Make the distance visible

The disposition of the Christian pastor and preacher is often contested in this age of celebrity and notoriety. Navigating the prevailing culture that rewards self-promotion and banishes the simple, faithful, servants of God to relative obscurity, can be difficult for those without natural gifts of charisma, who still retain a passionate desire to be an effective herald for Christ. However, it is important to remember that the gospel of the Kingdom as Jesus delivered it in the first century wasn’t a popular message with the gatekeepers of religious culture, nor was Christ Himself a popular messenger. But no one would argue that the message of Christ was ineffective or powerless. And while we aren’t Jesus, we are His representatives, and have a responsibility to proclaim the message of the gospel consistently in an increasingly hostile world.

How do we do this without the trappings of celebrity that our culture rewards, or without retreating to silos of affinity which the larger culture ignores? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident, who eventually lost his life due to his opposition of Hitler, distinguished between public speech and preaching by noting, “In normal speech, everything depends on our identifying with our own words. In speaking the word of God, by contrast, everything depends on the distance becoming visible.” (Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Homiletics,” 504) 

The current iteration of popular Christianity often misses the point of making the distance between God’s holiness and our sinfulness visible. Rather, most of our preaching and presentation centers on diminishing that gap instead of highlighting its existence. For example, lots of preaching and presentations in churches today strategically design material that is centered in validating the emotional and social desires of those we want to attract instead of a strategy that challenges the foundations of those desires with the realities of the gospel of Christ. So that the resulting community is one that exist to serve the perceived needs of people rather than addressing the actual needs of people. 

The earthly ministry of Jesus exemplifies that His aim wasn’t the attraction of followers but the calling of disciples. For instance, in John chapter six, the multitude showed up following the multiplication of the loaves and fishes demanding that Jesus replicate his miracle of the previous day. Instead of meeting the desire of the crowd to feed them once again, Jesus challenged them by addressing the actual needs of the multitude, revealing that He is “the bread of life.” (John 6:35) 

And in John 4:4 Jesus insisted “He had to pass through Samaria.” Of course, Jesus could have traveled an alternative route totally bypassing the ostracized region. But Jesus purposely chose to travel through the region that others avoided, precisely because Jesus engages with those others avoid. There was no practical benefit to the reputation or popularity for Jesus intentionally going through a shunned land and engaging a marginalized woman. Unfortunately, too often our modern ministries are governed by practical benefit instead of eternal impact. We obsess over what works instead of what transforms, words and actions that placate rather than challenge, and best practices that justify idolatries instead of tearing them down. 

Bonhoeffer challenged Nazi Germany because he was willing to identify with the Christ of Scripture, who hid Himself among humanity by identifying Himself with those who were marginalized and rejected. In contrast, to the anti-Christ of his age who highlighted his position and his followers by marginalizing, rejecting, and ultimately attempting to exterminate those different than himself. 

Bonhoeffer remarks, “How is Jesus’s particular way of existing as the Humiliated One expressed? In that he has taken on sinful flesh. The conditions for his humiliation are set by the curse, the fall of Adam. In being humiliated, Christ, the God-human, enters of his own free will into the world of sin and death. He enters there in such a way as to conceal himself [there], so that he is no longer recognizable visibly as the God-human. He comes among us beggars, and outcast among outcasts; he comes among sinners as the one without sin, but also as a sinner among sinners.” (Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology (Student Notes),” 356. 

What if we followed the example of Christ instead of the example of culture? How different would our churches, our example be? Ultimately how would our world benefit from reflecting Christ instead of pursuing celebrity?