The Fine Line

December 3, 2008 by

The Fine LineNext month Zondervan is releasing The Fine Line by Kary Oberbrunner. This 30-something budding author tackles the subject of Christ and culture in way that is not unfamiliar, yet definitely through a different vantage point. Oberbrunner is a middle-America pastor that begins his book at the roller-skating rink in middle school. References to Michael W. Smith would soon follow.

Having also grown up in the Midwest, I can appreciate Oberbrunner’s experience and conclusions. However, having lived the last third of my life on the West Coast, the tone and tenor of The Fine Line may be a little too regionalized for some people.

The book is all about the fine line between being in the world and being of the world. “One thing is certain: there’s a fine line between in and of. In my life I’ve tried to avoid this tension; I’ve pretended this fine line doesn’t exist. But pretending doesn’t make the tension go away. It only makes us go away–one more irrelevant Christian.”

Borrowing from Abraham Lincoln’s address to Republican colleagues during his run for an Illinois Senate seat in 1858, Oberbrunner distills three questions we must ask ourselves in the midst of the divided camps we are living among.

Where are we?

What should we do?

How do we do it?

In 1858, the U.S. was divided down the middle on the issue of slavery. Today, suggests Oberrunner, we’re split down the middle with culture Conformists on one side and culture Separatists on the other. Kary lays out a plan for how we should be neither, and instead pursue the path of culture “Transformists.”

“Transformists live on the fine line and battle to integrate their Christianity with their culture. This camp causes critics to freeze in their tracks and rethink the only stereotypes of Christians they know.”

“Relevance,” says Oberrunner, “has little to do with externals. Relevance is fundamentally internal.” He says that our love is what makes us relevant. “Love is the language of relevance.”

The Fine Line is a great read for church communication folks because it reminds us to keep our focus on loving others and pursuing people, instead of pursing relevance and loving ourselves so much.

I shot an e-mail to Oberrunner asking a few more questions…

1. Thanks for the reminder about loving people. Why do you think this basic discipline is so lacking among Christ-followers and how can church communication folks be catalysts for love within our specific contexts?

Two things. We’ve made “loving people” too complicated and too theoretical.

First the complicated part. When Jesus presented the command to love people he fleshed it out with a story, the story of the Good Samaritan. In our day, we forget the cultural implications. We forget the enemy status of Jews and Samaritans. Contextually speaking, we should view the bloodied man on the side of the road as an Iraqi terrorist, or an Arab, a Muslim, or whoever else you might traditionally detest. Let’s put a face to our love.

Jesus’ offensive story sent shockwaves through his audience, and if it seems tame to us, it’s only because we aren’t considering its ramifications. In this story, the traditional Jewish heroes, the Levite and the priest, are made out to be villains. And the traditional Jewish villain, the Samaritan, is made out to be a hero. Jesus’ audience got the message, even if they didn’t get the message. This is obvious from the lawyer’s answer at the end of the story. Jesus asked him, “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” (Luke 10:36). The lawyer couldn’t bear to say the “S” word—and to admit to the corresponding changes required in his beliefs and actions–so instead he replied, “The one who showed mercy toward him” (Luke 10:37).

Now for the theoretical part. Again let’s put some flesh on the concept of “loving people” by giving some tangible examples. It wasn’t the Samaritan’s clothes, vocabulary, nationality, or wealth that made him culturally relevant. The Samaritan and the Jew didn’t even worship in the same way or in the same place (John 4:20). Yet all these barriers were broken as love was embodied in bandages, compassion, and coins.

You ask how “church communication” folks can be catalysts for love within their context. Well, for the sake of time (and space) let me give you one practical example. Forgive me ahead of time for the simplicity.

I’ve seen too many Christ-followers fire off an e-mail when a potential conflict arises. Rather than taking the time to pick up the phone, and deal with the issue, we hide behind our computers and do the unloving thing. It takes effort to make a personal contact, but in our day of instant communication we justify our impersonal responses.

Toxic e-mails which leave people in our wake are just as tragic as walking past someone injured on the side of the road. They are both damaging.

2. You write from what seems like a very middle-America perspective. Being a pastor in Ohio, what is God doing in your community and through your church as it relates to this idea of “relevance through love?”

My church (Grace Church) has started a free medical clinic called Grace Clinic (check out the video clip). Doctors, nurses and volunteers show up every Wednesday night to offer free health care to those who have no insurance. We offer prayer first. Some people accept it and some refuse.

We give people a taste of the kingdom and some want more. Some just want a prescription. We now have several people in our church who started out as Grace Clinic patients. Although initially unbelievers, they made the decision to follow Jesus. Some of these people are hardened people: ex-convicts, drug addicts, and people wanting sex changes. Still Jesus has freed them from their addictions and given them holistic peace in this life and the next.

Because not all readers can do a “Grace Clinic” I’ll share a less glamorous story. A few months back I’m at the YMCA doing my routine workout. I see a man next to me obviously struggling with his mp3 player. I asked him if he needed help. Turns out Bob, a 71-year-old, African American, needed an introduction into the technological age.

After several encounters and several lessons with iTunes, Bob started attending our church. Just last month he stayed after the service and informed me that he wanted to give his life to Jesus. Evidently, the light he saw in his mother’s eyes before she passed was the same light he saw in people’s eyes at our church and he wanted it.

3. I was interested in your distillation of the three questions from Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 “House Divided” speech. However, it seems like a fourth question is missing and that is the question of “Who are we?” We’ve talked recently on Church Marketing Sucks about how the church seems to be forgetting who it is–its soul. Without knowing who we are, I’m not sure it matters where we are, what we should do or how. Your thoughts?

I fully agree. As long as the church remembers that it’s the people of God then we’re OK. When we start acting like a voting block, or a social club, or a subculture, then we’re in trouble. We need to rediscover the imagery of the church in Scripture: Christ’s Body, the Bride, the called out ones, the light of the world, salt, a kingdom of priests, etc.

If I have to wear a label I’d rather wear one of those then “consumer block.” Knowing who we are must preface where we are, what we do, and how we do it.

Post By:

Brad Abare

Brad Abare is the founder of the Center for Church Communication. He consults with companies and organizations, helping them figure out why in the world they exist, why anyone should care and what to do about it.
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2 Responses to “The Fine Line”

  • Eric Frisch
    December 3, 2008

    I’m definitely looking forward to this book – Kary’s church is about a block from my house and I’ve had the opportunity to meet him and hear him preach a couple of times at events I’ve led worship at – he always has excellent things to say!

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  • Aaron Jackson
    December 3, 2008

    Great post, and I’m definitely looking forward to the book!

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