Learning to Live as a Minority

Two weeks ago I was at a conference in Nairobi, Kenya. There were over 300 people there for the African Forum on Religion and Government. Now you may be wondering what in the world I was doing there. I suspect that some people at the conference wondered that as well. I was invited because the person who was responsible for putting on the conference actually worships at Northland’s Oviedo Campus. Since I am Northland’s Partner Coordinator for our work in South Africa I received an invitation.

Delegates were there from 32 different African nations. They included a President, a Vice President, a Minister of Foreign Affairs, a Justice Minister, a Minister of Information, and a host of other political and religious leaders from across the continent. There were also several folks from the United States, most of whom were helping with logistics for the conference. You can also pretty well guess that there were not many white faces around. In fact I think I was one of maybe a half dozen white people in the conference. And that might be an overestimate.

For three days I was keenly aware of being in a minority. I felt as if no matter what I did, I stood out and was visible. If anyone was looking for me, all they needed to say to anyone else was, “he is the white guy about six feet tall with broad shoulders”. That would have been enough to set me apart from the few other white people. When I first entered the conference I took a seat near the back. Our host then made sure that I was moved to the second row along with some dignitaries and special guests. I felt like you could have put a neon sign on me and I would not have stood out any more. Now granted some of my sense of sticking out can be attributed to the human propensity for thinking that things are about us far more than they really are. But without a doubt, as such an obvious minority, anything I did was made more visible than if I was one more of the 300 black delegates.

During the entire conference I was acutely aware of my color. And even though I was in the midst of some of the most loving and gracious followers of Jesus that I have ever met, I wanted to make sure that I was not, “that guy”. You know, “that guy” who reinforces all the negative stereotypes. I wanted to be sure that I didn’t do or say anything that could be misconstrued, be offensive or just flat out make me and all white people look like idiots. When you are a minority I think it has to impact your behavior. We know that when people are in the majority it definitely impacts their behavior, usually for the worse. Just think of a mob that is out of control.

For a long time, we followers of Jesus in the western hemisphere were able to live like the majority. There were simply more Christians than anyone else and the culture was also “Christianized”. In that position we had the opportunity to be gracious and kind to the non-Christian minority. We had the ability to love them as Jesus called us to. Or we had the ability to bully them, or ridicule them, or simply ostracize them. Sadly we usually did the later and the non-Christian minority learned to fly under the radar and avoid our judgmentalism and damnation of them and their behavior. But over time that kind of behavior on our part caused us to go from being the majority to the minority in just a few generations. The culture barely has any remaining vestiges of Christendom and people pretty much do whatever is right in their own eyes, to the point of flaunting sin and now calling it virtue. Tragically many Christians have been compelled to be even more judgmental and cry out even harsher sentences on the unbelievers. In other cases Christians have gone mute, saying nothing that would draw attention and living no differently from the culture. We do this in order to avoid conflict and ridicule and stay safe.

There was a time in our past when being the minority was the lot of every follower of Jesus. For the for the first few centuries we were the minority. But instead of heaping judgment or hiding our light under a basket, our ancestors in the faith learned to be careful about everything they did or said, not to be safe, but to point to Jesus. They understood that their every action spoke volumes. None of them wanted to be “that guy” who brought disgrace to the name of Jesus by behaving in the wrong way. They understood that they were the salt of the earth and if they lost their saltiness, then what good where they to the Lord or the world? They knew that people were watching and so every move they made needed to bring glory to Jesus and show love and grace to others.

One of my sons is regularly involved in a sports ministry that reaches out to Muslim teenagers. He told me one day, “Dad, I don’t ever need to say anything about my faith. They all know that I follow Jesus because I am not a Muslim, and so they watch everything I do to see what it means to be a Christian”. When you are a minority that is the way it is. If you are a follower of Jesus, do you know you are a minority? Even if you live in the Bible belt of America if you are following Jesus you are in the minority. The problem is, many of us are living like we are still a super-majority and we are oblivious to what our actions say to people around us. Some of us who realize that we are a minority are freaked out by that and have become shrill voices of accusation against the world. That is not what Jesus wants. Rather, I think He wants us to remember that being the minority is an incredible opportunity to demonstrate the love, grace, mercy, determination, integrity, winsomeness, and I will say it again, the love that Jesus calls us to.

Trust me, there are some people around you who know you are a Christian. They are watching you to see if it is real. They are watching you because you are a minority, you are different, you are unusual. On top of that, the hope against hope that what you have is real and might work for them. You may not know who they are but they are there. And if you live a life of grace, peace, forgiveness, contentment, self-sacrifice, and love, they will be drawn to you and will want to know the Jesus who your life glorifies.

Is Your Faith Relevant, or Provocative?

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16

There is a great deal of talk among Christians these days about the need to make our faith relevant. I understand the desire, in fact for a long time I said that same thing myself. The fact is, most people just don’t see a need for Jesus in their lives. The desire to make Christianity relevant, in large part stems from the realization that in this Post-Christendom world in which we live, people just aren’t paying any attention to what Christians have to say. The assumption, probably correct, is that what we are saying just doesn’t relate to their lives. There is a great deal of truth here. The average westerner really doesn’t care about our eschatology, (when and how we think Jesus will return), or about our differences over the physical presence of Jesus in communion, or a whole list of other things we spend so much time talking about.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think having a correct Biblical understanding of these things is important. And I love few things more than studying them and helping others understand them. But that is not the focal point of being a Christian and certainly not what the non-Christian is searching for. So we have properly tried to switch the focus to questions that are relevant to them, things like how to have a good marriage, raise your kids, deal with hardship, and a host of other topics. So we have made the faith “relevant” to their lives.

But I must confess that there is a growing discontent in me over what the result of all the effort this move to relevance has wrought. I get the feeling that a relevant Christianity as it has evolved in recent years is somehow lacking real punch. It just seems way too tame and respectable. It is not a faith that reaches out and grabs people who observe it in others. When I think of the word relevant, I think of people having a discussion about some topic and a point comes up and someone says, “Hey, I think this bit of information is relevant to what we are talking about”. As such, that relevant thing just becomes one more piece among many that helps you reach your conclusion or settle and argument. So I wonder if this relevant faith that we have been promoting isn’t just one more “bit of information” that people add to the smorgasbord of their world view, in order to get by just a little easier? And I wonder of our relevant faith hasn’t become something that the non-Christian is able to take or leave with equal ease.

That leads me to the idea of provocative Christianity. A faith that really rocks is one that like Matthew 5:14-16, provokes a response from people. It is that shining light on a hill that draws people, it compels them to look and see. In fact it is a faith that leads them into a worship of the Father. Let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.

A truly provocative faith is one that demonstrates itself in service to others in that name of Jesus. It is a self sacrificing faith that looks for ways to be the hands and feet of Jesus for others. It comes out of what Paul says to the Philippians that we are to consider others more important than ourselves and in this way be just like Jesus. It is really what Jesus meant when He said that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. When we love someone with real action, servanthood exercised in humility, then they will want to know our God and worship Him.

There is a power in living a provocative faith that goes way beyond making Chrisitianity relevant. But it comes at a price. It is the price of sacrificing ourselves for others. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this means some sort of death defying sacrifice where you push someone out of the way of a bus and you get killed instead. It is much less dramatic than that. It is as simple as returning the extra change a clerk gave you that was more than you were suppose to get. It is giving that young couple with the new born baby, two passes to the movies and a coupon for free babysitting on a Friday night. It is inviting that international student to your hme for Thanksgiving dinner and simply setting an extra plate. It is tipping your server 20% and asking if there is anything in their life you can pray about. It is asking your neighbor if you can pick up something from the grocery store for them when you know they are sick. The list could go on and one. But these are the kinds fo things that will eventually provoke a response of worship from people who see your light shine in Jesus name.