Called to Be Different

June 7th, 2011

When I was in seminary, I got the impression that my job as a pastor was to help lessen the gap between the Bible and the “modern world.” Here was the Bible, mired in the first century. Here was the skeptical, critical modern world. The pastor, through preaching and various acts of pastoral ministry, labored to lessen the gap, to bring the gospel close to where modern Americans lived.

Since then I have come to the conclusion that today’s faithful pastor ought to clarify, even accentuate the gap between the Bible and the modern world rather than lessen the gap. Evangelism calls people, not to agreement, but to conversion, detoxification, the adoption of practices meant to save them from the deceits of the “modern world.” In churches which have for so long called people to adjustment, we are calling for pastors willing to call people to alienation, to be, in the title of a book by Stanley Hauerwas and me, Resident Aliens.

I consider it a happy gift of God that here, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, increasing numbers of Christians in North Americans sense that something is wrong; they feel lost, cast adrift, afloat on a sea of uncertainty, homeless. Undoubtedly, the 1 Peter designation of early Christians as “aliens” and sojourners arose in a situation in which baptism pushed one to the periphery of the dominant order, not so much on the basis of baptism’s demands, but rather because the dominant order is intolerant of anyone who fails to bow before the altar inscribed with the claim that all intolerance must be rejected except for the intolerance which says that we must be equally tolerant of all claims.

A few years ago when I was in Australia where somewhere less that 20 percent of the population is identified as Christian, there was a news story about a Pentecostal church in Sydney which had been vandalized for the second time in a month. Earlier, someone had started a fire at the church. Now, someone had shoved a fire hose in the window of the church, ruining the contents of the building. The church was located in a small business center so, when the vandals flooded the church, they also flooded the surrounding businesses.

The owner of a florist shop next door to the church complained, “No one told me, when I rented this shop, that I would be next door to a church. I’m really quite upset with having to have a business next to a church.” The reporter asked a police spokesperson, “Do you think this is anti-religious violence here?” “Anti-religious? No. This was a church,” said the policeman.

What amazed us was that, if these acts had been perpetrated against a mosque or a synagogue, everyone would have called it racist or anti-religious, for these groups are clearly at odds with the dominant order and are periodically attacked for that reason. There is as yet a failure to recognize that churches are increasingly finding themselves in exactly the same situation as our neighborhood mosque.

We live in wonderful times. The Christian faith has always done quite well during times of cultural chaos and the complete disintegration of society otherwise known as downtown Birmingham. Baptism encourages us to embrace a new culture and community (church) which helps us to enjoy being weird.

Christians are not first called to be aliens. Jesus calls us to be witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It is interesting that the Greek word for “witness” is the same root as our word martyr. Jesus has not called us to hunker down behind the barricades, but rather to “Go . . . and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . teaching them. . . .” (Matt. 28:19-20).

Yet it is important for the church as witness to have something to say which is more interesting than what the world says. Give the world credit; one reason why the world mostly ignores us is that we have so little to say that the world cannot hear elsewhere. When church becomes Rotary, church will lose, because Rotary serves lunch and meets at a convenient hour of the week!

The church exists not for itself, but rather to save the world, to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). So the question is not if we shall live as Christians in this world, for that is no option for us. Rather, the question is, now that God has entered this world as Jesus the Christ, how then shall we live?

In Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe, nineteen-year-old Ian tells his parents, Doug and Bee Bedloe, of his decision to leave college and become an apprentice cabinetmaker. This will enable Ian to raise the young children of his deceased brother, Danny. Ian has arrived at this decision because of the influence in his life of Rev. Emmett and the Church of the Second Chance, a congregation that believes in actual atonement, that is, that you must do something “real” to be forgiven for your sins. Ian’s sin was that he led his drunken brother to believe that his wife was unfaithful, after which Danny committed suicide.

In the crucial scene in which Ian tells his parents of the change in the course of his life, church and faith enter the conversation. Ian explains that he will have help from his church in juggling his new job and the responsibility for the children. This alarms his parents.

“Ian, have you fallen into the hands of some sect?” his father asked. “No, I haven’t,” Ian said. “I have merely discovered a church that makes sense to me, the same as Dober Street Presbyterian makes sense to you and Mom.”

“Dober Street didn’t ask us to abandon our educations,” his mother told him. “Of course we have nothing against religion; we raised all of you children to be Christians. But our church never asked us to abandon our entire way of life.”

“Well, maybe it should have,” Ian said.

Ian’s is a story of two kinds of churches. Dober Street is a church that mainly confirms people’s lives as they are. The Church of the Second Chance disrupts lives in the name of Jesus so that people can change. In my experience, people are more attracted to the church that promises them change, new life, and disruption than in the church that offers little but stability, order, and accommodation.


This article is excerpted from the author's recent book, A Will to Lead and the Grace to Follow: Letters on Leadership from a Peculiar Prophet. Used by permission.

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