I recently found myself in a conversation with a woman who is a staff member at a Christian summer camp. From what she told me, they do a lot of great things at this summer camp. But our conversation turned tense when she invited (pleaded might be a better word) me to enroll my toddler in their swim lesson program. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for her adamance that it was exactly what my family needed. I told her that we have a membership at the Y for just that reason. But, she insisted, he would reap much more benefits from her employer’s version—the distinctly Christian version—of swim lessons. And here in lies the rub.
The Christian Cul-de-sac
“I have a dream,” started one of the most famous speeches in Western history. The speaker, who needs not be named, then went on to describe a vision of, as his savior called it, “earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
And by that, I mean, a world where our differences in culture and custom were acknowledged and celebrated while all men and women were simultaneously equal and free. Here we are fifty-three years later (to the day, as of this writing) and this dream has yet to be realized.
If I were to contrast Martin Luther King’s dream with the unspoken dream of my new friend from the summer camp they’d be as different as day and night.
There is an idealized town in parts of the Christian West where one turns off the main road to a little street with a cul-de-sac at the end. This is not a thru-street, so traffic is minimal, and there are speed bumps to keep the children safe from SUVs and minivans turning into driveways.
The fifty neighbors living on the street all look alike, make the same amount of money, have two point five kids, and can be identified by the little fish on their bumper. It’s a neighborhood watch community too.
Everyone knows everyone, so if they don’t recognize you, the only logical conclusion is to assume you’re up to no good. You will be reported and deported to another neighborhood because “your kind is not welcome here.”
This cul-de-sac is where mission goes to die.
In this neighborhood, we take whiteout to the “[as you] go” of Matthew 28:19. We don’t go anywhere, we’ve got everything we need in the cul-de-sac. We go to Chick-Fil-A (and secretly wish they were open on Sundays for our benefit) for our meals where the instrumental hymns serve as a discreet reminder of our faith.
We go to a barber shop (also inconveniently closed on Sundays) who’s owner goes to the Wednesday morning men’s prayer breakfast. Our children are members of a soccer team comprised entirely of people who attend our church.
The moms “fellowship” together during the games and use the guise of “prayer” to gossip about a woman who may have lost her salvation by deciding to enlist her kid in a public school.
And, of course, our toddler’s swim classes are distinctly Christian (because the doggy paddle was likely invented by one of the Apostles and how dare we allow the “pagans” to take credit for it).
Forgive my sarcasm. I write and cringe knowing I’m guilty of variations of these ideas as well.
The sentiment isn’t entirely wrong. There is a time and place when we will spend all our time solely with those who worship Jesus. That time is still future. And that place is a new heaven and new earth. Until we arrive at that time and place, we have a mission to give our lives to.
The Off Ramp
The ramp off of the cul-de-sac can be disorienting. After all, when you continue to loop around the same circle of houses over and over again it becomes second-nature, it becomes safe. You drive it in auto-pilot, you don’t even think when you drive a little over the shoulder to avoid a familiar pothole.
But the disorientation can also be life-giving. Do you recall being a little kid and your parents expanding your boundaries? Everything was so new and exciting. Before I was allowed to cross the street and go to the park, I had memorized every square inch of my yard.
But I had done so almost as a captive, unable to leave the confines of the fence. It was like coming awake for the first time to walk over to the park by myself. To feel the wind in my hair as I swang on the monkey bars. I also saw older kids there. And they would smoke cigarettes and curse.
Those last two lines can cause a lot of us to check out. As a father, I don’t want my kid to be influenced by older kids who smoke and curse. But when I think back on my own childhood, I didn’t learn curse words from older kids at the playground; I’d heard my parents slip and use them. And when I first smoked cigarettes, I stole them from grandpa—not an older kid.
This is the inherent problem with the Christian cul-de-sac. It denies and is often blind to its sins while putting the sins (or often just differences) of those outside of it under the microscope of judgment. But if we can get on the off ramp and leave our zone of comfort long enough, we will find that those outside of the cul-de-sac are not all that different from us.
We are all afflicted by sin and suffering and, no matter how white we paint our picket fences, they won’t keep out the sins that dwell within. We need to escape the cul-de-sac not just to bring the gospel to others but also to further press it into our own hearts. We desperately need to interact with others so we can remove cataracts from our own eyes and realize that we are more like others than we initially thought (after all, we all bear the image of God).
We need to be awakened to our own need for the gospel by entering into relationships that may at times be awkward because they expose our own biases and bigotries. These relationships require dependence on God—the one thing those white picket fences do not welcome because they are a testament to the lie that “we’re doing just fine”—because they are uncharted waters.
Yes, the off-ramp can be disorienting, but it is essential that we go in order to be obedient to Jesus’ commissioning. But it’s also beautiful. Who knew that on just the other side of the highway there was a pool three times the size of the one we have in the cul-de-sac? Not only is it bigger but it has diving boards and a water slide. And a whole lot of people that don’t know my Savior or me.
Why would I want to miss out on this experience? Out of fear that my toddler might be exposed to a curse word? Or maybe—worse yet—out of fear that a non-Christian might get close enough to me to see my own imperfections and need for a Savior? God forbid that this keep me confined to the cul-de-sac and forsaking our mission.
Over time, I’m convinced, if we spend enough time outside of the cul-de-sac, even the bigger pools, diving boards, and slides will lose their glitter as they are outshined by the beauty of souls longing for a Savior. If we make disciples where Jesus was previously unknown, we also mature in our own discipleship, for it requires courage and strength foreign to human nature. The courage and strength to reach out to those who might not know our Savior, but the honesty to admit there was a time when we didn’t know him either.
Yes, we’ll enjoy the fringe benefits at that pool—but they are only that, fringe benefits—but they will take a backseat to the better benefit of accompanying God in the only story that really matters: proclaiming his glory and making disciples who will worship him in spirit and truth. I could share more on this, but I’ve got a toddler who’s late for swim lessons.
Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, Maryland. Prior to that, he served at a church plant in Troy, New York for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is father to Knox and Hazel. He blogs at Family Life Pastor.