. To make lessons meaningful and memorable
This seems to be the cause for the excitement Rev. Charles Woolston and his associates felt in the early 1900’s. Their experience was showing them, when magic tricks were used as illustrations of spiritual truth, children and adults did get the message. Here are the words of Rev. A.L. Philips, written on June 16th, 1910, about the methods of Charles Woolston.
“Someone has called the eye the ‘broker of the soul.’ Surely no other worker brings so many “things” to the soul of a child as its eye. No mental trait is more in evidence in the child’s life than wonder, which must ever remain an easy venue of approach for the teacher. Dr. Woolston has discovered a rarely attractive and effective method of exciting the child’s wonder through the eye.”
Anyone who is serious about teaching will know that a “picture is worth a thousand words” and people remember lessons best when they can both see and hear what is taught.
If one moves from the world of secular academics to Scripture, many examples can be found of objects and events used for purposes of communication. To indicate the coming ruin of a city, Ezekiel dropped a sword. To proclaim the results of sin, Jeremiah broke a potter’s vessel. To prophecy the breakup of a kingdom, Abijah tore his garment into pieces. The design and furnishings of the Old Testament tabernacle and temple provided an extensive opportunity for teaching and memory aids. Even the details of construction were illustrations of spiritual truth. (These are examples Woolston suggested in his book).
In the New Testament the example of our Lord Jesus Christ is profuse with visual illustrations. He gave the open testimony of baptism. At His baptism the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove. The bread and cup were to be reminders of the body of Christ and His sacrifice. At the site of physical healing He would often convey an eternal lesson. When asked about paying taxes, Jesus asked someone to show a coin. Many believe that when Jesus spoke His parables, some of His stories could have been seen “in action” while He spoke, such as the parable of the sower. People may have actually watched a sower at work, while Christ told of seed landing on different types of soil. Jesus spoke of “red sky at night” as an example of people knowing signs for predicting weather yet not heeding God’s signs. He referred to a tower-building accident, which was current news in His ancient day, and used it to emphasize the need for forethought. When He saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the lake He said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” He used the observation of a widow making a pitiful contribution to the treasury to make a powerful lesson about the true nature of giving to God. To use object lessons in teaching is to follow the example of Jesus Christ Himself.
When used properly, magic tricks can be great object lessons. The mystery aspect of a trick holds the attention of a student. The visual result of a trick may be long remembered. The way a trick can simply yet amplify a Bible truth can lead to quick and obvious understanding.
From the 1970’s into the 1990’s evangelist Darwin Merrill traveled America and Mexico with a ministry of gospel magic in context of revival meetings. His standard format was to be in a church for five to seven nights in a row. Each night he would do fifteen minutes of magic tricks with spiritual lessons. This was followed by a sermon of about forty-five minutes in length. It was not uncommon for someone to suggest his magical lessons were better understood and remembered than were his sermons. (He was a good preacher. It was simply a matter of the magic lessons being especially effective.)
In 2018 a woman describing herself as “The Scripture Lady” puts up material on Pinterest. She says,
“Sharing a Gospel Magic trick is one of the most effective ways I know to present the Good News of Jesus to children (of all ages). Gospel Mage Tricks are Bible object lessons on steroids and your kids WILL NOT forget them.”
Also in 2018, a resource for church workers known as Creative Ministry Solutions, says,
“Gospel magic is an effective tool for explaining spiritual truths creatively. Moreover, the trick itself is a visual aid to help people comprehend and remember the truth.”
Many members of the International Fellowship Of Christian Magicians, and many who serve the Lord in places small and large around the world, can add testimony from that gospel magic does work to make lessons meaningful and memorable.
A short look at the history of gospel magic reminds the gospel magician of what must be the motivation in using magic tricks in church and ministry. The magician is to present his or her combination of illusions and scriptural truth to help people escape spiritual deception, to attract them to a situation where they can hear the gospel message, and to teach them biblical concepts in an easily comprehended manner which will be long-remembered.
Gospel magic is not about doing magic in church. It is about using magic as a tool in reaching people for Christ.
The Dumbing Down of Things I Care about
Some may view this article as “upsetting of the apple cart.” Nevertheless, I write deliberately with the intention of doing some good. There are problems I think can be corrected, if people will face the truth and take proper action.
Earlier in my career I addressed these same problems and received criticism for doing so. Several sent harsh and disparaging words my way. Few were willing to consider my observations or do anything about them.
The hassle and fuss that came back at me, and the lack of positive response to my suggestions, led me to think I should keep my mouth shut. It seemed a waste of effort to try to talk to people who would not listen. I stepped away from the controversy and went about my own business.
Years have gone by. Over time, I have seen the things I was concerned about, and which I predicted, come to pass.
Now I am at a crossroads. I can continue to keep my mouth shut, which means I ultimately give up things I care about…or I can choose to speak out and risk whatever flak might come my way. Maybe it is wisdom. Maybe it is just age. Whatever the case, I’ve decided to speak out. My feeling is, if I do not try to address the issues now, it will soon become too late to address them at all.
What follows is a short explanation of matters about which I am concerned and what I think can be done about then.
Relating to gospel magic, I’ve seen an organization that once was large and thriving dwindle to the point of struggling to survive. The first time I ever attended a conference of the Fellowship Of Christian Magicians (FCM) over a thousand people were in attendance. For a number of years that many and more would show up for each annual convention. Along with large attendance at the annual convention, there were numerous regional conventions across America attended by hundreds of people. In those days, the regional conventions had a larger attendance then the national convention does now.
At the present, annual conventions of the FCM may not even draw two hundred people. Most of the regional conventions no longer exist. The membership of the organization has become an embarrassingly small portion of what it used to be.
Over past decades, rather than experiencing growth and advancement, the ministry of gospel magicians has stagnated and maybe even diminished.
Relating to clowning, I remember when there was an abundance of conferences for clowns happening across the USA and almost all of them were well attended. Speakers at these events were professional entertainers who generated motivation and excitement about clowning as a performing art, a discipline to be respected, and as a way to make a good living.
Now, many clown conventions are only a shell of what they used to be. Gatherings that used to attract three or four hundred people presently count their blessings if fifty or sixty people show up. As well, professionals and star performers rarely make an appearance at these events. When hired to come in to teach and speak, the pros will still be there, but not many conventions have the money to pay professional fees. What they are doing otherwise does not prompt the professionals to come without pay.
In general, clowning has moved from being a performing art to become little more than a matter of putting on a costume and telling lame jokes.
Further insight on how clowning is changed is the fact that presently, at most clown conventions, face-painters outnumber performing clowns at a three to one ratio or more. A convention I recently attended, which was attended by about one hundred individuals, had about seventy-five face-painters. Twenty-five or less of those in attendance actually did clown shows. There is nothing wrong with face-painting. It is a good thing, but what happened to the concept of clowns getting up in front of crowds of people and providing great entertainment?
Relating to magic, some good things are happening, but there is yet plenty to be concerned about. The annual conventions of the International Brotherhood Of Magicians and the Society Of American Magicians used to be much larger than they are now. It is safe to say attendance at such events is about one-fourth of what it was twenty years ago.
Numerous smaller and regional magic conventions have fallen by the wayside. With the exception of MAGIC LIVE, I hear many saying, “Magic conventions just don’t work anymore.”
Note: The success of MAGIC LIVE is cause for serious thought. It shows, if done correctly a magic convention can yet do extremely well nowadays. I will say more about it later in this article.
What has happened?
It is risky to try to answer the question with a short statement, but I will do so. In my opinion, these particular groups were “dumbed down.” The dumbing down resulted in people no longer valuing what the organizations offer.
How did the dumbing down occur? Here are three things to consider…
- Conventions and conferences became dealer-driven.
Organizers who either wanted to save money or increase their profit margin looked for ways to avoid paying for talent. Instead of bringing in qualified speakers/teachers who would present true educational content, they were content to trade out a dealer space for a teaching session.
It works like this: A person with things to sell says, “If you give me a couple of teaching sessions and a place to display my products, I will teach for free!” The convention organizer says, “Great, I like free. I will make you a featured guest.”
Some dealers are professional quality performers and do a good job teaching. Others are not good performers nor good teachers.
With even dealers who are good teachers and performers, a challenge appears which often leads to the compromise of the quality of their teaching. Since they are not getting paid to be at the conference, and since they may have turned down other work to attend the conference, they find themselves in a situation where they must make good sales. It is the only way they can get money from the event. Therefore, rather than building a lecture around what does the audience need to know the presentation is built around what do I have to sell?
I remember a conversation with a well-known magician. We were discussing the performances we would do later that evening on a convention show. He said, “At an event like this, if I don’t have it to sell, I don’t use it in a show!” As far as he was concerned, even his on-stage performance was a sales pitch.
Over time, at many conferences and conventions, the teaching sessions have become infomercials. People are not learning what they need to know. They are not being motivated to master an art. They are not being taught the artistic and crafted aspect of what they do. They are simply being urged to buy more things. The dumbing down has occurred.
2. Organizers have been seduced by the idea that bigger and more is better.
I will directly say this is a huge problem with the Fellowship of Christian Magicians. Years ago, several decided the fact that the national conference offered forty or more lectures in five days was something to brag about. If all forty lectures were top-notch presentations made by well-qualified instructors it might have been something to brag about. That was not the case.
Since many of these lectures happened at the same time, and a human being cannot be in two places at once, how did having more lectures make things better? I know there were times when I was personally disappointed because two teachers I wanted to hear were on at the same time. I had to choose one over the other. This meant I was forced to miss a session I would have valued. At times there were as many as seven lectures going on at the same time. If all the lectures were terrific presentations, it was still only possible for a person to sit in on one of them at a time.
The biggest problem was that it was not possible to properly compensate forty good instructors, or even twenty (if each instructor did two sessions). This meant, instructors could not be compensated, which in turn meant instructors would mostly be those who had something to sell. This once again led to more informercials than quality information.
Then times came where good instructors were not available to fill all the slots on a schedule. An effort would be made to find ‘someone’ to do it. The qualification for doing the job basically became ‘anyone who is willing and available.’ The person to volunteer would have good intentions and maybe good ideas, but not the understanding or experience to truly help students become better at what they do.
To say it directly: The effort to fill all the slots on an abundantly busy schedule occasionally resulted in unqualified teachers being given positions of influence. “The blind leading the blind.” The situation was established for dumbing down.
Apart from the Fellowship Of Christian Magicians, other magic and clown organizations made the same mistake of sacrificing quality for quantity. To get more teachers/instructors, they found people who would work cheap or for free just to get their name on the schedule. They tried to do big shows without the help and involvement of experienced producers and performers. They committed to using large and costly convention facilities. To afford fancy venues, they further compromised compensation for teachers and performers. Attendees found themselves in big places with impressive architecture while watching badly done shows and attending ineffective teaching sessions.
Convention attendance began to drop. People who attended once, did not attend again. They did not want to be part of the unprofessional, non-productive and sometimes hokey way things were done. Along with staying away, they voiced their disappointment to others, which kept others away as well.
When attendance dropped, organizers found themselves struggling to pay for venues and other costs relating to their events. In many cases decisions were made to cease doing the events. With the demise of events and/or the compromise of the quality of events, the organizations themselves started to die.
3. Cronyism led to disappointed audiences and unhappy attendees.
The dictionary definition of cronyism is: “The appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority, without proper regard to their qualifications.”
The fact that a person is a friend, or even that the person has served an organization for years, does not mean the person has the right to be featured as a teacher or performer at a convention where people have paid to come and learn “from the best.”
I certainly believe in showing appreciation to those who make sacrifices for sake of an organization, but I do not believe the appreciation should necessarily be in the form of “giving them the right to be on stage.”
People who are great administers can still be pitiful performers. Knowing how to handle a business meeting does not mean someone can entertain an audience.
When I was young in my career as a magician I learned a former president of the Society Of American Magicians would be performing at a local motel. I was excited to see him and expected an amazing magic show. I will never forget how shocked I was at his ineptitude. He wasn’t even a mediocre performer. He was bad. However he apparently had been a good president. In time, I leaned that people rarely become presidents of magic societies because they are great performers. They usually gain the position by way of service to the organization. That is fine, but we then should not feature these people on stage (unless they are the exceptions which are both great administrators and performers.)
When it comes to positions within an organization and the meetings of an organization, there is a need for people who are given jobs to be able to do them well. When people are given jobs/positions simply because “it is their turn” or because “we like him/her” it can result in incompetence in important places. Incompetence in important places means dumbing down occurs.
I’m sure it happens in almost all social situations, but it seems especially easy for gatherings of magicians, clowns, and variety entertainers to become controlled by “good ol boys” who look out for one-another and keep each other in power. When we put people in leadership because they are friends or “fixtures” in an organization, rather than because they are wonderfully qualified for the task, we dumb down the organization.
What can be done about this? I think the solution is simple. I think the organizers of MAGIC LIVE have it figured out. I think it is the reason MAGIC LIVE has done so well when so many other conventions are either dying or dead. (In time they may lose sight of what is making their event great, but I hope not.)
- Conventions and conferences must feature highly qualified and competent instructors/performers.
I don’t think it possible to overestimate the importance of organizations putting on great shows and having extremely well done teaching sessions. To a large degree, shows and teaching sessions set the standard.
What is seen on stage is typically viewed as representative of the organization itself. People look up on stage and think, This is who we are! This is what this group is about! If they don’t like what they see on stage, or what they experience in teaching sessions, they will lose faith in the organization.
It is a matter of perception. What people see on stage and platform either inspires or disheartens. Bad shows and anemic lectures will kill a convention. As they become identified and associated with an organization, in time they may kill the organization. It is just that simple.
On the other hand, the opportunity to see great performances and learn from stars in one’s discipline motivates people to be at a convention and support an organization.
Therefore, for entertainment/performance oriented organizations, strict attention and serious effort must be applied to putting wonderful shows and grand teaching sessions in front of the people.
Note: The Fellowship Of Christian Magicians is the organization I care about most deeply. It is time to be firm about the quality of shows seen at its conventions.
This past summer, at the international conference, the Sunday Night show was awful. The sponsoring church had been invited to see this show. After seeing it, I cannot imagine anyone coming back to sit through other shows on following nights of the week.
The reason the show was so bad was its structure and the sloppy way it was organized. The individual performers on the show were all good. Some were exceptionally good. They all could have truly shined, if the show had been properly produced. As it was, there was no pre-show or post-show music. The mood in the room before the show was one of general confusion. No one seemed to know how to operate the stage lights. There was no sense to the running order. There was apparently no thought put into how props would be moved on and off stage. The show was thrown together in a way suggesting whoever was in charge did not really care to do things properly or else did not know how to do things properly. Maybe both of these things were true.
It is blunt criticism, but needs to be made. I was embarrassed for the organization and made up my mind to say something about it. Shows like that cannot be allowed at the conference. If the organization is to move forward to better things, something must be done about the quality of all of its evening shows.
2. Quality must be put above quantity.
Do it right, do it well, or don’t do it at all. If “more” is not good quality, “more” is not better. To those who organize conferences and conventions I plead, “Get it in your head, a few great instructors are much better than many mediocre instructors!”
Embracing this concept can help organizers financially. There will be those who say, “We just can’t afford to bring in professional instructors.” Maybe the problem is trying to feature too many instructors at the same event. Why not set apart compensation for just one or two “name” performer/instructors. Build the event around them. Have fewer teachers and more general sessions, rather than trying to fill the schedule with multiple second-rate options.
Apart from how speakers can be compensated, it is time to see that being a dealer does not automatically qualify one to be a teacher/performer. One reason why convention schedules get expanded to several lectures in every time slot is to allow everyone who wants to teach the opportunity to do so. Many who want to teach, mainly want a session so they can demonstrate their products (sales pitch). Others may not want to sell. Their desire to share may be sincere. However, this does not mean they will necessarily be a good teacher, nor does sincerity alone make them qualified to teach.
I’m not against many people being given opportunity to teach, but I am against expanding a convention schedule solely for the purpose of making room for more speakers. The priority should be that of putting qualified and competent speakers in front of people. Much more important than “how many speakers” should be “how effective are these speakers.”
In reference to “MAGIC LIVE,” one will not find an effort to offer forty lectures nor a concern to schedule a large number of teaching sessions. The concern is for quality in every session. The end result is a valued and appreciated event.
No matter what the circumstance, there must be the understanding that quality matters! Better to keep it small, yet extremely well done, than have it huge, but poorly done.
3. Hard choices must be made for the sake of the greater good.
If we care about an organization, whether it be the Fellowship Of Christian Magicians, the World Clown Association or the International Brotherhood of Magicians, we must put the needs of the many over the desires of a few.
Leadership must be selected on the basis of merit. We cannot allow the future of the organization to be sacrificed on the altar of not wanting to hurt the feelings of a friend.
Obviously, every effort should be made to not hurt anyone’s feelings and to show appreciation to all. Yet when specific issues come up, “who knows who” should be set aside and the “best man for the job” should be put in place.
Apart from the matter of individuals, there must be a overall willingness to change. If the way something has always been done is no longer effective, then that something should no longer be done. Keeping the “old guard” happy is not worth the loss of progress and fruitful endeavor. The world is constantly changing. Although the fundamental mission and message of an organization may never change, to maintain relevance, the methods of an organization will often need to be adjusted.
If we insist on doing things the way they have always been done, we get left behind in this world which is continually moving forward.
More could be said about all of this, but this is all I will say for now, with the exception of a final thought…
I am trying to practice what I preach. In the effort to put my opinions to the test, we have been conducting small conferences at our studio near Branson, Missouri. At these events we put quality above quantity. We work hard to put on spectacular shows. We have a limited and select group of qualified instructors that are committing to teaching extremely well.
With little advertising, and only a brief time of promotion, we are already having greater attendance and support at our events than I know of at any FCM regional conferences, and we are getting a better turnout than what is presently experienced at smaller magic and clown conventions which have been in place for years.
For me, this is evidence of the desire people have to attend and support events/organizations that insist on excellence. Interest in using magic in ministry, in doing magic well, and in making people happy is as strong as ever. When people learn of events which help them with these things, and know the events are well worth their time and effort to attend, they will attend.
The way to stop the “dumbing down” is a new level of insistence on high quality events characterized, in every aspect, by excellence. It is time for individuals to demand it. It is time for organizers and those in leadership to discipline themselves to achieve it.
It Is Not Just About The Music
(Magicians, this applies to you too!)
In preparing for my speech at the recent gathering of the BGSSA (Branson Gospel Singers Songwriters Association) I came across a fascinating study. It had to do with the visual versus audio aspects of performance. Although primarily a lesson for musicians, it is something to which magicians and variety entertainers should give attention.
A Social Psychologist of University College London, reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shared findings showing people are much more influenced by what they see than what they hear.
This conclusion was based on a study involving twelve-hundred volunteers, including professional musicians and novices, who were asked to evaluate recordings from the top three finalists in ten international singing competitions. Some of the volunteers were given only audio recordings. Some were given only video recordings. From the recordings, whether audio only or video only, the volunteers were asked to pick who they thought were the actual contest winners.
The group given audio only was able to correctly identify a contest winner less than one-third of the time. Their success rate was less than 33%.
This was a surprise. Before the experiment began, more than 83% of the test group had said, “Audio is the key criterion.” Almost all participants were confident, that for a singing competition, it would be easy to pick out the winners just by hearing individuals sing. This did not turn out to be true.
An even bigger surprise came from the group given video only. They heard no vocals nor any sound, yet more than 50% of the time, just from seeing silent video, this group picked the actual contest winners. Their success rate was 53%.
About this unexpected discovery the Social Psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay said, “These findings point to a powerful effect of vision-biased preferences on selection processes even at the highest levels of performance.” (In simpler words…”Audiences are more impressed by what they see than by what they hear, this even applies to comparing super talented performers.”)
About this same study, Daniel Levitin, a Music Neuropsychologist at McGill University in Montreal, said, “For pianists or violinists who toil for countless hours on competition repertoire, the study may be sending a message: go see a stylist or a wardrobe consultant.”
Look again at Mr. Levitin’s observation: “Go see a stylist or wardrobe consultant.” His opinion of the lesson to be learned is, even if it is a music competition, winning may have more to do with style than talent! (An additional observation, reported after the release of the study, was that many musicians were frustrated by the results of the study. They want to think it is all about the music when it turns out it is really about how the music is presented.)
What does this say to other kinds of performers such as magicians? It reinforces a concept some know, some do not know well enough, and some do not seem to understand at all: How we look matters. Wardrobe matters. Gestures matter. Expressions matter. The way a performer dresses himself and presents himself matters.
It contradicts the attitude of more than a few amateur magicians that it is the trick that matters. As long as the trick is good, everything else will be fine. These individuals tend to work hard on moves and technique while neglecting personal appearance and showmanship. They see no problem in wearing street clothes on stage while trying to do a magic show. As far as they are concerned, “Since I am doing some really good tricks, the audience will have no problem viewing me as a magician.”
The study suggests the need for an opposite focus. If performers do not dress for the occasion, the audience may find it hard to take them seriously. The magician will be evaluated as “a guy who can do tricks” rather than a “competent” or “professional” entertainer.
This is not to advocate sloppy moves and weak tricks. The lesson is about the validity of the need to “dress for success.” If we really want to get more shows, especially if we hope for higher-level performance opportunities, we need to “look the part.” Knowing how to properly stand and move, and making the effort to “look good,” is critical to a performer’s career.
If a magician is frustrated by the fact that he can “Do some really great magic,” but no one wants to book him,” maybe it is time to think more about what Chia-Jung Tsay termed “vision-based preference.” The overall look and image of one’s show does matter!
Why not do our tricks extremely well and have great style? Why not practice our “moves” and work on our image? When we excel in both areas we increase the likelihood of being viewed as competent and professional. As well, we will set ourselves up for greater work opportunities and compensation.
- Maybe it is time to invest in a new costume rather than in a new trick
- Maybe it is time to read a book on showmanship rather than one on card sleights
- Maybe it is time to add music, or more and better music, to a show
- Maybe it is time to clean and refurbish some props
- Maybe it is time to rehearse a full presentation, rather than just checking to see if we can remember how a trick works
Does Every Trick Need A Gospel Message?
This no longer seems to be a controversial issue among gospel magicians, but there was a time when it was a major concern. In times past one regional conference of the Fellowship Of Christian Magicians even made a rule about it. They said, “No one will be allowed to lecture at our conference unless his tricks involve biblical lessons.” This excluded Christian magicians, who specialize in good clean entertainment, from being presenters at their events. Fortunately, this policy only stayed in place for a few years, but for a time it was a dividing point relating to the organizers of that conference. Basically they were saying, “If you do not preach with your magic, you do not teach at our event.”
I understand that the intentions of those who were saying “message magic only” were good. I also realize their thinking was shortsighted. It is important to understand that, beyond what a magician might be saying, tricks themselves can have an important and powerful purpose.
An example of this is the idea of a preacher telling a joke during a sermon. Is it okay for him say something that is not a direct quote of Scripture? Is there occasion for a preacher to say something humorous? Can it be helpful for him to tell a story about daily life? Can present day examples help people listen better and better understand a lesson?
I think most would answer “Yes” to such questions. We understand that good communication involves gaining and maintaining the attention of an audience, along with giving them familiar references to ensure the message really does apply to them.
The situation with the tricks of a gospel magician is similar. A trick can be like the joke a preacher will tell at the start of a sermon. It does not illustrate a Bible verse, but it gets the attention of the audience and begins the establishment of rapport. Other non-message tricks can help a gospel magician further connect with the audience. They also can enhance his credibility. As this happens, a situation is created that promotes good listening.
A simple term for this is “winning the right to be heard.” If people are to take a speaker seriously they must trust the speaker and consider his words worth hearing. Some tricks, although presented with no message whatsoever, nevertheless give the message that this speaker knows what he (or she) is talking about. This speaker has done his homework. This speaker will not waste your time. This is someone you can trust.
Another angle on this matter is the importance of a speaker being likable. If an audience likes a speaker, they are usually inclined to like what he might say. A speaker who entertains them will have them yet paying attention when he teaches and preaches to them.
Obviously the greatest concern of the gospel magician will be for tricks/illusions which powerfully convey a Bible message. However, a secondary concern, and something which must not be overlooked, is having the ability to “wow” people and make them smile, laugh, clap and cheer. A happy audience is almost always a receptive audience.
Learning how to present exciting and entertaining non-message tricks is a tool for making message tricks even more effective…by way of putting the audience in a positive and responsive mood.
Is It Time To Go Full Time?
Not long ago I came across a Facebook post, made by a gospel magician, that went something like this…
“I recently lost my job. This led me think it may be time for me to go full time with my performing. I’ve been doing magic in my hometown area for quite a while. It might be time for me to go to the next level. Pray for me as I make this decision.”
I have heard the same thought voiced in question/answer sessions at conferences of gospel magicians.
“How do I know when it is time to go full-time? Do you have advice to offer someone who is thinking about going full-time?”
I have advice. Although short and simple, I think it good. The advice is: Do not attempt to go full-time until the decision is forced upon you by too much to do and too little time in which to do it.
When you find yourself at a point where you cannot keep up with both your gospel magic opportunities and your present employment, then it is time to choose between one or the other. This is a safe and wise way to handle the decision.
Losing a job, or being unhappy in your current employment, is not good enough reason to make a major life change. As well, the fact that you have tried to do other things and nothing else has worked is not good enough reason. If one is going to leave a familiar lifestyle and toss everything into the magic basket, there should be two primary factors guiding the decision. The first is a clear sense that God is leading to do such a thing. The second is the application of wisdom to one’s current life situation. Some might say there is a third factor which is a combination of the first two factors: a trusting of God to lead by way of the insights wisdom provides.
Nearly thirty years ago, when my wife and I decided to take the plunge into full-time magic and ministry, we did not follow this advice. We did not follow it because we did not know it. On the magic and creative ministry side of things, we did not have mentors or advisors.
We had come to a place in life where we believed we were being led to leave the pastorate and focus entirely on creative ministry. At the time I was senior pastor of a large and fast-growing church. The situation allowed me almost no time use my magic. I had knowledge of gospel magic and a heart for it, but it was doubtful I would ever be able to do much with it if I continued in that pastoral role.
My position in the church was secure. I suppose many would think it an ideal place to be. Nevertheless, it came into my heart, and I deeply believe it was from God, that magic and ministry was to become our life’s work.
Deciding it was time to follow our hearts and do what we believed God was showing us to do, we moved on from the church. We did this with no bookings on our calendar. I stayed busy with the church until the day we left. I did not apply myself to lining up work for what was coming next. This was done out of sincere belief that the church should receive undivided attention until we were gone. My confidence was “God will provide. The bookings will come.”
The day we moved on from the church our income stopped. Medical insurance, paid vacation and all other benefits stopped. In spite of my confidence, bookings did not come in right away. When they finally did come in, there were not many. (Even when one’s ministry is needed, it takes a while for people to become aware of the fact you exist and are available.) For us, this was a very hard time.
The following two years were extraordinarily difficult and stressful. We found ourselves under tremendous financial pressure. We had no supporters and no savings to fall back on. By God’s grace we survived, but I would not want to endure those years again.
If I could go back and do it over again, I trust I would again follow God’s call. However, I would not be so foolish as to leave everything behind with nothing new in place.
I now believe, when God led us to move on from the pastorate, His direction did not include our lack of preparation. There are many verses in Scripture which teach the need to think ahead. The Lord Jesus spoke of counting the cost before building a tower (Luke 14:25-33). We are to take an approach to life where we plan our way as we trust God to direct our steps (Proverbs 16:9).
It was not God’s idea for me to put my family in financial jeopardy. In my inexperience and naivety I did not understand how the decision to move into the new situation could be handled in a balanced manner.
Looking back, I believe the Lord would have blessed, and the church would have understood, if, while being faithful to church responsibilities, I had also prepared more carefully for the future. Along with giving the church full-time attention, I could have found time to concentrate on our needs too. In reality, I was giving the church too many hours and not giving proper time to my family.
By way of personal experience, and a study of Scripture, I have learned that God’s leading is accompanied by more than a desire, or a feeling of “being called,” to do something different. There will also be evident opportunity.
If you believe God is leading you to do something new, ask yourself, “Where is this new work I am to be doing?” Look at the gospel magic programs on your calendar. Are you busy? Will you be busy? If your situation changed, would you be more busy? Look at the invitations you are receiving to perform. Look at the response you get from booking efforts. If God is leading to go full time, it is wise to expect a see these things starting to crowd your present work schedule.
I am not suggesting one needs to wait until the calendar is full far in advance. I am not suggesting there will not be faith willing to step into the unknown. I am saying, relating to a decision for full-time in gospel magic or creative ministry, there should be enough things happening already that a tension exists between your regular job and your ministry programs. If God has something new for you to do, you will have new things to do. They will be making your life busier than it was before. If you choose to pursue these new things, a critical element of the motivation will be the realization you cannot continue to work in both arenas. One thing or the other must be chosen. When the decision comes upon you in that manner, it may then be time to go full time.
Faithful Christians should be willing to take on whatever challenges the Lord puts before them. However, there is a difference between challenges which come from God and challenges we unnecessarily bring upon ourselves. The decision to go full-time must be a matter of faith and wisdom in the face of opportunity. Not one without the other.
Twenty-Five Years or One Year Twenty-Five Times?
My wife Mary and I recently attended a church where we heard a sermon that was quite boring. Actually, it was really boring. The preacher lost my attention almost immediately. I wanted to listen and tried to listen, but my mind wandered soon and never got back to whatever it was he was talking about.
After the service, as we were driving away, Mary asked me, “What did you think of the sermon?”
I said, “I had a really hard time listening.”
Mary said, “Me too.”
Mary added this comment. “About the only thing I really heard him say is that he has been preaching for more than thirty years. I wondered why someone who has been preaching so long still isn’t much good at it. You would think, after thirty years, he would really know how to do it well.”
Mary’s words brought back to mind something I heard a motivational speaker say many years earlier. He was talking about the need to set goals and make sure to keep on learning.
He said, “Some people brag about having twenty-five years of experience, but that is not actually what they have. All they have is one year of experience which has been repeated twenty-five times!”
(The preacher’s sermon was “first year in the ministry” quality, even though he was more than fifty years old. His presentation did not suggest a passion to master communication skills.)
The motivational speaker was emphasizing the need to recognize the tendency to become comfortable in a new situation, then cease to move forward. Rather than making progress, a person’s walk through life becomes like a treadmill. Activity takes place without new territory being entered.
The speaker’s challenge was to couple this recognition with an effort to resist it. It is better to be learning and growing than only repeating.
I have seen this often in the world of magic and performance. An magician, who views himself as experienced and knowledgeable, still does the same act, and tells the same jokes, he learned in his first year in magic. What he learned “back then” is about all he knows. Over time he has picked up a few additional insights. Nevertheless, after his first year as a magician, he has made little progress in skills and understanding. He has not experienced twenty-five years of growth and improvement. He has not experienced twenty-five years of crafting techniques to become better and better. He has stayed the same, as time has kept moving on.
This is not something a normal person would choose to do. It sneaks up on us. Motivational speakers remind their audiences of this concern because of the tendency to slip into it. It comes on us subtly. We do not want it to happen, yet, if we do not pay attention and keep ourselves motivated, it will happen.
The words of the speaker had a strong impact on me. As a young man, I made up my mind to personally keep moving forward in life.
Here are a couple of the decisions I made to ensure I would do so. (This primarily relates to my life as a magician.)
#1. Each year I would set goals and force myself to learn several new things.
Every year I try to master at least two new tricks/routines. I put these routines into the show and take a couple of the old routines out. I do not allow myself to do the same show nor the same tricks year after year.
As well, relating to technology, I try to master something new each year. Last year I learned how to program computerized lights for a show. Several years before I learned how design my own websites. This year I am learning how to work with email marketing and “live-streaming” digital events.
The attitude of, “I’m too old to learn that” is unacceptable. I force myself to take on new challenges.
#2. I would read.
The one thing I want for Christmas every year is books. In particular, books that relate to my work. When I get them, I read them. My bookshelves are full, but there is not a book on the shelves I have not read.
I also read books not directly related to what I do. There is a need to pay attention to a variety of things that affect society and business.
There are some who might say, “This won’t work for me. I don’t like to read.”
Whether or not you like to read, somehow and someway you must give yourself ongoing education. Listen to podcasts. Watch YouTube. Do what you can to acquire information and expand your understanding.
#3. I would participate in training events.
From the time I was in my twenties I have seen the value of going to conferences and conventions. I need to keep on being exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking. For me, this is extremely important. It may be that conferences and conventions have more to do with my development as a performer and minister than any other one thing.
I’ve learned a lot from books. I’ve learned even more from people. I’ve especially learned from people who are more experienced than I. Listening to them gives an edge and head start for moving down the road of personal improvement.
I think it wise, every year, to attend at least one major conference or convention, directly relating to one’s special interest and line of work. Beyond that, I think it wise to commit oneself to fellowship with like-minded people. Find ways to brainstorm and “think together” with people who care about the same things as you.
#4. I would compete.
This does not mean I enter contests and competitions, although such can be a great thing to do. (I recommend it for those who are young or new in magic.) It does mean I identify challenges and determine to excel relating to them.
An example: Many years ago (I’ve lost track of how many years ago) a writer in Genii Magazine made a statement about “Gospel magicians being awful.” I did not take offense to it. He was correct. Many gospel magicians at that time were sloppy performers with ineffective programs. I had seen them and knew this to be true.
Upon reading the remark I made up my mind to prove him wrong. I decided to involve myself with non-gospel magicians and secular performers in a way that would make me credible as a Christian. I was determined to be seen as a very good magician with credits which stand on their own. I did not want people to say, “He is pretty good for a gospel magician.” I wanted them to say, “He is a very good magician” while also knowing I am a Christian.
For me, this was a competition. I set out to earn the right to be on stage with world-class performers. I pursued this until it happened. Career-wise Mary and I have come a long ways. We started with our little magic and puppet show in South Dakota. We ended up working on prestigious stages around the world and receiving numerous honors and awards.
My choice, as a Christian, to be accepted and appreciated in the secular arena, may not be the right choice for other Christian magicians to make, but I think all of us should ask ourselves, “Where is it I need to excel?” and “What is the thing I should relentlessly pursue with the intent of becoming extremely good at it?” Compete with yourself to stay in the game and see this thing achieved.
Make it personal. Do you really have twenty-five years experience, or are you just twenty-five years older? (Apply this to whatever age you might be.) Are you the same place where you have been for years, or are you one who has been constantly learning and improving?
Make plans and set goals. What new things will you learn before 2018 is over? What events can you attend that will help you stay out of a rut? What books should you read or courses should you take? Is there a new challenge you can face?
Do not give up on yourself. Do not allow yourself to be left behind as the world keeps moving ahead.
Where Have We Been?
For many years, actually several decades, Mary and I were fixtures at FCM (Fellowship Of Christian Magicians) events. Whether regional conferences or the international convention, we were always on the scene with our performance, lectures and large dealer display. Then we nearly vanished. We did not entirely disappear. On rare occasions we would surface at an FCM event, but most of the time we have been absent. It has been about ten years since we have attended an annual conference. It has been more than eight years since I have written anything for the VOICE. (The publication of the Fellowship Of Christian Magicians.)
What happened to us? The best way to answer the question is with the words, “a personal journey.”
In 1991, when Mary and I made the decision to go full time with magic, we quickly realized we had put ourselves in a precarious situation. We were excited about entirely devoting ourselves to magical performances and creative ministry, but anxious about finances. As pastor of a fairly large church, we had been enjoying a good income, medical insurance, and paid vacation. Once a self-employed magician, there was no medical insurance, no paid vacation, and no sick leave. (Unlike some in gospel ministry, we had no supporters. Our decision to go full time was “sink or swim” with no backup plan.) It quickly dawned on us that, if anything happened to me, our income would come to a screeching halt. To state it simply, when the magician doesn’t do the show, he doesn’t get paid. There is no money.
In an effort to be wise, we determined we needed a secondary income stream. It needed to be something to help support us if anything were to happen that might take me off the stage. This understanding led us to develop a business selling magic tricks, props and paraphernalia. By way of mail order sales, money could come in from a source other than shows.
This business decision was a good one and flourished. Over following years Laflin’s Magic and Silks (a name eventually shortened to Laflin Magic) became a strong presence in the magic community. Many magicians, gospel and secular, became our customers. Other entertainers did as well.
We were blessed by the success of our business. However, in time, we came to feel it was getting us off track. There is an old expression about life being out of balance. It states, “The tail is wagging the dog.” It seemed such was happening to us.
Our original dream and vision was to be in front of audiences sharing the gospel and the gift of wonder. We were doing that less than we wanted to, and standing behind tables in dealer rooms more than we wanted to. We were busier producing equipment for other entertainers than we were out working as entertainers ourselves.
I will confess, in the midst of this, I started second-guessing myself. I thought, I am doing all these lectures where I talk about how to be a success as a full-time performer, I am presenting all these products as tools to help others find success, but if I didn’t have the convention and lecture sales and only depended on shows as income, could we actually make it? Can I really get enough bookings to not need another income source? I did not want to be one of those teachers who can’t actually “walk the talk.”
Then too, my happiness was compromised. In light of my gifts and personality, working behind a counter as a salesman was not a good fit for me.
While pondering these things, Mary and I realized we had failed to give proper attention to a significant change in our lives. We no longer had kids in the house. When we first went full-time with magic, we had four children at home. It was critical to provide for them. They were one of the biggest reasons, I suppose the biggest reason, why we had not risked trying to make it only on stage-based income. In the midst of our busy schedule we had not paused to consider how this had become a thing of the past. As the business had grown, so had our children. They had moved out, married and started families of their own. We no longer needed to base our financial picture on their needs. Mary and I were free to take different risks than we had taken in the past.
I wanted to get back to full time performing. I wanted to prove to myself and others that the things we believe and teach about full time entertainment/ministry do work. With Mary fully supporting this decision, we passed our Laflin Magic Store (now owned and operated by our son David) on to our children and went back to full-time performing.
Since then, we have enjoyed an amazing ride. For three years we performed at the Magic Beyond Belief theater in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. For six years we performed in our own Grand Magic Theater in Custer, South Dakota. We’ve developed a five-star rated touring show that keeps us busy in fall and spring months. We were able to work three seasons in a theme park. When not contracted to be in a theater for an extended time, our calendar is busy with corporate and community shows.
As well, there has been much gospel ministry on the schedule. We continue to do programs in churches large and small. When not on the road, I do children’s sermons in our own church. Quite often the opportunity to preach comes our way.
Where have we been? The specific answer is: on church platforms and theatrical stages in many places across the country working as professional entertainers who share their faith. Rather than presenting lectures and selling products, we have been performing.
What is next? We have come to retirement age and wonder, How long can we continue to work at our present pace? How long can we keep up with the physical demands of being on stage day after day and/or touring with a large show?
We are not ready to step away from performing, but do see the need to once again have something else to do along with our work on stage.
This past summer, while fulfilling our Grand Magic Show contract in South Dakota, I was asked to do pulpit supply for a local church. The pastor was on sabbatical. It was a ten week commitment. I felt God’s leading to spend the ten Sunday’s doing a series of messages on the life of the prophet Elijah. The final message was about the passing of the mantle from Elijah to Elisha. Preparing this message personally challenged me. When Mary heard it preached, it challenged her too. Both of us felt the Lord was telling us it was time for us to put attention back to “passing on” that which we have learned. Lectures and teaching need to again be part of our lives.
We felt this so strongly we turned down the offer to return next summer to the South Dakota theater with our Grand Magic Show. We determined not to let ourselves get locked into performing contracts which keep us away from teaching opportunities for long periods of time. Lord willing, we will continue to do shows and tours, but believe conferences and conventions must also be on the schedule. This means we do plan to be back at the annual FCM conference this coming summer!
Where are we now? Our home and studio address is Branson, Missouri. Right next door to Branson, in Hollister, Missouri, we have created a conference center where, along with travel to other events, we can hold special teaching and training events on our home turf.
What does the future hold? We trust and seek God’s direction as we pursue the intention of returning to a mix of performing and teaching/training work.
The Gospel Is Not An Excuse For Doing A Magic Trick
For sake of kindness and grace I will be careful not to identify the perpetrator. However, I am referring to a real situation. A magic dealer advertised a new “gospel trick.” His high-powered claim was, “You can finally do this trick with a spiritual lesson.” He pitched the fact he had found a scripture to be quoted while the effect was performed.” His apparent assumption was this: There were customers who wanted to do the particular magic trick, but could not find a way to justify presenting it to church audiences. He, the magic dealer, had finally thought up something biblical to say in conjunction with the trick. This meant it could be used in church after all.
I know the trick and the suggested scripture. I cannot understand how the trick could possibly illustrate the message of that scripture. What happens in the trick does relate to a key word in the text, but this does not mean a good lesson would be conveyed. It only means there is verbal overlap. It is like saying, “Psalm 7:2 tells us to ‘keep God’s teaching as the apple of one’s eye.’ Now watch me do a trick with an apple.” Performing an illusion which involves an apple, while quoting a verse which contains the word apple, does not suddenly make the trick “gospel.” There is much more to gospel magic than quoting a biblical word, or saying “Jesus” while doing something magical.
Unfortunately, I have seen much gospel magic amounting to little more than this. Doing a trick while saying, “Jesus.” Undoubtedly there were gospel magicians who bought into what the magic dealer offered. They purchased the trick and performed it while saying the suggested verse. They did so with little or no real ministry taking place.
It is almost certain, when gospel magicians do this kind of thing, they are well-intentioned. I appreciate and am blessed by good intentions. Even so “zeal without knowledge” can be a bad thing. Energy and enthusiasm are great…unless they take you strong and fast in the wrong direction!
This matter of “zeal without knowledge” is something I understand from personal experience. When I first started in magic I sincerely wanted to share God’s truth. At the same time, I had recently entered the world of the magician. Like most new magicians, I was exhilarated about acquiring and learning tricks. (Some would say I was “nuts about it.”) When a trick came into my possession I could not wait to show it off. Since I had grown up in church, and had many church friends, church people were an obvious and easily accessible audience. Therefore, with each new trick learned, I immediately tried to figure out something spiritual to say in accompaniment. This would be my reason for doing the trick in a church setting. I was not primarily motivated by a desire to make a particular lesson clear. More often than not, I was motivated by a desire to perform the new trick. It took me a while to realize what I was actually doing.
I became convicted about my pride and shallow thinking. I faced reality relating to my enthusiasm. If my excitement was mainly about the magic, my priorities were wrong and so was my heart. It was fine to use magic to minister. It was not fine to use ministry as an excuse to do magic.
This led to an approach to gospel magic I believe vital for all. Ministry presentations must start with spiritual purpose and message. Gospel magic is not about finding opportunities to do magic. It is about the effort to make spiritual lessons meaningful and memorable.
This means the work of gospel magicians begins with ensuring there is understanding of whatever lesson and Scripture to be illustrated. The message comes first. A desire to share the message will then be followed by a search for means to effectively illustrate the message. Since magicians specialize in magic tricks, for them, a magic trick may be the best illustration.
Once a conclusion is reached about a particular effect being an effective illustration, there should be specific thought about things to say as the trick is presented. The goal being to ensure the message is clear. There will be a seeking of God’s hand on the presentation. The process of combining trick and truth will be a spiritual concern.
Magic tricks are only a tool. Even when Bible verses are quoted as they are performed, magic tricks do not change hearts. It is the Spirit of God and His Word that changes hearts and lives.
In context of ministry, magic tricks are a visual aid. Since they can work to help people comprehend and remember spiritual truth, they have a place in ministry. The place is that of being a means, not an end. Gospel magic is not about finding justification for doing magic tricks in church settings. It is about using creative means to draw attention to Gods’ wonderful truth.
I firmly believe in “winning the right to be heard.” I do not think, even in church settings, every trick or routine must have an accompanying message. There is a place for fun and entertainment in Christian settings. The focus of this article is on situations where the understood purpose is biblical teaching. In such settings, every trick used should have definite purpose relating to capturing the attention of the audience in order that, by the time the program is complete, God’s truth has been plainly and powerfully conveyed.
When Humor Makes A Message Memorable
(A thought about the Laflin Magic gospel trick – What Color Is Your Bible?)
Have you ever learned something without trying to do so? Of course you have. We all do. When I was child, simply by way of television commercials, I learned that the meaning of LSMFT is “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco!” In those days, cigarettes were advertised on television. In the course of a sixty-second presentation, by way of clever wording and brief storytelling, advertisers taught the public to appreciate their products. The makers of Lucky Strike cigarettes did a masterful job of using a short, catchy statement to make a long-lasting impression. They promoted the concept that people needed to know what the letters LSMFT meant. When people saw the ad, they saw the letters and waited to see what they did mean. By the time the ad was finished, they knew and did not forget. Fortunately, I never learned to smoke. I never even once tried a cigarette. Nevertheless, even though barely six years old, I knew what LSMFT meant, and to this day I still know.
It has been proven time and time again. It is not necessary to make a long speech or give a full explanation to convey a powerful lesson. A play on words, a joke, a picture with a caption, and other such things can work their way into a person’s mind in a clear and unforgettable manner.
Somewhere around ten years ago I came up with a simple combination of a magic trick and biblical lesson that conveys a much better message than LSMFT. Apart from being thankful to God for His work in my mind and heart, I cannot explain exactly how the concept came to mind. Another thing I cannot explain is why it happened when it happened, but for some strange reason I specifically remember the occasion. I was in an airport, waiting for a flight which had been delayed. In an effort to make good use of my time, I sat down on one of those gray vinyl-covered benches typical to an airport waiting area and opened up my laptop. I said to myself, “I need to come up with a new gospel magic trick. This is a good time to try to do it.”
Again, I do not understand why this happened, but within moments of staring at the computer screen, a picture came to mind of a time, long ago, when our church had a visiting speaker who asked the congregation, “How many of you own red Bibles?” Not many of the people did. Next the speaker said, “What? You don’t have red Bibles?” The people look at him with confusion. Then he made a play on words. “All Bibles should be red (read)! I cannot believe you do not have read Bibles!” His message quickly dawned on the congregation. No matter what color one’s Bible might be, all Bibles should be read (red). It was a joke. People laughed. Yet I never forgot the joke, and I suspect many others in the church remembered it long afterwards as well.
There I was, sitting in the airport, when that memory occurred. Within fifteen minutes I designed the trick and lesson that came to be known as “What Color Is Your Bible?”
The main effect of the trick is that of the performer apparently making a wrong prediction. An attempt is made to discern the color of a Bible owned by a spectator. Seven Bible cards are shown. Each is a different color. After thoroughly mixing the cards, the performer uses them to spell out B-I-B-L-E. This action leads to a particular card: the red Bible card. The performer says, “This means you have a red Bible.” Normally the spectator responds with, “No. I do not have a red Bible.” The performer looks surprised and disappointed. The performer says, “What? You don’t have a red (read) Bible?” Eventually the audience realizes the play on words and everyone laughs.
This is followed up by showing a prediction card that reveals that the trick really did work. The card says, “You will choose the red Bible.” The prediction card also says, “Everyone should have a read Bible.”
Altogether this is a short, fun experience that makes a mental imprint. Bibles are supposed to be read. The purpose of possessing a Bible is not to be able to say you own one. Having a Bible on the shelf at home is no big deal. Reading the Bible, studying the Bible, and learning the Bible is the big deal.
I should mention that, now and then, a spectator will actually own a red Bible. When this happens the trick is still fun and the message is still made. The performer says, “Great!” Then the performer looks out at the audience and asks, “How many of the rest of you have red Bibles?” The question is repeated until the audience gets the joke. Finally the prediction card is shown to indicate the trick did work.
The trick is a good one. How it happens mystifies the audience, but the thing that pleases me the most is how such a simple bit of humor results in a memorable lesson. Beyond knowing the fact that “What Color Is Your Bible?” is a trick available to those in creative ministry (find it at laflinmagicstore.com), we all can take on the challenge of doing what the makers of Lucky Strike did, but with a truly helpful and even eternally beneficial message. Let’s find ways to quickly and directly present wonderful truth! (What Color Is Your Bible is available from Laflinmagicstore.com)
In Defense Of The Hippity-Hop Rabbits
This really is about the Hippity-Hop Rabbits, but the following needs to be considered first…
Lupe Nielsen is an experienced magician who was seen and known the best of the best. Her insights are worth careful attention. In her blog/review of a magic convention, she made the following comment: The weakest part were the stage shows. The first show was good and better than the second show. These could have been improved through better transitions and the order of the show. Also, remember that just because an act is new and no one has seen it, it doesn’t mean that it is outstanding. My suggestion is that we should introduce new acts in the same way that we introduce new material into our shows. You can always have a core of “oldies but goodies” type of performers – two or three classic acts that we all know, love and that we are not tired of seeing. Around this core, we can add a few new performers. It the new acts work out, great! If not, at least we still have the old classics that can hold a good show together.
Give special consideration to several of Lupe’s statements…
Several of her statements need to be looked at more than once. Consider again: Remember that just because an act is new and no one has seen it, it doesn’t mean that it is outstanding.
This is vital for magicians to understand. New and different does not equal better and superior. The fact that something has already been seen many times does not mean its quality is weak. To the contrary, the fact that something has been often seen may be a statement to its superior quality. It is repeated because it is good.
Lupe also said, It the new acts work out, great! If not, at least we still have the old classics that can hold a good show together.
I do not know who first said it, but long ago someone told me, “There is a reason why classics are classics.” There are certain tricks in magic which, when well done, I always enjoy seeing. There are certain performers in magic whom I can watch again and again and…each time a new opportunity comes to see them yet again, I am as excited as I was the first time I saw them. (Lupe’s husband Norm, when he was still performing, was in this category. I never tired of watching him.) A great act is a great act. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t a new act. It is still a great act.
The general concept to keep in mind…
The lesson is, “Do not discard the old as you pursue the new. Yes, new can be interesting and exciting, but old too can be wonderful.”
Now..about the Hippity-Hop Rabbits!
This brings me to the classic kid-show trick; Hippity-Hop Rabbits. Not long ago, on Facebook, a magician asked me, “What is your favorite trick for children ages four through seven?” When I answered, “Hippity-Hop Rabbits,” he seemed disappointed. I’m not sure what he was thinking, but the impression was he needed to think my answer over because it was not the impressive/innovative response he expected.
In spite of his apparent disappointment, I stand by my answer. It doesn’t matter that the trick is an old one. It doesn’t matter that many other performers have used it. When performing for a group of children, I have yet to find anything that creates more magical fun than the Hippity-Hop Rabbits. The trick is a true classic. I use it constantly.
Moreover, I have taken the concept of the trick and tailored it for audiences of all ages. In our full-stage illusion show we do Hippity-Hop Elephants. For an audience of adults, I have a Hippity-Hop card trick which, although the presentation is handled differently, is essentially identical in plot and concept to the Hippity-Hop Rabbits.
I once heard the magician Jay Marshall (one of the most informed minds ever to come on the magic scene) say, “Any magician worth his salt should be able to entertain any audience with a Change Bag, Thumb-tip and a set of Hippity-Hop Rabbits. If a magician cannot entertain with those props, he isn’t a real magician.” I do not remember what prompted the comment, but I do know Jay was an advocate of mastering the classics. I think he believed all magicians should work on the fundamental tricks of magic before moving on to the “latest greatest” things. As well, I think his comment was about apparatus and gimmicks not being that which makes a great magician. A great magician can make magic out of any apparatus and gimmicks, old or new.
Lupe’s comments were about the acts in the shows she saw. I am writing about tricks. Not only is Lupe’s advice good for a show, it is also good for props and routines. She said, You can always have a core of “oldies but goodies” type of performers – two or three classic acts that we all know, love and that we are not tired of seeing.
I say, “You should always have a core of oldies but goodies type tricks, two or three classic tricks that the audience will not grow tired of seeing.”
If you don’t have a good set of Hippity-Hop Rabbits, you might consider putting the trick at the top of your list of future magical investments. Remember, some of the “latest-greatest” things really are wonderful. Others are not. Classic tricks, done well, are always wonderful.