The ascetics of the early church lived in caves, whipped themselves, and made vows of celibacy or silence. Monasteries were founded. Many of these did some amazing work, from copying by hand the scripture to creating beer for the masses to make something useful and drinkable during the unsanitary Middle Ages. The dark side of monastic life is the whole idea of living in a conclave, removed from the world. To be “holy” literally means to be “set apart” for God. So, why not focus on the “ apart” part of it while living for God? Some brilliant things happen when sequestered to study and learn. University time does this. But, when and how do we forge a path in the secular as we grow in the sacred? And, our times these days are filled with technology that allows us a separate life. Do you live in a virtual monastery?
When you search Google, Facebook a friend, shop on Amazon.com or Ebay.com, use the grocery store frequent shopper card, you and I leave a digital breadcrumb trail behind. Each time you revisit such places you might notice it shows things you like. Or, in Facebook’s world, things they hope you like. Eventually, your edited content becomes a ghetto in honor of you. You live in a virtual monastery, set apart from information that based on your posting and browsing edits out things you don’t like and people who like things you don’t. It’s a mirror at times, not a community. Christianity in America these days already does this with our message T-shirts, church programming, and Christian media. The truth is that most of our society is being sequestered as much as possible for political, marketing, and other agendas.
Most of us in the American Church live in a ghetto where the language we speak and the things we like mirror us. It is then an us-and-them divide walling us in our sacred space. We want to reach “them”–the secular–and hope not pollute ourselves in the process. We rather not be “left behind” like them and speak against culture that they make, while we mimic popular music for our liturgy and borrow Hollywood movie cues for illustrating our sermons. Do we not have enough of our own story, both historical and current to trump modern film? We have the illusion of being relevant and of making church “cool” to reach them, while it makes us feel better. Is being relevant then at times more about us or them?
The monastery of old offered creation, enterprise, and transformation. Our new virtual monastic order is a disorder, sometimes more about cool plastic edifice than warm, gooey honesty. The mess of them makes it hard for us because we soon realize how much more more like them we truly are. Paul in the book of Romans makes this point. “So also were you” follows a laundry list of the most guile-filled behaviors and where they lead in the second chapter of that book. Surely, as most think, this list is about “them”, but Paul turns the tables in the front end of Romans. “For all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” Boom. Our bubble of perfection bursts. Reality hits. Now what?
Create! The largest vacancy is inaction and unwillingness to promote the creation and innovation from within our church institutions and supported by them. But, we do see many giving us hints. Toms shoes as a for-profit company that gives a pair of shoes away every time one is purchased. Non-profits like Food For The Hungry showed me recently how hunger and poverty can actually be solved by the innovations they employ. So much is within our grasp, but are we too afraid of being “left behind” that we dissolve the passion the let the Kingdom come? Where is the fun in that? We fight culture, mimic culture, critique culture, but why not create culture?
Here are six myth busters about culture and possible antidotes to the “Us and Them” way of thinking.
- You are allowed to think critically and it is healthy to do so. What source is the authority or the author or the curator of my faith basing his or her thinking upon? Ask this, carefully, but ask it. We don’t have to be jerks, but if some way of thought is out there that is being treated like a creed when it is not even biblical, we have lost our way altogether. We often read a book about a fellow believers experience and find inspiration, but is that theology? What are the anchor points of my faith?
- Not everything is black and white. Am I waging a war that God is not asking me to fight? Now, there are our creeds, then there are our convictions based on our experiences. We should hold to both, but not fight for the latter over relationships. During the Revolutionary war there were sincere followers of Jesus on both sides. We have Democrats, Republicans, and other stripes who love Jesus. When we take sides, are we better than those who don’t follow Christ to the other side? And, can you believe in absolutes and still see some gray areas? I think the answer is “yes”.
- Respect each others differences in conscience. Is my entertainment or personal issues in the gray areas causing my brother to stumble or am I simply demanding my preferences? People are allowed a bandwidth of conscience as long as scripture allows it. Meat sacrificed to idols bore out differing convictions that were acceptable. Someone who has a conviction to not drink is not going to be uncomfortable around me if I know this fact about them. (I drink occasionally). I spent years in abstinence from alcohol and would again if God called me to do so. But, my preference (liberty or weakness) should not be your conscience on some issues. Do we show charity with differing convictions?
- Contextualization is OK while syncretization is not. Am I communicating or am I mimicking? This means we learn the language and culture of the land for our mission rather than appease a people by adopting their ways entirely. There is a difference. The term “relevant” is a buzzword we should define as it is misspoken at times. Connect like Paul on Mars Hill while keeping firm about the message of the Gospel. It is tempting to make things “cool” but do we love that as much as we love our very message of grace? Let’s not get lost in the translation, no matter how alluring the process becomes.
- Creation is the best way to leave our ghetto behind. Does our method of ministry encourage or even allow innovation? Institutions at times become more successful at their survival than their mission. Innovation and creation is a counterbalance to that tension. As we send people out to the secular places they live, the sacred is there with them. Do we empower people beyond the upkeep of our church? Do we lift the value of passing on something more substantial than our building and branding? Our communities need empowered entrepreneurs in business and faith. Encourage them.
- Break the walls of “us and them” and join the ranks of humanity. Do we live too much like this life is temporary? We are fallen, but have Jesus. We are more “we” than “us and them” and our focus on being better humans may very well be the most overlooked missional strategy. How poorly does the professional clergy practice self care? What is the track record on our family life compared to the culture? Do we treat our bodies with dignity? We are surely citizens not of this world, but this is where we live. This is our mission–to share a gospel that begins with justification and ends with all of creation’s reconciliation. With the heat in politics about many hot issues of late, it is time we focused on the bigger picture. We all need Jesus.
This is of course another discussion starter. Do you agree we are in an “us and them” ghetto? Do you agree creation is overlooked? Can we truly have some gray areas? Is it OK to think critically?