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The Fine Line: Re-envisioning the Gap Between Christ and Culture, Kary Oberbrunner (Zondervan, 2008)
Kary Oberbrunner (KO) is the Pastor of Discipleship and Leadership Development at Grace Church in Powell, Ohio.
CPYU: What motivated you to write The Fine Line?
KO: I grew up in a Christian home. I did the whole Christian school, Christian college, and Christian seminary gig. One day I guess I woke up and said, gee, I have nothing in common with anyone in the world. In fact, I don't even know many unbelievers. I found myself extremely judgmental toward culture and I knew God wasn't impressed. Jesus told his followers he wanted them to be in the world and not of it. But here I was, removed from the world, isolated in my little Christian subculture.
I knew my problem, but I didn't have a solution. And believe me I looked. Everywhere! CD's, seminars, conferences, you name it. Sure there was the book Christ and Culture by Richard Niebuhr, but that was written well over fifty years ago when times were different.
Niebuhr, a genius faculty member of Yale Divinity School, named the Sterling Professor of Theology and Christian Ethics, attempted to describe the variety of ways in which Christians interact with culture, and make sense of it. His book was profound, for its time. Many classify it as one of the most influential Christian books of the past century. No other book has dominated an entire theological conversation for so long.
But as a twenty-something at the time, I wasn't impressed. It's not that I didn't like the topic of a believer's role with culture—I was fascinated by it—but I couldn't understand Niebuhr's book. Even though I'd been a pastor for years, graduated from two seminaries, and have a doctorate in ministry, I couldn't grasp Niebuhr's style. It's written for the elite within the academy not for the masses within the church.
You see, in 1951 the world was very different. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness. The divorce rate was less than half of what it is today. Prayer was still allowed in school. Abortion was illegal. There was no Internet or cell phones. And attending movies was considered a sin by many.
A book about Christians transforming that type of culture is a little bit different than today. One might argue that our culture back then was much more Christian. On some levels it was easier. Even though culture has changed God hasn't. Our generation needs to re-envision what it means to live in the world and not of it. Christians today want to know how they can transform culture not separate from it or conform to it. We need a new paradigm for a new time.
CPYU: How do you think this book will benefit parents and youth workers?
KO: I've seen enough of the next generation leaving the church. According to some estimates, fifty-eight percent of young adults who attended church at 18 no longer attend by age 29. This number accounts for more than 8,000,000 twentysomethings who are simply "missing in action."
Why is much of this generation voting on spiritual matters with their absence? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that there is little difference between the attitudes and actions of believers and unbelievers. Rather than drawing people to Christ, many Christians are pushing people away because of the disconnection between what we say and how we live. That cannot continue.
Christ followers are supposed to be the most liberated, grace-filled people on earth. We're supposed to have what people want—a message so powerful it will cause the dead to rise and the blind to see. We're supposed to have the Living God, living inside us. We're supposed to know how to live in the world but not of it.
Most believers I know don't know. Most are either out of the world or they're of the world. No wonder Christians have so little impact, so little relevance. Now more than ever, we need understand how to live in the world but not of it. And that's exactly what this book will do: discover the fine line.
You see, Christians fall into one of three camps: the Separatists, the Conformists, and the Transformists. Only one camp is relevant. The other two have alienated themselves from the conversation. Separatists reject culture. Conformists embrace culture. Only Transformists change culture.
The Fine Line explores the meaning of relevance. Many teens think it has to do with externals like the clothes you wear or the music you listen to. But ironically relevance has little to do with externals.
The Fine Line shows how we all lean tend toward irrelevance. Separatists think they love God and end up failing to love people. Conformists think they love people and end up failing to love God. But only Transformists love God and people. They're the Christians who walk the fine line and they're the people who are re-envisioning the gap between Christ and culture. Each generation of people who follow Jesus must wrestle with the question- how does one live in the world and not of it. Each generation must emerge with some kind of answer. This question of relevance is, as Michael Joseph Gross puts it, "arguably the most basic ethical question of the Christian faith."
Teens don't want to be sold a product. They don't want to hear a sermon or handle a Gospel tract. Teens want to see a changed life. And that's exactly what this book does. It is changing their lives because it puts words to an age-old mystery. It is our generations' answer on how to live in the world and not of it.
CPYU: If churches took the central message of your book seriously, what changes do you think they would need to make?
KO: Many Christ followers for many years have misunderstood what being in the world, but not of it truly entails. For fear of being of the world, the Separatists (in the book "deceived God lovers") have forever attempted to escape the world. Their motives are correct, wanting to be righteous, but their outcomes are always skewed.
Sometimes the Separatists have built a Christian subculture -a cheesy, vanilla flavored, sanctified copycat version of pop culture. Other times Separatists have done some fairly epic, but irrelevant acts, like a guy named Simeon Stylites a monk type figure alive in the 400's who lived on top of a 50 ft. pillar for over 36 years, in order to escape the wicked world. The plan backfired and he became a rock star in his own right, only attracting more "worldly" fame.
For fear of going out of the world, the Conformists (in the book "deceived people lovers") have forever become of the world. Their motives are correct, wanting to be relevant, but their outcomes are always skewed too. Many Conformists become church haters and hypocrites. Conformists want to change the stereotype of Christians being lame, but they cross the line and the limits by simply conforming to the world, instead of transforming it.
If churches took the central message of my book seriously, they not only would need to make changes, but so would the people in the church, including the pastor. Let me give you a few concrete examples from my own world.
My church (Grace Church) has started a free medical clinic called Grace Clinic (check out the video clip). Doctors, nurses, and volunteers show up every Wednesday night to offer free health care to those who have no insurance. We offer prayer first. Some people accept it and some refuse.
We give people a taste of the Kingdom and some want more. Some just want a prescription. We now have several people in our church who started out as Grace Clinic patients. Although initially unbelievers, they made the decision to follow Jesus. Some of these people are hardened people: ex-convicts, drug addicts, and people wanting sex changes. Still Jesus has freed them from their addictions and given them holistic peace in this life and the next.
Because not all readers can do a "Grace Clinic" I'll share a less glamorous story. A few months back I'm at the YMCA doing my routine workout. I see a man next to me obviously struggling with his mp3 player. I asked him if he needed help. Turns out Bob, a 71 year old, African American, needed an introduction into the technological age.
After several encounters and several lessons with iTunes, Bob started attending our church. Just last month he stayed after the service and informed me that he wanted to give his life to Jesus. Evidently, the light he saw in his mother's eyes before she passed was the same light he saw in people's eyes at our church and he wanted it.