As I quickly evaluated my life, I suddenly realized I knew no one outside my church. I thought about a typical day: gas at a self-service pump, a few groceries bought at the self-checkout lane at Wal-Mart, cash from an ATM, a bite to eat from a drive-thru, ordering books online. Everything that I had to do outside of church was either completely or almost void of people. At least nothing I did brought me into regular and consistent contact with people.
Unless it was church people.
And I didn’t even like church people all that much. What’s wrong with this picture? How did I get here? I had always prided myself on not being one of those “clustered Christians” who were so scared of being contaminated by the world that they cocooned themselves in a shroud of Christian music, Christian books, Christian TV, and Christian friends. And now suddenly, because of the nature of my job where I was almost completely working with church leaders, I found myself doing the same thing.
And then I started backing up and taking a broad look at things. Is every Christ-follower like this? I knew the statistics: after a year or two of following Christ, a new believer systematically begins losing all contact with their old friends until all relationship ties are severed. And that the longer a person follows Christ, the less likely they are to have significant relationships with unbelievers. So sure, followers of Christ have the option of removing themselves from the culture around them, but what about church leaders? Do we have that same option or is our option limited because the nature of our work calls for us to be focused more on the church than on culture?
I was suddenly reminded of a pastor-friend of mine whose wife had recently asked him a not-so innocent question: “Honey, what hobbies do you have?” My friend opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out … because there was nothing there. He had no hobbies. He had no interests outside of church. His entire life was wrapped up in ministry and the church to the point that there was nothing left. He responded defensively at first: “What I’m most interested in is building up God’s Kingdom.” How can you argue with that? That certainly sounds noble and good, to be so utterly devoted and sold-out for Christ, but gradually, my friend took his wife’s question as a wake-up call that he was edging forward in an unhealthy direction.
Why is this so bad? What is so wrong with orienting our lives around church work, ministry, or church activities?
First of all, we’re removed from the culture God placed us in. All of us are called—regardless of our vocation—to build God’s Kingdom within the particular culture He has placed us in. We’re here to bless those around us because we have been blessed by God. Even though our place in this world may be to focus on church leaders, this still doesn’t absolve us of from getting our hands dirty and directly impacting those around us. Because of our relationship with Christ, we are never the point. Others are. So when we remove ourselves from culture, we actually remove ourselves from God’s calling and reorient the priority of our lives around … wait for it … ourselves. Does that sound like the Gospel to you?
Secondly, removing ourselves from culture is simply not how Jesus lived. His was a holistic worldview that fully integrated all the different aspects of His life into one big pot. In our Western worldview, we tend to separate and categorize different aspects of our lives and then prioritize them: work, play, home, church, etc. Jesus tended to embrace all of life together, as a whole, seeking and finding God no matter where He was or what He was doing. He chose to worship in the synagogue and out, on the Sabbath and on other days, with both believers and unbelievers. Jesus fully embraced and lived in the culture and time in which He lived.
Finally, He even commanded us to live this way, as well. In some of His closing words from the end of Matthew 28, He reminded all of His followers—both present and to come—of our new mission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations. …” The first two words of that sentence, “Therefore go” can more accurately be translated “As you are going.” What’s the significance of this? It describes, in essence, how Jesus lived His life. He was very intentional and missional, but yet, as He journeyed through life, He talked to people and lived life with them, taking time out to go to their house or share a meal. And He tells us to do the same. To live life intentionally, not separating our lives into categories of when it’s appropriate or inappropriate to talk about God, but to see every element and every conversation and every interaction and every moment as an opportunity to extend God’s Kingdom. This mindset tends to break down carefully built walls that separate us from the world in which we live and thrust us right in the middle of culture.
But how do we—as church leaders—get there? If we worked in a bank, we wouldn’t have this problem or even need to ask the question because we’d already be thrust in the midst of culture. But in church-work, it’s far too easy to insulate ourselves from the “world out there.” So how do we make sure that we aren’t living behind a fortress?
This may seem like a silly suggestion, but watch Sister Act again. You probably watched it years ago, but I encourage you to endure another viewing. I recently watched it with my kids (who had never seen it) and was surprised and reminded of how much spiritual truth and insight there is about how the church and its leaders tend to inoculate ourselves from culture to the degree that we have little impact. Plus, you get to see Whoopi with big 1980’s hair. That’s always a plus.
Discuss this issue with your staff team. See if it’s an issue with your leaders. At our church, we give our folks permission—dare I say, almost mandate—to set aside “work” time where they are involved in something outside the church. For some, that’s serving on the board of a community organization, or being highly involved in their spouse’s work relationships. Some have a side business that gives them a platform into the business community that their church job doesn’t provide. Others coach a sport or volunteer at a school. For us, it began with an open and honest conversation about how we all long to have relationships in our lives with folks outside the church but struggle daily with this because most of our work responsibilities involve folks inside the church. So we have to work twice as hard and be even more intentional to look for ways of moving into our culture.
But finally, in the spirit of Jesus’ words that tell us “As you are going …” we don’t look for new things to do. We look for things that we are already doing—or have an interest in doing—and do them with spiritual sensitivity. Instead of working out at home, we work out at a public gym. Instead of working out in an aural cocoon with earbuds and our iPod’s jacked-in, we work out without music in order to stay open to those working out around us. If we love to read, we join a book club. If we paint, we begin painting with others in order to give and receive feedback. We leverage our hobbies in order to build new relationships. But that means you have to have a hobby or interest to begin with. What do you like? What are you already doing that you could do with others? Do you watch 24 or Lost? Then invite your neighbors over to watch it with you.
For me personally, my background is in acting and directing so I recently got involved in our local dinner theatre. Yes, it has taken lots of time, but the relationships that have been built are priceless. I have prayed constantly for these folks and as I head to play rehearsal, I try to regularly ask God to remind me that I am bringing Christ to them. And even though I have never invited any of my new friends to church or initiated any sort of spiritual conversation with them, they are continually asking me questions and talking about faith and spiritual matters with me, all on their own initiative. And my involvement with them has caused my relationship with Christ to deepen more so in the last year than in the last decade combined.
I recently heard someone say that an interesting person yields interesting stories. Does that describe you? Do you have any hobbies outside of church? Do you have significant relationships outside of church? Do you have a life?