The text message came on a Monday afternoon. I’d spoken at our church the night before, so I figured it was a typical “can we meet sometime this week” text message to let me know I had said something either profound or heretical. I invited McKenzie over to my apartment to have a conversation a couple days later. At about two on Thursday afternoon, my cell phone vibrated. It was McKenzie letting me know she was downstairs waiting for me to come let her into the building. We walked up the seven flights to my apartment, and then sat on separate couches facing each other.
“Do you know what I’m here to talk about?” she asked. I usually steer away from guessing games, but finding the question odd and considering McKenzie a rather normal woman, I decided to play along by throwing out a few suggestions. I looked out across the city through the sliding glass door, trying to remember the conversations we had engaged in the previous Sunday as we worked on an art project for that night’s worship gathering.
“Um … you want to talk about how to motivate your friends toward living a life that means something,” I said rather confidently.
“You feel like there’s something you want to do with your life, but you need help getting there?” I suggested a bit less imperatively.
“No,” she said. Being as aware as McKenzie is, she knew two guesses was enough. “I’m here to talk about you.”
I had no idea what that meant. I’m in my 20s and single, but McKenzie didn’t really seem like the girl to sit me down and confess her undying love. So after a brief moment of actually considering the possibility, I asked her to proceed—fully recognizing it was going to happen whether I asked or not.
“You spoke on unity in the Body on Sunday, and I feel like there are some things in your life that are preventing unity between you and some of the people around you.”
McKenzie and I talked through some of the things she had noticed in my life. I began justifying myself by suggesting if she were to talk to the people closest to me, they would have a completely different assessment of my actions. But, in the end, I admitted I do have a problem expressing love to those who are not close to me.
But here’s the point of telling this story. In most church settings, a conversation like the one I had with McKenzie would have never even taken place. What’s different? McKenzie has my cell phone number; she knows where I live; she’s invited to my house; she has a picture of my life outside the church building; she’s able to sit down and talk to me.
I’ve been around a lot of churches. There are a lot of good people who give a lot of their lives away. But one thing I’ve noticed is that most often, I talk more about “healthy boundaries” than I do about sacrificial living—offstage, at least. And I don’t seem to be alone.
Several weeks ago, I was in Nashville, Tenn., and was surprised to learn Donald Miller would be speaking that Friday night. I’m a fan, so I decided to go. After an interesting hour and a half of artists covering songs from the 1980s, Don finally got up to speak. As he often does, he put into words something I have felt over and over again for the past couple of years. “I am starting to think ‘raising awareness’ is a fashionable way to ‘not do work’ when it comes to justice issues.” He posted the same quote on Twitter a week later.
Don told the story of starting The Mentoring Project, which connects positive male role models with boys ages 7 through 14. He told of how the project was born out of the passion of filling a need and of the emotional excitement of starting something that seemed so good. Then, in the midst of feeling so proud of himself, he realized he was much less excited about actually mentoring kids.
I liked the quote for as long as I could point at other people and say it. But then, as God tends to do, He used my words—or in this case, the words I stole from Don—to convict me. I could hear God asking us, church leaders, the questions: “How often do you get up on stage and ‘raise awareness’ and are unwilling to ‘do the work’? How many times have you spoken on sacrificial giving but remain a consumer at heart? How often have you spoken about community yet stay secluded from the lives of the people in your church?”
Let’s face it. Although well-meaning, most pastors have become well-spoken “slacktivists.” We’re willing to talk about the Bible from the sterility of the stage, but we’re quick to justify maintaining the gap between us and the front row. And even when we visit someone who’s sick or go and serve the poor, we often maintain the role and distance of a professional.
Recently, I led worship at a church that is very different than what I’m used to. Denominationally, philosophically, stylistically—I was in a foreign land. I actually stood in the corner of the lobby as the first congregants were coming into the building, asking myself what I had in common with the people I was seeing.
Normally, in potentially awkward situations, there are plenty of places to retreat to—an office, the green room, the tech booth. But as I was ascending the stairs to hide next to the sound guy, I remembered I was in the middle of writing this article. Everything inside of me wanted to retreat from people, and I could have justified it a hundred ways: “I’m an introvert,” “I need to rest before going up to lead,” “I’ll never see these people again.” But I knew I had to begin to practice life with people and not just talk about it. I had taken on the role of “outsourced professional” and put away the identity of “member of the Body.” So, I went and spent time with people—offstage.
You know 1 Samuel 15:22:
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (TNIV).
You’ve probably taught on it, but this applies to our lives, too. The things we do onstage, the worship leading, the weddings, the funerals, the counseling, even visiting the sick in the hospital—these are our duties, or, in this context, our sacrifices. God appreciates them but isn’t much impressed by them. But how are we obeying? How are we moving away from simply performing duties and walking into a consistent life of inspired obedience? When are we going to learn that taking care of church business is not a replacement for relationships?
Let me clarify by asking some questions.
When’s the last time you cooked dinner with someone in your church?
Do most of the numbers in your cell phone connect you to business associates or to friends?
Have you ever considered what it would look like to offer the spare bedroom(s) of your house to people who actually need it (them)?
All the images in the opening story—the seventh-floor apartment, glass doors overlooking the city—are real places, but the truth is it’s a three-bedroom apartment shared between five guys. It’s not very glamorous. Sometimes it’s cramped. Sometimes we have to remind each other of the rules of cleanliness. But there’s something beautiful about waking up every morning and talking about the revelations and expectations we have for ourselves and each other. I enjoy pastoring them as part of our community, but living alongside them on a regular basis makes for a depth I’ve rarely seen in most churches.
I know there might be a hundred reasons you can tell yourself why a life of consistent relationship isn’t for you: “I’m an introvert.” “I just got married.” “No one would want to live around my kids.” “I wouldn’t get any downtime.” But when are we going to recognize community doesn’t exist until we know each other outside of our duties?
Community is lived in, not taught to. If you commit to a life lived with your church, it will be more difficult. It will be messier. You won’t be able to sit in your sterile office and have someone tell you they got drunk the night before and made some mistakes. You might have to deal with it in the moment. You won’t be able to go home and separate your life from everyone else’s, and—as a result—someone might see you struggle. You will move from seeing the pain of people to living with the pain of people. You will move from telling edited anecdotes about your failures to having people see your failures. You may feel alone at the top, but when you choose to climb down, the people around you will be there—ready to share in the relationship you both need.
Cole NeSmith is the creative director for STATUS Church in Orlando, FL, and recently helped start uncoverthecolor.com.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Neue Magazine.