Trying to manhandle it for God turns out to be less fun.

by Dave Schmelzer

Editor’s note: the illustration is St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, by Carvaggio (c. 1595). Francis comes up in this essay.

Imagine two circles.

A few years back, I got together with a businessman named Rich. He’d earlier said to me, “Dave, I’ve been in churches my whole life and what I see from you and your friends feels different in a good way. If there’s every anything I can do for you in my business capacity, I’d take it as a favor if you’d ask me.”

I asked him. My book, Not the Religious Type, was going to come out in about a month and I realized I wasn’t entirely clear about what I was hoping for from it. I actually hadn’t ever pitched it to publishers. Instead, a senior editor at a publishing house had heard me speak at a joint Christian/ atheist event and came up afterwards to pitch me writing a book.

I wasn’t even hoping to ask Rich’s help in marketing it—I didn’t know much about publishing, but I assumed that promotional help would have had to have happened earlier in the process. Instead, I wanted his help in thinking through the bigger picture. Did this book teach us anything about a worthy, Jesus-focused mission in the larger world?

Well, okay, Rich said. Who was I writing the book for?

I drew a circle in the air and said, “Let’s say this represents the churchgoing world.” And then I drew a circle that bumped up against it and said, “And let’s say this represents the secular world. It’s not that those are the only two circles in the world—there are other religious traditions and I’m sure lots of other circles besides. But let’s just look at these two. I’d say I wrote the book to the line between them. There’s a swath that spills over to the churchgoing world—churchgoers who may be contented religiously, but who nonetheless identify mostly with the secular world and feel alone in that among their churchgoing friends. And there’s another swath that covers secular people who feel as if there might really be Something Going On Out There.”

Rich liked that answer and said that it explained what he was driving at in his affirming comments earlier. “So,” he said, “let’s find out if there’s a market for this perspective.” He had a friend who was a booker with The (dearly mourned) Colbert Report. Why don’t we just get me on the show?

That, I said, seemed ridiculous. Why would they want some nobody like me?

Rich countered that this was important stuff, this “line” we were talking about. Maybe it wasn’t just the line between churchgoing and secular people, maybe it was the line between, say, red and blue states, which appeared to be pulling apart from one another at a dizzying rate. Maybe speaking to folks in a swath around this line was the single most important thing for America’s future!

He called his friend. The man took Rich seriously, kicked it upstairs, and got back to Rich in a couple of days. He said that both Rich and I were right. I was right that I was a nobody and they didn’t want me. But Rich was right that speaking to that line was, in their estimation, as important a task as there was today. Without someone—or many someones—speaking helpfully in exactly that way, we were headed to a kind of fragmentation worse than we’d yet seen as a country. So, he encouraged Rich—the moment Dave is a somebody, get right in touch with us and we’re good to go.

The six distinctives of Blue Ocean

This is the last in a series of essays about the six distinctives of Blue Ocean faith. Here’s a reminder.

  1. Our primary framework is SOLUS JESUS.
  2. Our primary metaphor is CENTERED-SET.
  3. Our approach to spiritual development is CHILDLIKE FAITH.
  4. Our approach to controversial issues is THIRD WAY.
  5. Our approach to other churches is ECUMENICAL.
  6. Our approach to secular culture is JOYFUL ENGAGEMENT.

Consider two types of revival.

Let’s think about the man’s point from a religious perspective. I’m a revivalist at heart. It’s what convinced both Grace and me that we should get married; we were the only people we knew who regularly prayed that God would let us participate in a revival before we died.[1] We’ve each read quite a bit about revivals. She convinced me to overlook the dated prose and get all the amazing stuff about the 1920s Welsh Revival from an old book called Rees Howells: Intercessor. I gave her interesting facts about the Great Awakenings. And we both ended up in a group of churches that emerged out of what may be America’s last revival, the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s.

After all that study, it appears that there are two kinds of revivals. Both are real, but yield very different long-range outcomes. One of the two would, I think, encourage the Colbert Report booker. The other would discourage him. One revival, perhaps, is the cause of many of America’s problems and the other is the solution.

America was shaped by holiness revivals.

One you might call a holiness revival. The Great Awakenings and tent revivals and the Welsh Revival each fit this profile. A central idea of a holiness revival is that, if churchgoers start paying serious attention to their own holiness—if they become more godly and dedicated—revival will break out from them to the rest of the world. I have friends praying in exactly this way with groups in northern California and Missouri. Perhaps the central verse for this approach is an obscure one from 2 Chronicles: “Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.”[2]

Think about Jonathan Edwards. He was a deep thinker and yet it’s the non-scholarly “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that defines his legacy. Repentance by believers, to him, is the start of repentance by the world. The Welsh Revival talked about closing down saloons and jails. It all boils down to holiness.

These revivals were incredible. Lots and lots and lots of people converted. They had social impact.

But they also brought real downsides. For one, they tended to be short-lived. Most traces of the Welsh Revival were gone within twenty years. The jails and bars were back in business. Upstate New York and New England, the center of the Great Awakenings, are now the most secular parts of America. One hypothesis is that they became “burned-over districts”: so many traveling revivalists preached hellfire there in such a short period of time that they left behind trauma that’s continued for generations.

And some of our biggest problems have their roots here. If, say, the holiness-revival world is divided into “serious Christians” and the reprobate[3]—if it’s bounded-set to the extreme—then there’s not much incentive for working together. And so we have our politics today, in which the parties—particularly the party most known for being religious—speak in saved-versus-reprobate terms. Why would you compromise by working alongside the devil?

There were, of course, some positive social consequences from these Awakenings, not least the abolitionist movement (which, granted, was opposed by religious Americans as well). But the most noteworthy social fruit of the Awakenings was Prohibition, in which the establishment religious Americans (English Puritans) drew moral lines against more-recent religious immigrants from Ireland and Italy, Catholic countries that had drinking cultures.

The Franciscan Revival looked quite different.

Let’s contrast this to a different type of revival, one with different roots, a different call to action, and very different long-range consequences. Where holiness revivals focus on boundaries—who’s inside or outside of holy living—the Franciscan Revival focused on a center: the beautiful, joy-engendering Jesus.

One is a profound “no”—to sin, if nothing else. The other is a profound “yes”—to Jesus and joy and the fullness of life.

So Francis was a young, wealthy man whose dreams of worldly glory—being a famous knight—fell apart. In his dismay, he had a vision of Jesus that led him to take radical steps like renouncing his wealth. Responding to a vision to “rebuild my church,” he started by rebuilding a local, dilapidated church. But then others joined him both because of his infectiously joyful spirit and his simple vision of hearing and obeying the delightful Jesus.

They began to travel from town to town as Jesus’s “troubadours,” singing and preaching about Jesus’s love and power. The revival that followed was markedly different than the holiness revivals.

That said, it’s not that these revivals were completely at odds. Francis had a strong personal code of holiness. Famously, when he was sexually tempted, he would roll naked in snow or bramble bushes in order to “discipline” his body. And the Awakenings and the Welsh Revival offered many people a strong encounter with Jesus. But they led with very different messages.

A virtuous cycle between the Christian and secular worlds

The Franciscan Revival—which focused on connecting with the goodness and presence of Jesus rather than on a call to “more serious Christian living”—had a remarkable effect as a new wave of enthusiasm for Jesus swept first across Italy and then across Europe. It lasted for three hundred years.

It also catalyzed a remarkable interplay with the larger culture.[4] Rather than driving a wedge between “serious” religious insiders and everyone else, each side spurred the other onto huge, mutually-beneficial leaps forward. While the Italian Renaissance had begun to show itself by the time Francis started his ministry, the wholesale change in Italian culture produced by Francis’s revival was, to G.K. Chesterton and other thinkers, at the heart of what became the Renaissance. The groupthink of the religious middle ages was replaced by a heartfelt sense that you personally could connect to God—and to truth and innovation. Without the changes Francis and his followers brought, we would say goodbye to the Renaissance’s leaps forward in government, art, education, science, philosophy and other disciplines.

And then the larger society returned the favor.

Without the Renaissance, there wouldn’t have been a Reformation, which exploded the gospel from being almost exclusively a regional, European endeavor to one that went worldwide. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli were steeped in Renaissance thinking—which gave them the perspective to critique so sweepingly the existing religious order and to offer such a compelling new vision.

And then the Reformation birthed the Enlightenment, which itself birthed modern science and the entire modern world.

The scientific method wasn’t thinkable in a world that honored tradition to the extent that the medieval world did. Galileo hadn’t been imprisoned and tortured because of his scientific observations, but because of his challenge to “what the church had always taught.” Luther and the rest of the reformers won the day that the individual could have their own encounter with truth. Hello Enlightement.

So, to recap, one type of revival, focused on the need for religious people to become more seriously religious, splits off the religious and secular worlds to the point that they can only demonize each other, which then drives their world into stagnation and animosity.

And the other does just the reverse and offers Jesus to all people, which catalyzes a profound, virtuous cycle. The good stuff that the first produces is short-lived—and then has lasting, negative consequences. The other kicks off a positive and generative cycle for all people for centuries.

A German friend of mine put these thoughts in picture form. “Erweckung” means “revival.”

Erwekung--Marlin's picture of revival


Here’s an intriguing picture from Jesus that drove Francis’ vision.

John 3:14-15, 12:32 (NIV)

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. …And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

This is an obscure reference. Jesus is calling to mind an incident in the Exodus. The Israelites were angering God with their incessant complaining, so he sent poisonous snakes into their camp. They went to Moses to see if he could address their sudden crisis. And he asked God, who told him that, if he created a bronze image of a snake, stuck it on a stick, and held the stick up, anyone who looked that direction wouldn’t die from the poison.

Jesus is foreshadowing the cross, when he would, in fact, be lifted up on a stick. But the innovation comes a few chapters later in John’s gospel—if we lift him up like the snake on the stick, he promises to draw all people to himself.

Francis realized that our job, then, was to “lift Jesus up, like the snake on the stick”—and that, having done that, we’re done. Jesus promises to take it from there. Francis understood that our temptation will be to whap people over the head with the stick in case they missed what was going on. The religious leadership of his day majored on behavioral commandments for the laity, on shaping a “godly society.” They drew swords against “the infidels” in the Crusades. Francis, instead, famously went to Malik-al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt and a prominent Muslim general. Francis expected to be martyred, but he was determined not to draw swords against the sultan, but to offer Jesus to him and see what Jesus would do. Not only was Francis not martyred, the sultan became an ally and gave Francis the land in Jerusalem that became the first Franciscan monastery.

Francis majored not on behavior change, but on this lifting-up of Jesus, a fundamentally different, centered-set act, and one that took almost a generation for the religious establishment of his day to understand. And then Jesus drew much of Europe to himself, which led to blessing building upon blessing—for everyone—for centuries.

Getting back to my conversation with Rich

Let’s think back to the bullet points from my conversation with Rich.

  • Two circles: one representing churchgoers, the other representing the secular world.
  • “Speaking to the line” in a way which could provide an overlapping, mutually beneficial conversation that perhaps would benefit both circles.

The Holiness Revival model, clearly, couldn’t, in good conscience, take on that project. That sort of “compromise” could never get the job done.

The Franciscan model, though, has lots of possibilities in this regard.

This provokes some unlearning from people of good will on both sides. We run annual Blue Ocean Summits which draw mostly churchgoers from many states. One year, our two keynote speakers were secular—one a bestselling novelist, the other a Harvard-trained psychiatrist. The novelist, who’d a few years ago made contact with these ideas and liked them, said a quick yes to coming…but then dropped all communication for months before finally agreeing to come only four days in advance. He apologized, but said he was terrified to go into a church after very bad childhood experiences. Many good-hearted secular people are skeptical that something like “speaking to the line” is possible.

On the churchgoing side, some Blue Ocean enthusiasts have big dreams and excitedly talk about things like having gatherings along these lines in every zip code in America (and beyond) and about attracting the most talented faith leaders into this Franciscan endeavor.

The faith leaders who’ve become most committed to this have discovered a new humility. Having initially responded enthusiastically, they’ve realized that sustaining this for a lifetime will require new skills and new partnerships. So they’ve gathered in cohorts, studied together, and swapped stories and ideas. People are making feature films and short films and writing novels and starting websites.

The early returns are heartening, on both sides of the line. I spoke at an MIT event with a pastor-turned-atheist of some prominence and a packed house of students. Our (secular) host, by the time the electric event was over, asked if this could become an annual tradition. On the religious side, the average church that finds their way into the Blue Ocean conversation reports a 40% increase in non-churchgoing people who join them within the first year. It’s all pretty fun.

Looking inward. Or looking at Jesus.

In the holiness revivals, to a great extent we’re looking at ourselves. We’re taking stock. Are we serious about holiness? Are we serious about prayer? Are we, well, serious?

But Francis looked at Jesus and was flooded with joy. This joy freed him to notice the world around him. He delighted in birds and animals and flowers and the stars and sun and moon and he preached to them. One doesn’t picture Jonathan Edwards paying a lot of attention to the birds. Centered-set, in Francis’s vision, grounds us in our actual world. Bounded-set abstracts us from the world into an ideal of holy behavior. And centered-set—looking at and drinking in life from Jesus as it does—intrinsically leads to joy. This becomes both our offer to others around us (who doesn’t want joy?) and our fuel to walk into a great, terrifying, mysterious journey into the heart of the wild and vast larger world.

A few experiences have helped teach me this lesson.

Our church prayed a lot for our city and we loved the vision of a national leader who convenes large, city-wide prayer gatherings. So we connected with him, financially supported his peoples’s mega prayer gathering in our city and helped them start a local prayer center. But we hit a bump when I read a letter to their financial supporters saying that the reason they were setting up a prayer center in Cambridge was to pray against the evil influence of Harvard—which they wrote was the primary font that spewed secular demonism into the world. I called the leader. Listen, I said, I’m so glad for all the prayer you all are planning to offer the city I love. But could I suggest just one changed word in your mission statement? Rather than praying “against” Harvard, could you pray “for” Harvard? For all I know, you’re totally right in your harsh assessment of them. But if they’re somehow spewing evil into the world, I’m confident—knowing a lot of professors and deans and administrators there, many of whom came to our church—that that’s not what they’re trying to do. Harvard devotes considerable resources to trying to address some of the worst problems on earth. They’re staffed by people, churchgoing and non, who are quite earnestly trying to help the world at pretty great, unequalled levels. So if you’re worried that they’re not doing that as your type of Christians, by all means pray for their enlightenment and conversion! Awesome! Whether or not we agree with your assessment of the stuff Harvard does as an institution, we could certainly get behind your prayers that they’d see the light. And those dedicated people could use intercessors, to be sure! And that, it seems to me, would still entirely fit the mandate you’re appealing to in your letters to your donors. Either way, you’ve come to a strategic place to pray for God’s work there. Seems like a win!

But no. The leader said that his charge was to curse Harvard, not bless it. If I was praying “for” such godless people, it meant I was one of them and he and I wouldn’t be speaking to each other anymore. And indeed we haven’t since.

Or I think of the secular Jewish middle-aged woman who ran a very prominent literary group. I pitched her about a literary project that would “write to the line” that Rich and I talked about in service of offering[5] religious and nonreligious Americans a place to connect. She was entirely intrigued. “But,” she said, “those religious people worry me. They’re trying to take over the country. We nonreligious people are under constant assault by them.” You know, I said, did she realize that the religious people I talked to felt very much the same about her and her friends—that they were the ones trying to take over the country? “But how could they possibly feel that way?” she asked in open-hearted befuddlement. “My friends and I are such nice people!”

Or I think about an epiphany I had on a soccer field.

Belmont, Massachusetts—my home at the time—has an astounding soccer program for young kids. Every year, hundreds of kids participate in “Second Soccer,” a parent-run program to introduce soccer and provide healthy Saturday morning activity for pretty much every young child in town. Three of my kids participated when they were the right age, all very positively. One day I was the parent who took my daughter there. I was dazzled. On this massive field were about two dozen game fields. If I looked up from seeing my young daughter’s team play, I’d see a massive swath of humanity. And the parents there were so nice. My daughter, for instance, wasn’t motivated by soccer. Her game plan was to hang back from the action and talk to her friends as they trailed behind the ball. But her coach was great—so encouraging to her and the other kids, so sacrificial in his time and money, just a gift. And I realized several things in a burst. (A) These parents were all nicer people than I was. There was no way I was willing to coach their kids. I was too busy and protective of my time. (B) Statistically, maybe 5% of these parents and children were churchgoers. (C) Proving my bounded set roots, I found myself asking: So…if things don’t change on the churchgoing front for them…are 95% of these people who are all nicer than I am going to hell?

I simultaneously had two thoughts race through me, one a flow of religious arguments and one, I think, that was the actual Jesus trying to get my attention.

Some of the religious arguments that raced through my mind were: Heaven has nothing to do with how nice they are—it’s only about Jesus! (That was unsatisfying, seeming both super-heady and mean.) Or: Dave, you call these people “nice” because of this one snippet of life with them on the soccer field, but they’re strangers to you, so you have no idea in the big picture if they’re nice or not. For all you know, a given dad or mom could be nice in this moment and the worst sort of abuser at home or at the office. (Now we were deep into head games. Was I allowed to experience these peoples’s good qualities in the moment or was that off-limits?)

But the other voice had a whole different, much cheerier and less grimly-resolute feel. “Dave,” this voice was saying, “Can I suggest dropping the ‘are all these nice strangers going to hell’ question? That’s just too big for you. Can I suggest a different framework? So maybe the contribution they’re willing to make for your kids is to be nice to them on the soccer field each Saturday this fall. Could you make a contribution? Could you, say, pray blessing into the lives of these nice people and dream with me of offering the wonderful Jesus to as many of them as possible? Don’t do it as a way to save them from hell—that will only overwhelm and depress you. Do it, instead, as a warm-hearted gift you can offer that very few of them could offer in the same way. I think we’ll both agree that knowing Jesus is the greatest, not just for churchgoers but for any human being. So…do we have a deal?”

Immediately I felt great. It was easy to pray for the people I met. Shortly thereafter, Grace and I started hosting monthly wine-and-cheese parties for these parents, where the adults would hang out over hors d’oeuvres while the kids, supervised by an energetic adult, played kids’s games together in other parts of the house. These gatherings went really well. I think of the family visiting for the year from Japan (the dad was working, yes, at Harvard) who told us that no other Americans had invited them to their house during their year there and, realizing that Japanese people behaved the same inhospitable way towards foreigners, they were going to institute wine and cheese parties when they got home. I think of my son’s coach whom I started praying for most days just because he was so kind to my son. After one party, he asked if we could get together. He’d been sexually abused by a Boston priest as a boy and—despite on the surface seeming like one of the most confident, magnetic people in the room—his life was in crisis; he couldn’t hold a job; he had constant anxiety and his marriage was at risk. As a pastor, could I help him? Or I think of the Salvadoran man who’d grown up in wealth, but who’d had a breakdown after taking a fun trip to Africa on his family’s money, only to get caught in Rwanda just as the genocide was breaking out. Now his life had collapsed in many ways and he was wondering could I do whatever pastor stuff I did that could help him in his PTSD?

You can imagine that Jesus came up, to great responsiveness and gratitude, a lot.

So the question: Is Jesus’s preferred response to nonchurchgoing culture to draw lines against it, pray against it, and decry its evil influence on the lives of godly people like those in our circle? Are these guests at our wine and cheese parties the enemies of right-thinking, godly people? Or is there another option?

The Bible has a dynamic response to this question.

Most of the Old Testament has a clear take on this. Stay away from other cultures. They’re horrific. They worship fertility gods. They appease their evil gods by burning up some of their kids. If you get to know them even a little bit, you’ll end up intermarrying, which will bring their filth right into your godly culture. Stay away!

And it’s not just the early Old Testament. Paul makes a related point in 2 Corinthians 6, in which he quotes Isaiah 52:11:

“Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”[6]

This is a big verse, maybe even a constituting verse, for the Amish. “Be ye separate!” Have no interaction with worldly culture—which has led them into an odd alliance not with a culture from biblical times, but with 18th century Dutch culture.[7]

But Paul, whose entire ministry—entire life—was based upon tearing down dividing walls between his religious friends and the wider world seems to be making a specific, rather than a general point here. And Jesus was a transitional person along these lines. On the one hand, Jesus tells us he only came for his bounded set.[8] And yet he commissions his followers to go to the ends of the earth.[9] He commands them to be “salt and light” to the whole world[10] to, as a friend of mine put it, “become part of the petri dish of culture creation.” He tells parables that all point towards everyday lived life—coins, food, agriculture, animals, debt, lending, buying, parenting, planning for war, flowers, birds. Like Francis did later, Jesus sees and teaches about God in the stuff of everyday life and culture. To his listeners, the images infuse the world all around them with God. The bounded-set religious people were infuriated that he was a “friend of sinners” even as he was often a critic towards these religious critics. In a religious world that regarded contact with unholiness as contaminating—one that would require the priest in the parable of the good Samaritan to walk on the other side of the road to avoid contamination from a man who might be dead—Jesus introduces the prospect that his followers, instead, would “infect” the wider world with their own health.[11] Profound fear of the world is replaced by a joyous, Franciscan journey into the heart of it in service of “being a light to the nations,” the central call to God’s people by the end of the Hebrew Bible.[12]

So are we called to “take back culture?”

I live in greater L.A. and I run across occasional people looking to “take Hollywood for Jesus” or to “impact culture for the gospel.” You might imagine why I’d be against the first—the unaware bounded-set-ed-ness of it. But is this essay arguing for the second?

I don’t think it is.

Think back to the image in the earlier essay on religious squabbles. I talk there about a religious person who, rather than holding truth in their hands, has instead walked inside a vast circle of truth, far bigger than they could ever traverse in their lifetimes, but which is distilled truth nonetheless. If this is the world we’re in, culture is not something that can be “impacted.” It’s bigger than you and I. Instead, Jesus and Francis seem to encourage a joyful engagement, a happy journey in which we “let our light shine” even as we learn from all the truth around us[13] that we’re so lucky to get a glimpse of. This is a joyful rather than fearful journey, not the journey of the priest in the Good Samaritan parable, but instead the journey of Jesus and Francis. The secular cities that many of us live in are not our enemies, but offer us profound gifts and profound opportunities to take our place within them.

What are the implications of this?

I can think of a few. I’m going brazenly to mix exhortations and observations.

  • Assume that every person who’s ever lived wants Jesus.

If you live in a secular city, they likely don’t want Christianity. They certainly don’t want a theological argument. They don’t want truth claims.

But they do want Jesus and so they are not your enemies. We were created to know and love the God who made us, the same one who sent us Jesus to get an up-close picture of what he’s like. All humans want that. So the good news is: we don’t have to be insecure! We don’t have to browbeat anyone that by golly we’re right about something! We don’t have to threaten people with hell. We can be confident that, insofar as we actually know the living, communicative, loving, present Jesus, we have truly good news for everyone. We have a real contribution to make.

  • Secular culture, intriguingly, is made up of people.

This is why we don’t need to take on the burden of “changing” secular culture, anymore than we take on the burden of “changing” a given person. Instead, the good stuff tends to come when we interact with a given person, when we relate to them, when we—best case—connect with them. We give; we receive. That seems to be the way relationships work best. Abstractions—or demonized, strange “outsiders”—can perhaps be “changed.”[14] But not the neighbor you and I know. They can be befriended.

And think back to the “100 arrows” idea we talked about in the centered-set essay, the one that encouraged us that any human being can teach us things about Jesus that we need to know.

  • Genuine connection makes us joyful.

You and I have such burdens in our lives. But a universal burden-reliever is connection. When we actually connect to others—or to God or to ourselves—we tap into the one and only joy-generator that God offers us. We’re relational, even us introverts. Demonizing the culture around us is disconnecting; it’s against how we’ve been made. When the prayer leader could only demonize the abstraction he called “Harvard,” he couldn’t experience the joy of knowing and praying for the dedicated Harvard people I knew and loved. When we cut ourselves off from this sort of connection, we become the sort of grim, humorless, angry religious people we see on occasion in the Bible and on occasion in religious people we meet. Francis was connected to every person he met and also to the whole creation. Again, the joyful revival he started lasted centuries and transformed Europe and the modern world. The stern, adversarial holiness revivals haven’t pulled that off.

  • Meet your neighbors.

Despite my years of pastoring, I’m not what a disinterested observer would call a friendly person. I’m, again, mildly introverted. I rarely learn the names of the baristas in the coffee shops I regularly work in. Pray for me.

Happily, I’m married to a woman who is much friendlier and more extroverted than I am. She does meet our neighbors and the parents of our childrens’s friends. And so, over the years, we’ve invited them into many different types of gatherings, from the family wine-and-cheese parties I described earlier to seasonal open houses to more formal “salons” in which we convene a conversation about meaning.

Here’s what I’ve learned from this: it’s fun to host the party. (A) Nobody else does it. Okay, that’s an overstatement—in some places, somebody else does in fact do it. But, if you live in a secular city like mine, for the most part what you’ll hear from your neighbors is that you’re the first person on their block to invite them into your home. (B) If you’re like me, it turns out to be more fun to host the party than to go to the (rare) party hosted by one of your neighbors. I feel awkward milling around with strangers. When I’m the host, however, I enjoy welcoming each guest and learning about them. Could just be me. (C) You will learn fascinating things about your neighbors. In a recent gathering, I learned that not one, but two middle-aged women there had been backup dancers in famous music videos of the 80s and 90s. Didn’t see that one coming. Those neighbors you see all the time but don’t, like, actually know turn out to be really interesting people. (D) The more you do this, the more connected you will feel to your neighborhood. You’ll say hi to people. They’ll shout a greeting at you from across the street. They’ll come running up to you to tell you they’ve been thinking about you. In my experience this is not the norm in the big city.

  • Pray for your six.

One more. (E) God will become part of this story. In the churches I’ve been a part of, we’ve talked about this thing we’ve called “praying for your six.” Here’s the idea. Whenever you pray for anyone—your family, anyone—also pray for your six. These are six local people who, best as you can figure out, are not experiencing much from God. They’re neighbors, like I’ve described here. They’re co-workers. A recent one for me was a supermarket checker who became friends with my daughter and me.[15] The reason for these to be local is to connect you to your actual city, rather than only praying for your aunt in Fort Lauderdale or your old roommate who moved to Dallas.[16] And here’s the thing. Maybe the reason these people might not be experiencing much from God is that no one is praying for them! Maybe you can be that agent of God for them! That dynamic coach of my son who pulled me aside to talk about being abused by a priest? One of my six. That Salvadoran man with PTSD who asked me to help him find God again? One of my six.

Here’s my unprovable belief: God honors people and churches who pray for their six. He entrusts them with awesome things they wouldn’t otherwise experience. All because they notice the people they rub shoulders with daily. Rather than cursing their faceless, “godless” city, they bless hundreds and hundreds of nonchurchgoing inhabitants of that city.

  • Be the culture creator that you are.

I love the upshot of Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making in which he argues that all of us can and should create stuff. We can make the garden that brings beauty to our block. We can write the poems that some of our friends read and enjoy. We can write the memoir so our kids can know who we really are and a bit about their ancestors. We can create. Maybe we swing for the fences and write that feature film or novel or we pitch that new TV series. I know churchgoers doing that. Now, true, most of us who swing away like that don’t connect. By definition only very few people get to be the one-in-a-million cultural icon. But in Crouch’s world, why not take your swing? In this world, we’re creating not out of the burden to “change culture.” If that’s our view, we need to get over ourselves. Instead we do it for the Franciscan joy of it. Francis didn’t sing to the birds in hopes of landing a Billboard-charting hit song. Grace composes little ditties about God that we’ve sung to our kids at bedtime. Her songs are really good! When our oldest was two, she wrote her first chart-topper, which she’d sing to him as he put a plush-toy ball through a hoop for hours: “Benjamin Loves Basketball.” Pretty darn infectious. Most likely, you’ll never hear it.

  • Or just engage the larger culture in any way that comes to mind.

Just do it as a joyful Franciscan rather than as a stern holiness preacher.

Don’t change the world. Live in the world.

You don’t need to change the world. God’s wonderful gift is that you get to live in the world. And as you find joy from connecting with God and people and yourself and your city and your world, you get to play a relational role in everything you touch. That’s how any of us help out anyone else, by engaging and delighting in actual people, not by “taking a stand” against abstractions. Think of A Christmas Carol. Isn’t it more fun to be the bountiful, joyous Father Christmas who’s the Ghost of Christmas Present—who fully lives in God’s gift of the present moment and so overflows to the world around him—than it is to be Scrooge, who lives in a world of responsibility and convictions? As Francis discovered, the God we worship is abundant indeed.

I’m a revivalist. Whatever it turns out to look like, I want to take my place in a centered-set revival for Jesus that will sweep the world. To my mind, the Franciscan—or, better stated, the “Jesus”—plan is our best bet to pull that off.

[1] As time has gone on, I know less and less what a religious revival actually is. How would we know if one hit? As we’ve talked about in these essays, so much of any religion boils down to culture, so whenever any religious culture expands its turf, to them God’s revival has come! But I remain a revivalist nonetheless, even as I acknowledge that, you know, pretty primary problem. I pray for things like “a centered-set revival.” I’m not sure how I’ll know if God answers my prayer.

[2] 7:14

[3] Damned

[4] G.K. Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi takes a vivid, uniquely-G.K.-Chesterton look at this interplay. 99 cents in the Kindle edition! And a quick word to say that the idea of a “secular” culture in that era would have been nonsensical. You were born into a religion. But there very much was a developing story of a “larger” culture, as Chesterton documents, that was very much also a “secular” culture before this timeline was done.

[5] Soft stage 2 and soft stage 3

[6] Do I need to mention that, being Paul, he doesn’t quite quote the verse that shows up there today? (This could be because he was quoting the translation called the Septuagint. We have more accurate translations today.) In Isaiah, it focuses only on the priests: “Depart, depart, go out from there!/ Touch no unclean thing!/ Come out from it and be pure,/ you who carry the articles of the Lord’s house.”

[7] I don’t think this oddity is accidental. If we “stand against” the culture of the world, we’re choosing to cement ourselves into our own, quirky culture. There’s no way to be culture-free.

[8] Matthew 15:24: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

[9] Matthew 28:16-20

[10] Matthew 5:13-16

[11] In Mark 8:2-3, Jesus touched a leper—which should have both exposed Jesus to this highly contagious disease and made him unclean to enter the temple. Instead things went the other way and the man no longer had leprosy.

[12] Isaiah 49:6: “(God) says: ‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’”

[13] One of my wife’s favorite truisms is “all truth is God’s truth.”

[14] They can’t. But they do provoke us to dream that they could!

[15] I think she actually did know God. But it was too fun to pray for her not to include her in my six. I made her a seventh!

[16] By all means pray for those people too.