True story from seminary days:
“I stick a Tootsie Roll in my lip,” he said.
“A what where why?” I said.
“Well, the guys in my community all chew tobacco, and I don’t. So the Tootsie Roll turns my spit brown. I can relate to them better that way,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
He was a young pastor in rural upstate New York — to a redneck tribe of pickup trucks and flannel shirts. And chewing tobacco. In the spirit of becoming “all things to all people,” my seminary roommate took up the Tootsie Roll habit, that he might better relate to the men he wanted to reach.
I love that spirit.
But I’m not so sure about that practice.
Aside from the risk of getting busted, “Hey Jimmy-Bob, got a plug of chew I could have?” “Nah, just Tootsie Rolls…” there’s a flaw in the thinking. Being relevant does not mean coloring your spit, faux-hawking what’s left of your hair, or sporting hipster glasses. It does not require LL Cool J on your iPod or misspelled Hebrew tatted on your forearm.
Being relevant means BEING YOURSELF, connecting with a tribe different than yours, and offering hope for a way out. If God has called you to cross cultural barriers (age, language, ethnicity, nationality, religion, education, social status) for the sake of the gospel, then the people you’re reaching need three gifts from you:
The 65 year old former youth guy I saw at the Third Day concert just looked awkward with his teenage attire. Be yourself. Be real. No, don’t wear Berumda shorts and black socks — do stay somewhat up to date. But dress so that clothing isn’t an issue. Smell so that smell isn’t an issue. Don’t make anything an issue but Christ and what people will or will not do with him.
When you attempt to fit in, to speak the language of the tribe, to listen to their story and LOVE THEM AS THEY ARE, you will build bridges for the gospel. Your effort will be noticed and valued. But when you lose your SELF in that effort, suspicions mount and barriers rise.
Like the geeky kid looking for a date, you’re trying too hard. Give the gift of your true self, making an effort to love in another language. You can also give the gift of…
Offer the tribe a way out. Be different. Offer a counter-cultural remedy for their current broken lifestyle. Maybe the flannel-shirted rednecks didn’t need to see someone whose spit was brown as much as someone who was happy and normal with perfectly uncolored spit. Without Christ, what people have isn’t working for them, SO BE THE ALTERNATIVE.
All you Gaither fans, quit shouting “I told you so!” It’s 2013… what year should it feel like when people walk into your church? Of course, we speak the language of the culture we’re called to reach. I am not denying that; it’s crucial that every generation be evangelized on its own terms. Nor am I suggesting we justify our ineffective ministy by claiming some kind of self-righteous purity that renders us incapable of forging redemptive relationships. Yuchhh. That old-fashioned pietistic separatism rightfully rests in peace on the ash heaps of legalistic Christianity.
I am saying that in our much-needed attempts to be relevant, we must never lose the centrality of what makes us different.
I claim a special pastoral bromance with the late Welsh pastor, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones… after all, who else read Ian Murray’s two volume, 1,200 page biography of him… three times? Lloyd-Jones was a theological mastermind who packed sanctuaries, in blue-collar working towns, with hungry students of God’s Word.
In a counter-intuitive move, he argued that people are looking for a way out of their broken condition. They’re looking for someone who is not like them, but unlike them. Someone who offers deliverance from… not immersion into… the fallen culture they’re stuck in.
This explained a weirdness I have found in my years of ministry. I am a bookish, over-educated, nerd, yet the church I planted was filled with blue-collar working men and their families. Sometimes there is beauty in being different… in being less than totally relevant to another culture.
The trick is to connect. And yes, if brown spit makes that happen, so be it. I have a hunch that making that connection is more about offering home made meals and time at the fishing pond and a listening ear than anything else. However you make that connection, never lose your distinctiveness as a peculiar child of God. I can’t help but use the old King James here:
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: (1 Peter 2:9, KJV).
Lloyd-Jones talked about taking the youth of his church under his wing. Instead of speaking on RELEVANT topics, he taught “irrelevant” doctrinal truths such as the Sovereignty of God and Substitutionary Atonement. Yes, the youth group.
The group flourished. It grew. It exploded with passion and service for Christ and his kingdom. The beauty of irrelevance.
Offer substance. Something real, and deep, and beautiful. You have the gospel of Jesus Christ. You have the story of God Incarnate and of Christ Crucified. You have a Resurrection to proclaim. You have a conduit to the transcendent realities of a heaven and the Great God who made it. You have hope. You have the power of the Spirit to rescue people from the hell they’ve made of this life. You have hope for something better than the corrupt, cynical, dysfunctional culture our neighbors swim in every day.
True relevance will never require you to jump out of the lifeboat into the morass of brokenness and death. If you come paddling up in a substantial lifeboat, and offer a hand up and out, believe me, those in the water won’t care how different you are.
Deep calls to deep, and the seeker’s heart craves TRUTH… even if you deliver it with clear colored spit.
How has someone unlike you made a difference in your life? Have some tried to preach at you before making a connection? How did that work?
As always, I appreciate both your comments and your shares below. Thanks.