There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Christian. That was a profound wake-up call for me as a relatively cloistered White Southern Appalachian-American Holiness Pentecostal believer coming of age in the tumultuous ’70’s. In those days, maintaining our ‘testimony’ was the primary qualifier when deciding on dress, conduct toward the opposite sex – pretty much every personal choice that affected what the lost might see in us. While the information age was rapidly interconnecting the disparate cultures of the world, our internal controversies were largely measured by the placement of the Holiness hemline with comparatively little mention of the purpose of such tedium. Fast forward to now, and those discussions have become the fodder of rebellious overreaction and oversimplification by kids whose fundamental impulses have not changed – the impulse to do everything their own way. Cue the confusion now that the old templates have been all but discarded in favor of a personal preference brand of religious identity – one based primarily in a kind of actualized Christian self-esteem rather than standardized external mores. So, the question remains….what does the ‘typical’ Christian look like in this third decade of the new millennium?
Let me offer an alternative look. Instead of failing to the shallow demand for universal acceptance of whatever doesn’t blatantly violate specific scripture guidance, or contrariwise clinging to some tattered old pattern that was modest in it’s day but today is just….well….weird, there’s a simpler and I believe more Biblical approach. It has to do with what the lost see us doing rather than what they see us representing. Obviously biblical modesty is still the holiness standard, but the paint on the barn is not nearly so important as what comes out of the barn.
I served in the Navy as an enlisted Nuclear Engineer for almost nine years prior to entering full time pastoral ministry. My first duty assignment after a couple of years of intensive training was as a staff instructor at a fully operational land-based prototype reactor plant. We had a working nuclear reactor just like the one on the USS Bainbridge, a nuclear powered surface combat vessel that was in operation at the time. We had a steam plant, turbine generators, pumps, supports systems, and even main engines — everything but an ocean in which to expend the energy we produced in such abundance. The solution was simple – we needed a place to dump all that power – a load absorber. Without boring you with all the details, dissipating the equivalent amount of energy it takes to run an average American city is no small task, but the engineers found a way to do it – they connected the shaft to a mechanism that basically turned all that power eventually back into heat and steamed it right up into the atmosphere. I always wondered why we couldn’t just connect up another generator and feed the grid, but I suppose our training cycles were just a bit too erratic for such sensible measures. It wasn’t our job, after all, to produce electricity – it was to produce well trained nuclear power plant operators ready to go to work in the fleet. In summary, we had the potential to produce massive amounts of electricity as a by-product of our training operations, but out of necessity we chose to ‘waste’ all that power in favor fulfilling our objective.
How does that bear on the ‘prototypical Christian’ question? Stay with me here. The job of the prototype was different from the job of the operational vessel. The prototype used the process to produce operators using students, but the vessels to which they were assigned used largely the same process to produce mission critical objective completion using those same operators. The point was not simply to make good operators for the sake of making good operators, but to make good operators so that complex military objectives could be accomplished as a result of their preparation. The major difference between those well trained student operators and the qualified operators aboard ship boiled down to one thing – what was attached to that shaft. ‘Turning the screw’ (propeller) was the immediate result of the process in both cases, but turning the shaft alone wasn’t the primary objective – mission completion was. For all the blabbering professions of proficiency among students nearing the end of their training cycles, it was understood that without salt-water experience, their value to the Navy was unrealized. Until they had gone out into the ‘real’ world and done something with the training with which they had been entrusted, they were nothing but polished up bags of potential waiting for the opportunity to produce. Isn’t that what happens when the ‘prototype’ Christian spends all his or her energy on excelling in the process at the expense of focusing on the product? What is the ultimate mission critical objective of the Body of Christ? Is it to be able to operate all the ‘switches’ and ‘knobs’ according to spec, and primarily to excel at the process itself? Or isn’t it more about what’s attached to that shaft?
Of course it matters that we excel at evangelism and discipleship, but those things happen in a vacuum if we focus our energies on appearances alone rather than engaging in effective witness by those newly trained disciples. The question we must ask is whether or not all our polish and proficiency is making a difference and accomplishing our ‘mission critical objective’ – the Great Commission! What the lost need to see, more than insulated religious compliants, is Christ followers demonstrating His love in the ways Christ did himself — with dirty servants’ hands and clean hearts. We are discipled to make disciples for the Kingdom, not just to subjectively perfect the process at the expense of the product.