So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. Romans 12:1-2
That’s Eugene Peterson’s version of Paul’s earnest appeal to the Romans. Paul is telling them to stick with Jesus and not get sucked into the ways of the world. It was a temptation 2000 years ago, and I think the situation has gotten worse!
Paul is addressing the Romans who live in a huge, influential, and coercive empire. In fact, that empire is so influential there is almost nothing that has influenced the Western World more. The worry for Christians in Rome seems to be that they may be too radical for their own good and get killed off. On the other hand, they may just take a page out of Corinth’s playbook and be indistinguishable from the world.
I think Paul is talking about Jesus transforming his whole body. But since Paul’s words get abused all the time (see the much-misinterpreted chapter 13), you could actually think that he is telling us to be radical individuals. I don’t even think our concept of individuality existed then. So I think we should think again if we think our style of dress and preference for music is what makes us who we are in Jesus and adherents to Paul’s charge in Romans 12.
It’s a hard balance. I want to be a real part of the world, all things to all people, so that I can be effective in helping people follow Jesus. I want the world change from the inside-out too.
The church, in general, seems to have fled to the other side of this argument and merely developed its own subculture. When religion is cultural, it may as well be a social construct. I’m thankful that my faith is based on revelation and not just on something as arbitrary as culture.
I don’t think anyone is immune from valuing their individuality over the greater good. After the Reformation the church, at large, became reduced down to people’s preferences. That’s how so many denominations formed. We made our preferences in dogma and I think that weakened our efforts. It’s ironic because the church is known for “hypocritical,” “judgmental” and “anti-gay.” As a collective, we have separated ourselves into insignificant categories, in the name of pluralism and diversity, but we still cannot seem to knock the negative stereotypes.
These labels sometimes cause Christians to rebel because they are embarrassed about how Christians usually work and we hide Jesus and talk about cooler, but still Jesus-y, things. Could be anything, really, that we want to adorn Jesus with so that he seems acceptable. We want to adorn him with a new thing because the old adornment didn’t work.
So we make him a national symbol. We say he guides the military and the president. We start to study him and talk intelligently and academically about him. We turn him into a hippie. The church and the people in it can easily just become what the latest fundraiser wants it to.
It is easy to do that. In fact, there are so many great causes and ideas, we could really foster some confusion, and such radical individuality that we hurt our main work: making disciples. It is interesting because in seminary it seems like the professors want us to discern our individual voice. When studying the Bible, personal interpretation and meaning are what dominate. The academics don’t seem to emphasize our whole selves. We really are truly in Christ only in community and community only really works for Jesus if it’s on a mission. When we are together, we can be full Christians—and I’m afraid that the American idea of the individual often competes with that.
That’s ironic because I don’t think our individuality is the only reason we want to be accessorized. Sometimes I think we
don’t like being a part of the whole. We are afraid or shy. We think if we become too much a part of the family, we’ll be like Wal-Mart. It could feel too patriotic. In our minds, our individuality helps us assert our radical separation from the domination system. But it seems to me that the domination system thrives because we are so atomized.
That’s why the covenant is such a radical expression. We are committing to Jesus and explicitly to an expression of His body on earth. We are the church. We are a body filled with citizens. We are on the same page. We are unique individuals, but united, focusing on the most important things together. I not only think that’s radical, I think it’s fun. Some of you know, I’m a sports fan—four-for-four Philly too: Sixers, Eagles, Flyers, Phillies. I am committed to rooting for these teams. I love our fanbase and doing it with them.
As I listen to sports talk radio all day, there are debates and discourse and dialogue that the hosts and the callers engage in (in fact, I was one of the callers just the other day), but there is a sense of unity and mission to them. We all want the same thing: to win. I don’t really know what winning looks like in the church, but I do want to help people follow Jesus, and I think I do that best with a united revelation, not just individual expression.