Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Need to Matter

From time to time, as I walk across the University of Houston campus, I will witness some "well meaning" evangelist holding a Bible and debating with students in the grassy yard in front of M.D. Anderson library. They often have a sidekick holding a sandwich sign or a big wooden cross as part of their display. Of course they conjure passionate feelings from students that are going to be vocal about their thoughts on some social matter. Typically these "evangelists" show up on campus shortly after some major development in the news regarding faith, tolerance, LGBT rights (i.e. "equal marriage") or religious pluralism in American society.

I put "well meaning" in quotes because I've come to wonder whether they really are "well meaning." It has been generally excepted that the "street preacher" genre is the least effective way to persuade anyone that submission to the Lord Jesus Christ and reception of him as Savior is the solution to their inescapable sin problem for this life and the next. So therefore, it is unlikely that these religious street performers are actually attempting to persuade anyone. If the goal of evangelism is to be persuasive (to the extent that the Holy Spirit involves human activity in wooing people to Christ), what then are these people doing if not evangelism? It must be something else entirely.

Attempts to classify this activity are not simple or easy, and it's made further complicated that the "evangelists" themselves would claim that they ARE doing the work of evangelism. How does one classify an activity when the participants insist that they are doing something it couldn't possibly be? I think the answer is found in the ubiquitous sentiment of meaninglessness pervading much of our leisurely society. In the absence of any real epic struggle, a grasping to matter naturally festers so that some are desperate to convince themselves their existence serves a purpose.

This sentiment crosses many ideological, religious and even political boundaries. Consider the short lived "Occupy Wall Street" crowd, or other rallies where a random sampling of the "protesters" reveals they're not even sure why they're there. There's just a drive to matter...a need to matter. The requirement that one actually accomplishes anything is beside the point. This is excused with the nebulous objective "We're out here raising awareness" (a mantra that has come to represent absolution from actual productive labors). As mock-able as this behavior may be in so-called "liberal" circles, it's come to characterize much of American Evangelical Christianity as well.

Rumblings of boycotts, backlashes and resistance in the "culture war" pervade AEC's fixation on keeping the trappings of Christianity all around them. The annual "war on Christmas" begins whenever the Christmas decorations go up at department stores or malls, and Ms. Mable Busybody discovers fewer references to Baby Jesus in her favorite section of the Hallmark store. Someone at Target wishes her "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" and her blue hair turns red with outrage. Surely this "attack" on her beloved holiday cannot stand. Thus the calls begin and the "prayer chain" rallies to find someone tech savvy enough to use social media. "How could this happen in America?" becomes the refrain of those needing validation of their faith from the ambient conditions around them.

This type of AEC outrage is not shared among those that actually spend their time out in the world, making friends with ordinary people, sharing the Gospel (and when necessary using words) and making an actual difference. It's mainly among those that are the spectators in the Missio Dei, demonstrating perfectly what my prof used to say about the Church in America:

"The Church today is not unlike a professional football game. 50,000 fans in the stands, desperately in need of exercise watching 22 players on the field, desperately in need of a break."

Such sentimental aggression from those needing to matter can be viewed in activities ranging from the street preacher to social media buzz about whether Starbucks is sufficiently decorating their coffee cups at Christmas time. It affects nothing, yet somehow becomes important to some. Note how it is not enough for one person to differ in their opinion with a company's marketing decision; they must rally others to enjoy solidarity ("If we stand together..."). This desire to matter, to "have a voice," to "fight the good fight" holds no promise of persuading anyone to consider the claims about Christ and, if possible, own them. Instead they serve only to make the one "outraged" feel like they mattered, and that their irrelevance was somehow interrupted for a few brief moments.

They probably, between their boycotts and sneers at those "sinners" that don't value the religious holiday trappings the way they do, applaud the street preachers that come to my campus now and then to "deliver the Gospel." I, on the other hand, wish they'd just go quietly get their coffee somewhere else, leave their sandwich signs at home, and make friends with a few "sinners" first. It seemed to have worked out okay for Jesus of Nazareth. He seems to have persuaded quite a few to his way of thinking with entirely different tactics than those "well meaning" AEC people that, in really, are just trying to fulfill a need to matter. It's not people they care about, but how "Christian" they felt that time "their voice mattered" over issue X. We'd all be served better if they chose to "matter" with something worth while.