Thursday, March 17, 2005

weekend service.

crowd, originally uploaded by Run Steve Run.

We all showed up at the announced time. Many got there early to get a good seat.

It’s amazing how so many people from so many backgrounds can come together, and for an hour, choose to journey in the same direction. I guess all of us realized that we needed this, and without it, we’d be lost or stuck.

Still, it was obvious that what bonded our unity was actually what bothered us…

The congregation all agreed that the service was unimpressive and that we all had a right to be annoyed about it. I noticed the conversation picking up as people felt increasingly more free to “share” how they were feeling. Frustrations moved from muttering to loud banter. People talked most about the weather and they seemed to blame it for a multitude of things. Many enjoyed telling their stories. And though the next story was usually more dramatic than the previous, all were affirmed with a hearty “amen.”

The speaker was main target of anger and was expected to solve everyone’s problems. Comments were framed in such a way that made everyone on the outside of this congregation sound lame, uninformed, less important, or stupid.

I noticed that sarcasm was the most popular mode of communication. Sarcasm seems to be the way to make a point while still hiding one’s deep feelings and the easiest way to “bond” with someone while keeping a safe relational distance. It didn’t help that most wished that they were somewhere else.

Still, I observed a mystical unity created between strangers– sarcasm, cynicism, frustration, anger, and complaining seemed to bring the congregation together. With one majority voice, cries were validated and people were drawn to each other’s condition.

As we took our seats, the service began with a familiar rhythm. The regulars didn’t seem to pay attention– they heard it all before. The first timers looked around with noticeable anxiety. We all faced straight ahead trying to manage with as little communication with our neighbor as possible. And when the service was over, this once bonded community walked out as individuals, clearly as strangers.

I walked to my car, and drove home.

(I’ll let you guess if I just described my delayed flight from Chicago to Grand Rapids, or some of my Sunday morning experiences. I pray for less similarity.)

You (plural) are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. – Mt 5.14

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

up close gospel

Up Close, originally uploaded by Run Steve Run.

So, I was in a discussion with high school students a few weeks ago and I asked this question: “If you were to go to a country and delivered food to starving people, would you say that this action is proclaiming the gospel?” They answered, “No.” In all fairness, I told them I could have worded the question a little better and asked them if this deed is an expression of the gospel, to which they agreed yet still held that this expression is not the complete gospel.

So then I asked them, “If you were to go to a country and proclaim the gospel simply with words, is this the gospel?” They answered… yes.

I hope they didn’t see it, but it felt like my jaw dropped to the ground. These are smart students who really want to make a difference in our world. So, how is it possible that one could hold a double standard for communicating the gospel? How is it possible for one to come to the conclusion that expressing gospel deeds is only part of the gospel, but expressing gospel words is the whole gospel?

I’m still trying to unpack these comments, but I’m believing that these teenage conclusions are hardly their own– they unveil the fruit of the teaching of youth pastors and ministry leaders. Is it possible that youth ministries and western churches have pitted “proclaiming the gospel” against “living the gospel”? Is it possible that we are more interested in “identifying with Christ” through our words and Christian gear, rather than “identifying with Christ” in suffering, serving and simplicity. I think so.

It freaks me out to think that young people are getting the message that actions are a “warm up” to the “true gospel” of verbal proclamation. Maybe others are freaked out my comments and consider this “going soft on the gospel.”

If “going soft on the gospel” means that people like me are afraid to get in people’s faces about the message of Jesus, then I would disagree. Actually, I think proclamation-alone gospel tactics are about as far away from “in your face” as possible. I would even consider it cowardly.

Anyone can hurl words at someone else. It’s no different than hurling food at someone demanding that they eat. “Getting in one’s face,” means so much more. It means allowing people to see the gospel up close by entering into another person’s world… and letting them enter mine. It means expressing the love of Jesus through extending ourselves in conversation (words) and community (life).

But we’re afraid to do that. It seems like the church works hard at staying only as close as necessary to hurl a message at poor sinners, rather than allowing peoples’ space to be entered and the gospel shared with a personal touch and an appropriate word.

The gospel at a distance is no gospel at all. And so, as I reflect on these amazing students, I hope I pass along an “up close gospel.”


“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ – Mt 25.37-40