Last weekend I was in Waco, Texas for a conference. It was a worship conference hosted by David Crowder, with some exceptional guests including Francis Chan, Rob Bell and Louie Giglio. We were asking the question ‘why do we sing?’ and there was a great deal of conversation about the ‘why’ of worship, which I really enjoyed. At some stage, hopefully this week, I’ll describe some of the big ideas shared at the conference. But for the purposes of this post I am focusing on a conversation I had on the airplane home.
Getting home had proved to be problematic, since I had booked my flights separately from the rest of the team I had to leave an hour before them and take a different route back to Baltimore. The first leg of my journey didn’t even leave the state! I flew from Dallas to Houston. A 55 minute trip. I was in the first boarding group, and as I settled in to my aisle seat I wondered who would sit next to me, secretly hoping they didn’t smell bad or anything.
The flight wasn’t full and so there was a seat between me and a girl about my age, sitting by the window. I was relieved. I settled back to read a short story published in the in-flight magazine, though a pang of guilt throbbed in the pit of my stomach: One of the speakers at the conference confessed to completely ignoring an opportunity to share Jesus with the person next to them. I prayed a short, if vague, prayer for that person and then read my story.
My silence was rudely disturbed when she asked me what I had been doing in Texas. I fear my accent had given away the fact I wasn’t a local and so I had to surrender my semblance of peace.
Lisa, I later found out was her name, worked for the zoo. She led the tours and ran classes for school field trips. She loves her job, but is often frustrated by the general ignorance of the guests, from lack of knowledge to outright refusal to understand, Lisa explained to me how many of the people she had met were infuriatingly pigheaded. This led neatly on to the subject of religion.
Though I had shared that I work for a church, Lisa didn’t seem to shy away from discussing the matter. This made me glad. I didn’t need to say much. I didn’t even object. What could I object to? The money-grabbing televangelists? The political lobbying? The hypocrisy of the church? Carefully, I listened and found myself agreeing with much of her complaint.
I was saddened by the accuracy of her accusations.
I remembered that there was, once, a time when the church was the best evidence for the truth of the Christian faith. Tertullian famously records the critics of the Christianity mocking them for their readiness to die for one another.
See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death.
Indeed, they were even prepared to throw their own lives away to care for the sick when nobody else would.
I listened to Lisa with no small amount of embarrassment and no small amount of empathy.
In short, Lisa was right.
But that is not the point of this post.
Lisa proclaimed the fact that she is not a believer, and as such is not a part of the Church. Like many who are bright thinkers outside of the church she has many complaints against it. Many complaints which I share.
Where does that stop?
Paul, in what seems to have become a sort of mantra of Christian discipleship, instructs the faithful:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind (Romans 12:2a)
My thought is this: At what point must we disagree with our culture or our peers? At what point are we being conformed to the pattern of this world? Yes, Lisa had some very strong views. Some very right thoughts. Yet still she is not a believer and didn’t claim to be.
This is a field of landmines intellectually and emotionally, of that I am aware. There are parts of the Gospel which give a resounding yes to the culture. There are parts of the Gospel which stand in condemnation of the culture. How do we tell the difference?
The stakes are high on this one, as to continue the quote Paul says:
that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2b)
See, if we are conformed to the pattern of this world, we won’t even see the will of God, and the good things therein.
So what does it mean to have our minds renewed? I think the first verse holds a clue for us, as Romans 12:1-2 are one paragraph:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Paul seems to suggest here that it is in worship, in surrender to God that the renewal of our mind begins. It is our worship of God which declares us separate from the world. This is the paradigm of Christian thought, that it begins with an encounter with God. This is how our minds are made new.
With our renewed minds, maybe it will become less about who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, who we’re ‘for’ and who we’re ‘against’. Maybe it will become more about how good we are at loving. Surly that is what it means to not conform to the patterns of this world? Surly our love for another is how we show God we are indeed living as sacrifices for him?
There will, in every generation, be parts of the Gospel which embrace the culture and parts of the Gospel which are abhorrant to the culture. The challenge to Christians in each generation is the demonstration of love in each context, the very living sacrifice God finds so pleasing. The good and perfect things which are the will of God.
And so, letting this girl interrupt my life, I learned a little bit of that patient love as I listened to Lisa’s complaints without question and showed her that understanding and patience can be the marks of Christians again.
That witness of love is nothing new, it is as old as the Church. It is the evidence of the renewed mind.
Before you think I am being boastful, let me inform you that this conversation lasted a mere 10 minutes, because the rest of the time I ignored her. But I at least got to taste a little bit of what a renewed mind might be like.
It starts with God.
I’m not sure where it goes from there, but I’ll give it a go anyway.