Looking back on many of the church related escapades I was involved in during high school and into my first year of college - all in the name of advancing the name of Christ, mind you - carries with it the same level of embarrassment I experience when people find photographs of me as a teenager. I roll my eyes as the words of justification come almost immediately rolling off my lips: "You don't understand; that was the way everyone looked and acted back then." Yet there's nostalgia woven through this confession, because that was me. All the stumbles, fumbles, and missteps which make me half-smile as I remember them.
It began sometime around my sophomore year of high school. It was 1988. I had heard the clarion call ring out from theological luminaries - Petra, DeGarmo & Key, Michael W. Smith, and the like - who knew how to sum up the entirety of Jesus' message into a four-and-a-half minute song with a catchy hook. And although I may have grasped in my limited scope my genuine desire to share my faith, it's the "how" it was done by me instead of the "why" that was the issue.
It all started with T-shirts. I felt a sense of empowerment whenever I would leave my house, boldly proclaiming God's love and message of salvation through the use of a witty play on words scrawled across my chest. A favorite of mine was one that read: "Heavenly Metal: It'll Rock the Hell Out of You." My mother, who was obviously not paying the first bit of attention to what I was wearing that day, let me wear this particular shirt to school morning. Not long after I pulled up in my 1985 Chevy Nova and strolled haughtily into the school building, I was called into the office of the Assistant Principal. He asked me to either turn my shirt inside-out or go home to change, because I couldn't very well walk around school with a shirt that said "hell" on it.
Fearing more the wrath of my mother than disappointing my Father, I opted to turn the shirt inside-out. This ultimately brought more notice to the shirt than it probably would have gotten had I simply worn the thing the other way around. My peers, inquisitive teenagers all, stopped me in the hallway to try and make out the words on the shirt I was wearing. I was hailed and lauded by my friends - in the church youth group - for my brazen and daring stance to advance the Gospel through the use of my screen-printed message. Others who weren't in my closed circle of fellow believers either stated "I don't get it," or worse, paid me no heed. The very people who I believed needed to hear this message bared walked past me with nary a blink.
But it wasn't just in clothing options that my peers and I sought to combat the ills and temptations of our culture. We had someplace on Sunday and Wednesday nights to invite our friends to, often with the added benefit of free food offered, provided they didn't mind coming to a church. And there were Bible studies that met on Tuesday nights in people's homes we could offer as a refuge against the storms of boredom found so often in small towns. But the weekends were another story. What could we offer to our friends to counter the dangers to be found at the skating rink, the bowling alley, or cruising around the mall?
The answer came when an adult from a local church rented out a building front in a strip mall and converted it to...The Rock. A Christian coffee shop and concert venue, open exclusively on Friday and Saturday nights (but not too late on Saturday, because we all obviously had to go to church the next morning). All for the benefit of us poor, wayward teens so that we could have a safe place to hang out. Never mind that it was located on a darkened side street adjacent to the local discount store (which is how he got the space so cheaply), it had no signage out front to designate what it was (which probably looked great, dozens of teenagers hanging out in a storefront on a Friday night), and that the parking lot was always littered with questionable bottles and other sundry items. We were hip and emergent before skinny jeans ever came on to the postmodern preaching platform.
The adult benefactor, "Steve," was always present, serving as chaperone, spiritual leader, and seller of overpriced by-the-slice pizza, moderately flat soda, and popcorn of questionable birthdate. He booked the bands, he selected the music played overhead (not to DANCE to, mind you), and led us in prayer and a quick message every week. It was so radically different from our stagnant youth groups.
...except it wasn't.
It was a great hangout for our unchurched friends who needed to see we could be "cool" outside of the church.
...except they didn't come.
It was a great outreach and missional tool we used to share our faith.
...except we were quite literally at times preaching to the choir.
We had music, food, fellowship, and I invited people time and again to come and join in the fun, but no one took me up on the offer. If they did, they certainly didn't return.
Decades of growth and introspection has helped me to understand the how and why of my failed clothing campaign as well as why The Rock eventually crumbled: I was trying to engage a culture without engaging individuals.
Which is something all modern, seeker-friendly or emergent churches have all grown out of stumbling through, right?
While there are numerous stories of individuals coming to know Christ through the use of Bibles left in hotel rooms or being lobbed at them by strangers on sidewalks, through the voices of manic street preachers "bullhorning" their message at them, or even through well-intentioned teenagers adorned in a train wreck of clothing destined for What Not To Wear, I personally never reached out to anyone. I held a metaphorical door open and invited people to come inside but didn't offer a hand TO them on this journey. While I have no doubt even my actions taken in innocence ("Yes. Just read the ten or so words on my shirt and God will reveal Himself to you.") had and still hold the potential to bear fruit, I was offering an image without interaction, and I thought that was enough.
Maybe I was scared that I might not have the "right" answer to a question poised to me. Maybe I was simply following the pattern of witnessing and outreach patterned by the generations before me ("Just read this tract..."). Maybe it's that my faith was still young, passionate but lacking focus. This is not to say that I am a "better" Christian now than I was then. It simply is that I now understand the way in which I reached out was surface-level, and not heart-deep. What good is it to tell someone to "taste and see" when you keep the bread and wine behind a display window?
I was little more than a mute sign, inviting others to engage with God when I wasn't engaging with them in any way, shape, form or fashion other than pointing to myself as a way to point to Him. Now I understand the importance in meeting people where they are - sometimes literally. It is far more meaningful and illustrates that you care when and if you show love, grace and mercy to someone rather than try to hand them off a platitude that is so cheesy Hallmark would have rejected it. Having a dialogue WITH an individual and not just barking a soundbite AT them all but insures I am heard, and it absolutely insures that I hear the other person.
And these days, it's done without a mullet or stonewashed jeans.