When I started seminary a few years ago, one of my professors read my second book and replied with this concise, yet complex response:
I challenge you to begin sustained reflection on how your generation can speak creatively, constructively, and courageously into a deeply divided nation that could become even more divided in the coming years. Forget about the stuff that others are addressing and that have primarily individualistic or idiosyncratic concern. It is time for the church to be this type of healing, redemptive voice rather than continuing intramural obsessions. Your generation is taking the baton. What will that look like?
I have spent the past 6 or 7 years writing heavily for a Christian audience. This is what he meant when he mentioned “intramural obsessions”—things that play well within Christian circles but barely branch outside of our little bubble.
But if we take our cues from the Bible, shouldn’t it be the opposite? Shouldn’t the input we receive come primarily from God Himself, from the Bible and prayer, as well as Christian mothers and fathers come before us, rather than centrally things produced by the world?
Perhaps more important is the second part of the maxim: Speak to the world. Who do you talk to? Who do you connect with? I am about to release my new book, and I see it partly as a closing of one chapter of my life and work. Much of the content I’ve written the past several years has been by a Christian, for Christians.
I’ve been guilty of Christian-ese.
I’ve been guilty of assuming insider terms and language which may serve to have the opposite effect of reaching the world for Christ.
I’m guilty of surrounding myself with Christians and a predominantly Christian platform rather than expanding to welcome outsiders and others who may feel left out or hurt by the church. Or at least, writing in a way that’s accessible to them.
This is something I want to change, I want to begin to create more for people who don’t identify as Christians, building bridges instead of walls.
If I may generalize, many Christians conversely ‘listen to the world and then speak to one another.’ That’s what a lot of my life consists of. I watch Netflix and discuss it with my Christian friends. I listen to Kendrick Lamar, read Kurt Vonnegut, and watch Joker and turn to talk about it with my fellow believers. I’m not saying ‘secular media’ is bad and should be avoided, quite the opposite. Understanding and engaging our culture opens new doors of connection to others. Just remember to listen/watch/read with your brain turned on, rather than passively accepting whatever is entertaining you.
Writing in a way to help educate and strengthen fellow believers is also not a bad thing inherently, but how much have we focused on this at the expense of branching outside our walls of comfort? Christian media, music, and books have become a tragic staple of American culture despite poor quality, lack of imagination, and lack of appeal to the world at large. Let’s be honest; they mostly just copy what the world is making, but in a safer way.
(Some exceptions include Josh Garrels, Silent Planet, and James K.A. Smith’s new book which weds Jack Kerouac’s wanderlust and the church’s ‘most relatable saint.’)
But I digress.
Think about every prophet in the Bible: Their sole motivation in life was to speak the very words of God to the world. Often they spoke directly to powerful rulers, endangering their own lives. One thing we never see the prophets do is pipe down and stay comfortably in their little circles of likeminded Israelites.
It seems that if God actually calls us to be prophets (He does), that means relating to those outside the church. It means filling our minds with the words of His mouth and speaking them to the world, in a way the world can understand, and not just to each other where people are likely to agree with us.
It also means learning to emphasize different things. What I’ve observed after a lifetime in the church is often the very thing the prophets so often condemned. The prophet Amos talks about how “God hates our shows” when they are not backed up with justice and mercy. How many of our churches are more focused on the performance than with executing justice: care for the poor, a home for the orphan, et al.? What kind of witness to the world is a church that gets you in the door, converts you, and then allows your life to remain the same?
If we want the non-believing world to believe a word we say, our worship must be backed up by our lives. Our religion must mirror James’, whose religion involved orphans and widows, otherwise we are simply ‘living like the world but not even talking to it.’
Imagine a room of Wall Street investors singing worship songs. Then they leave the service and hoard all their cash. What do their songs mean to a God who cares violently about the poor? Does our worship look like this: a trite song which doesn’t affect our lives?
Justice is worship.
May we be Christians who make an effort to reach beyond our comfortable circles.
May we live lives worthy of the hymns we sing.
May we listen intently to God and speak bravely to the world.