How the 2018 National Gathering will help us ‘engage the Culture.’
By Rev. Dan Baumgartner, Senior Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Hollywood, Ca.
One of my reads this year was a novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo. It’s based on a true story from the terrible Bosnian War of the 1990’s. Any war is terrible, but this one included the killing of thousands of civilians, mass rapes, rampant pillaging and ethnic cleansing. It nearly destroyed the city of Sarajevo, which just six years earlier hosted the 1986 winter Olympics.
While Sarajevo was under a brutally long siege, a Serbian mortar shell lobbed from outside the city struck a group of people standing in a breadline. Twenty-two people from the neighborhood were killed instantly. The next day, a local musician braved sniper fire to take his cello and a stool, plopped it down next to the bomb crater, and played an adagio- a slow, beautiful musical piece. It was his answer to the death and despair- beauty and respect. He did it the next day, and the next, for 22 days- one for each person killed.
The cellist didn’t take the risks he did to make a political statement. He did it as an expression of who he was, a testimony that evil and darkness could not pull people away from being human beings. It was a profound act, which introduced into that cultural crisis things that seemed almost new, and slightly out of place- compassion, courage, humanity, beauty.
How is the Church engaging our culture today? The darkness of the world feels utterly overwhelming, with daily reports of wars, nuclear tests, destructive political rhetoric, racist threats, hurricanes, earthquakes and genocides. What do followers of Jesus do? A few worn options keep being rehearsed:
a) Hope it all ends soon. A self-proclaimed Christian numerologist was all over the media recently, claiming he had calculated the arrival of the second coming, the end of the world on…September 23rd. I guess he was wrong. The world will end someday. We don’t know when.
b) Hide from it all. Plenty of followers of Jesus are advocating that the Church just circle the wagons, protect ourselves from outside influences, stay in isolation and hope it eventually changes. It’s hard to imagine that is being salt and light in the world.
c) Win back the culture. Some perceive that our culture was once Christian, but it has been stolen. They don’t always seem to realize that “the way things used to be” did not work well for large groups of people- people of color, for example.
What would it look like for the church, rather than ignore, hide from or compete with the culture…to engage it? Author Andy Crouch talks about culture as “what human beings make of the world.” How do we partner with God in building something new? How can we help our communities flourish, how might we connect in personal ways in an increasingly disconnected world, how do we see with fresh eyes what the Kingdom of God lived out might actually look like?
I have more questions than answers. But one thing I know- when I am around people from The Fellowship Community, I am challenged and inspired to be creative, to think harder, to pray more deeply, to trust more. It’s why I will be in Atlanta for the National Gathering in February 2018. Hope to see you there.