The Paralyzed Force of Relevance

Editor’s Note: This article is a follow-up to Tim’s November 2005 article “Mimicking the Mainstream,” which introduced questions of evangelicalism’s lack of unique culture.

    We are the hollow men

    We are the stuffed men

    Leaning together

    Headpiece filled with straw, Alas!

    Our dried voices, when

    We whisper together

    Are quiet and meaningless

    As wind in dry grass

    Or rats’ feet over broken glass

    In our dry cellar

    Shape without form, shade without colour,

    Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;

    —T.S. Eliot

These lines are haunting. Can you hear the voices of mankind whispering into the wind? Can you feel the sense of waste from knowing that our voices somehow do not make it past our own lips, rendering our words meaningless?

My mind conjures up piles of scarecrows, heaped together to burn now that the crops have been harvested. The straw spilling out from behind the painted paper faces; the empty stares from the button eyes of all the scarecrows … It is my great fear that I will look into the mirror someday and see a scarecrow, blind and dumb, lifeless and ready for destruction.

Are we the stuffed men?

Paralyzed Force

When I survey our American culture and the evangelical landscape, I think of the words “Paralyzed force, gesture without motion …” I wonder if our faith has turned into stone, like the characters in Narnia. It is like we are the living dead in a cold world desperate for spring.

It all sounds so doom and gloom, so medieval. Is it a good thing to talk of life—or faith—in these terms? I don’t know. But it is sobering, at least to me.

J. Gresham Machen, founder of Westminster Seminary, had much to say about the decay of the modern Christian influence upon culture:

“The loss is clearest, perhaps, in the realm of art. Despite the mighty revolution, which has been produced in the external conditions of life, no great poet is now living to celebrate the change; humanity has suddenly become dumb. Gone, too, are the great painters and the great musicians and the great sculptors. The art that still subsists is largely imitative, and where it is not imitative it is usually bizarre. Even the appreciation of the glories of the past is gradually being lost …"

My mind tends to rest on the current role of the Church within culture. It is true we must adapt to the times we live in, but I think it folly to assert that orthodox or traditional ways of worship are irrelevant simply because they are old.

Timeless Faith

How do we create culture? Are the Church’s methods of cultural engagement working? The Church seems to be working on the assumption that all it needs to do to be relevant to culture is present itself “like” the culture. This cannot be the way.

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What makes a car or sofa or necktie “vintage”? They have certain timeless qualities. A red Ford Mustang will never be out of style. It is from the first generation of cars that many engineers receive their inspiration to make adjustments and improvements.

There are aspects of our faith that do not change, although they are often overlooked.

Instead of coming up with ways to get unbelievers into churches and saved, might it be a better idea to get ourselves into the unbeliever’s lives? And what is it that these unbelievers will see in the followers of The Way?

Perhaps we need to work on re-inventing the discipleship process so it becomes more than a weekly “check-in” meeting and more about “life-on-life” relationship building. I told a friend of mine that I did not believe in “accountability groups.” He responded that we need accountability in our lives. With this I agree, but not in the current paradigm. Why is it so hard to break free of a workbook and a program? The most real experience I ever had in accountability was mountain biking with my brother-in-law. We rode as much as we could together, and after trust was established it was natural for each of us to share what was really going on in our lives.

Another aspect of our faith that remains timeless may be even more difficult to embrace in our frenzied world. There is much to be said regarding spiritual disciplines. It is paramount that Christians learn the importance of cultivating a disciplined spiritual life (solitude, silence, fasting, study, reflection, etc.). The disciplines are almost a dying art reserved for true ascetics and extremists. Christ would often, before and after He would preach and heal, steal off alone on the mountainside to pray. He sought out solitude and spent time cultivating communion with the Father. The disciplines stretch and bend us so that we resemble less of who we used to be and more of Christ. They serve as a barometer for intimacy.

Breeding intimacy within our spiritual community might be the foremost ingredient to relevance. The deeper I can truly love someone without necessarily understanding every aspect of their being is where the finite leaves off and the infinite picks up. If we can just get past the “instant everything” mentality drilled into us by culture, then perhaps we may actually take the time to roll up our sleeves and learn that loving people means hurting and bleeding with them. The fruit of deep relationships may not be measurable in terms of numbers, but it certainly is measurable in terms of eternity.

Somewhere in the mix we have veered off the narrow path to the path of least resistance. For some reason the “old” way of “doing” church has been packed away. The conundrum of how best to stay relevant in culture forces churches to pick between power point and power-less.

Loving someone deeply is a universal act that will never go out of style. People love to be loved. The quickest way to pry someone open in culture is not necessarily to blow him or her away with impressive marketing, slick advertising or catchy slogans. These are modern tools used to get into people’s minds and effective ways to change cultural ethos. However, all the flash of the modern world will not touch someone deeply enough to change their heart to follow Christ. Intimacy comes from being with people, being open with people and serving people. When believers begin to pour their lives into others, the result is life transfer.

I coach varsity girls volleyball. Part of my job is to instill passion for the game into my student athletes. The more passionate I am about the sport, the more passionate the girls become. It is a simple principle that is totally transferable in regard to our faith. The most dynamic conduit to a passionate faith is the life of a transparent believer. Let people see who you are, yes, even if you are a leader. Let people see God chiseling away at your heart, and those you lead will plunge into faith.

Somewhere along the line God dripped a teardrop’s worth of eternity into the hearts of men. Yet most of us capped off the eternal well long ago. The mystery of God’s glory has eluded us, for we have sidestepped intimacy and plunged headlong into a wasteland.

When believers begin to draw from this deep, endless well, we draw from the heart of God. The living water from this well quickens us and makes us deeper. Our aged faith calls out to us now. No longer are we simply gestures without motion. No longer do we sway in the wind with blank and empty stares. For when we step back into time and visit the faith of those God shaped Himself, we realize that “who we are is, in essence, who we were” (from Steven Spielberg’s Amistad).

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