It is a distinctively human desire to be heard. We all want to know that somebody sees us and somebody cares. It resonates with us to know that our struggles are not unique.
This resonance sells records and movie tickets. It fills malls with clothes designed to make you stand out. It can even set public policy. Many historians point to Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” moment in a town hall-style debate as the turning point in his campaign, propelling him to the White House in 1992.
It resonated with people to see that a man vying for the highest office in the nation seemed to understand the challenges facing a working single mother.
Last week, a Los Angeles-based punk band called Spanish Love Songs released a new album that, according to its website, was designed to hone in on what makes their music resonate with their fans.
For this effort, songwriter Dylan Slocum broke with the abrasive, profanity-laced tracks complaining about his personal life that had characterized his previous songs. Instead, these new abrasive, profanity-laced tracks deal with a whole host of social and philosophical issues from the opioid crisis and mass shootings to income inequality, self-doubt, affordable housing, mental health, human depravity and climate change, just to name a few.
If the online buzz is any indication, it is working — fans seem to be resonating with Slocum’s depiction of a world that, in his words, “is short on empathy.”
Churches recognize the power of this kind of resonance too. For the last few decades, “cultural relevance” has been a huge buzzword in many church leadership circles. This version of resonance, however, is a bit different — shallower than some of the other examples.
Often, this cultural relevance can get too individually focused, teaching to my immediate felt needs, telling me God wants to make sure I’m happy, healthy and successful. At its best, it can offer me helpful advice navigating the ups and downs of life. It can remind me that God really does care about me. Did you notice how many times these last few sentences contained the word “me”?
At its worst, this brand of cultural relevance risks transforming the good news of the Gospel into good advice. It spins me up into a cyclone of “God-feels-my-pain,” anesthetizing me to the real suffering and real injustice around me.
It can even shelter me from the gospel demand to love God in every sphere of my life and to love my neighbor, even the ones I’ll never meet, as I love myself.
In Ephesians, the Apostle Paul writes that one of God’s great purposes for the church is to make God’s wisdom known to the world through us. In the context, Paul is writing about unity between the Jewish and Gentile people.
In Chapter 2, Paul writes that God has made peace, reconciling humanity to God and to one another through Christ’s death. Christians, he argues in Ephesians 3:10, are witnesses to this heavenly wisdom and are called to display it and speak it to the world.
But what if it doesn’t stop there? What if the Bible addresses every sphere of human existence? What if we are called to display the wisdom of God to the world in every possible area of our lives?
So, what does God’s wisdom have to say about mass shootings or mass incarceration? What is God’s vision for housing and poverty, immigration and inequality? How does the wisdom of God address climate change, human depravity, self-doubt and the opioid crisis?
Now, I’m not saying churches need to become more partisan, in fact, most of us probably need to set aside our partisan leaning a little bit more. I’m not saying we have to have all the answers either. I know I don’t, and I’m beginning to wonder if I ever will. I am saying that we have got to start asking the hard questions.
If churches want to be taken seriously, to resonate with the world around us, we have to take our eyes off ourselves and start dealing with the painful realities of life in a world that is not as just as it should be.
Jason Koon is an ordained minister who lives in Morganton.
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