By Michael C. Mack
The cafeteria in my old workplace was a microcosm of the world.
When I worked at Standard Publishing in the early 1990s, the seven-acre building was divided distinctly into two parts: the front housed the editorial, management, and sales departments, and the back was the printing plant. As you might suspect, the editors in this Christian publishing company were active in their faith; many were teachers, preachers, and elders in their local churches. There was no spiritual requirement to work in the back.
The cafeteria was situated in the middle of the building.
My first day I noted the lunchroom’s standard operating procedure as employees naturally segregated themselves at the tables: editorial folks with their kind and factory workers with theirs. I could understand why this occurred. We simply feel more comfortable with people we already know, and a certain amount of risk is involved to sit with “strangers” with whom you probably have little in common.
I had been a Christian only a few years at that time, and I was a bit of a rebel. I started sitting with a group of guys about my age who worked on the printing presses. Over several months we got to know each other well, as we ate lunch together almost daily, went to football games together, and just hung out. We became friends who trusted one another.
One of the guys confided in me about what some of the people from the back thought about the folks from editorial—that we were snobs who didn’t want anything to do with them. In fact, he told me, they had a nickname for us: “Paper Christians.” It was an ingenious though unworthy designation. All they knew about us was what they saw on the paper they daily printed, stapled, sorted, and mailed. But more than that, they saw us as Christ followers in word only, by what was printed on our baptism certificates, business cards, and the plethora of words we published in magazines, books, VBS materials, and Sunday school curriculum, but they never got to see what we produced through our lives.
Then he told me what he thought we thought about them—that they were all ignorant factory workers who were godless, faithless, or uncommitted.
We shared a laugh together at the inaccurate impressions each group had of the other, and we were both glad we didn’t think of one another that way. We had broken down the stereotypes and the barriers through friendship.
The culture in which we live consists of a variety of subcultures. The church as it exists today has become a subculture of its own; for many, their Christian subculture is their whole life. They “go to church,” surround themselves with churchgoing friends who go to Christian concerts and shop at Christian-owned stores (found in the Christian-business directory). They isolate themselves in much the same way as people did in the Standard cafeteria.
It’s all so antimissional.
As I read the articles in this month’s issue, I was reminded again and again of the cost Jesus called us to as his disciples. It’s obvious in the Gospels and Acts that he never intended for his church to be a safe, comfortable subculture. No, his church is to be a risk-taking adventure that involves going, not staying—even if that simply means walking across a lunchroom to befriend people God is seeking.
In our cover story, Russell Johnson tells the story about his grandfather, J. Russell Morse, and his family, who entered into a treacherous mission to reach people far from God. They were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and starved, but they persevered in carrying out God’s mission. If they could do all that, I thought to myself, I can befriend a few people in my neighborhood or in my mountain-biking group or in any of the other circles where God has placed me and let him use me there.
So how can we as Christ’s church break out of our safe subcultures in order to cross cultures . . . or just cross the street? What is the church doing in your location? What can we do better? I’d love to hear from you!