This post was written before the tragedy that happened on the night of 3.12. Jesus would definitely be present in such a place of mourning.
300,000 people from around the world have descended on a few miles of my home city for the sprawling series of parties, conferences and concerts known as South by Southwest. For two weeks, our once sleepy hippy town hosts the elite of software, film and, of course, music.
Careers are made or destroyed. Bands set up in alleys. Beer flows like water. A torrential downpour of water. It is the kind of place to see and be seen.
Which begs the question, is there room for Jesus at SXSW?
Why I Ended Up in Austin
The primary reason I moved to Austin in 2006 is because I thought it was cool. For decades, it had been a music lover’s paradise, a hippy refuge and it was just then becoming a force in culture and technology.
But I had also been convinced it was where God wanted people like me.
In college, I had become enraptured with the idea that American Christians had to start thinking of themselves as missionaries. This led me to Church Planting, which is still my vocation today.
That was the same time when evangelicals were rediscovering that the Bible had something to say about the poor. This was part of a larger rumbling that they had lost the culture wars, and there was a need for a sort of evangelical rebranding. A TED knock off event was organized to talk about it. It seemed to be important, so I found a way in.
Of all the big ideas at the event that got to me was the concept that the Church should work for the common good. One speaker, an Australian that is now a missionary to New York, described his passion for the city as a burden to do “cultural acupuncture,” dropping missionaries most influential neighborhoods around the world.
It sounded exciting. It sounded like a strategy that could transform the world. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
Transformers (Christians in Disguise?)
In the time since that then, the idea of the Church working for the Common Good has become common place in all kinds of churches. The teachings of Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer can be heard echoing throughout the halls of Pastors conferences, seminaries and elders meetings around the country.
Kuyper is the brilliant 19th century Calvinist famous for saying
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
His intellectual descendants want to see Christian ideals transform politics, art and the social sector.
Schaeffer continues to be a source of inspiration. He is recognized as the catalyst behind Christian political activism. These days, he is known just as much for his thoughts on “Art and the Bible”
“A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God.”
These ideas have found their greatest advocate in one of the most winsome and articulate Christian thinkers of our time, Tim Keller. His book, Center Church, is a combination instruction manual and text book on creating a Kuyperian-style church that can transform a city.
And who wants to disagree with Tim Keller?
Jesus needs new PR
Let’s face it: There are a lot of church people who are desperate for some new PR.
We’re tired of being known for what we are against. We’re tired of being called bigots or oppressive. We’re embarrassed that sometimes, those accusations ring true.
We’re tired of the scandals. We’re tired of being thought of as a political block.
We’re also tired of being cheesy. We don’t want Kurt Cameron. We want Mumford and Johnny Cash.
Behind it all, we’re tired of institutions that promote religiosity, but don’t seem to change lives or care about their city.
So we jumped on board with shoe drops, fighting slavery and cooler conferences. By working for the common good we could “do kingdom work” and hopefully, improve our reputations at the same time.
What Could Be Bad about the Common Good?
There are two problems with the Common Good that no one except Scot McKnight seems to want to talk about.
The first problem is that people who start out working for the common good in churches often find themselves at odd with those churches.
I saw this first hand at a conference hosted a few months back here in Austin around the idea of “human care.” There was a lot of talk about needs such as adoption and human trafficking. The conference was full of web savvy Christian social entrepreneurs. Each of them seemed to be sponsoring something somewhere else.
There was also a perceptible undercurrent of discontent. People were tired. Transforming the world was a lot of work. It felt like no one, including their churches, knew how to help.
The second problem is that it’s hard to find “working for the Common Good” in the Bible. Jesus talks a lot about personal repentance. He seems a lot more concerned about the lowly than the prominent. When he encounters prominent public officials, he doesn’t seem to have a lot to say.
The first century church doesn’t seem too concerned about the common good. Rather than trying to improve the city of Jerusalem, they sold everything in order to take care of each other.
In 70 AD, Jerusalem was burnt to the ground.
What SXSW Showcase Would Jesus Go To?
As a Church, we have always had our own calendar. Being missionaries today must include rethinking our calendar to communicate the story of Jesus in our time and place.
So, there’s a part of me that wants to see Jesus all over SXSW. But I’m not convinced that it’s his kind of party. Here’s four reasons why:
- Jesus was rested.
SXSW is a constant blur of motion. Parties run for 24 hours a day for almost two weeks. It’s loud. It’s dirty. Bad things happen because people get stressed out and exhausted.Scripture describes how Jesus would wake up early for alone time and take personal retreats. He had a pattern of rest that defined his life. It’s hard to imagine fitting that into SXSW.
- Jesus hung out with nobodies.
One of the reasons you go to SXSW is because Jay-Z or Chelsea Clinton might show up unannounced. We don’t know who all of Jesus friends were, but the ones we do know tended to be poor and outcast. It’s not that he hated celebs, but he definitely did not seek them out.
- Jesus didn’t have anything to sell.
SXSW is all about pitching. It’s two weeks of businesses and artists trying to prove themselves. Jesus had ideas to teach, but he didn’t sell them. He constantly invited people to learn and change. He didn’t make much money off it either.
- Jesus didn’t have a lot of new ideas.
SXSW is for world changing ideas. Most of what Jesus had to say was reworked passages from Moses and the Psalms. It’s like he was reminding people “this is what God has always been doing.”
What about Art and Slavery?
For those of us who jumped on the transformationalist bandwagon, this is a hard pill to swallow. “Are you saying we shouldn’t care about _______?”
Slavery is terrible.
Art is good.
But neither making great art nor freeing slaves is the purpose of the Church.
By “The Church” I’m going with the simple definition of “those who have responded together to Jesus call to repent and make God our king.” How do we do that? By being disciples (together) and making disciples (together.)
How then do we respond to the great need to create art or the human crises of our day?
The answer is to work towards a better understanding of calling and vocation. Some people are called to preach, others to pastor, others to be bookkeepers, app developers, musicians, filmmakers and emancipators. We must constantly ask “what is it that I love to do, and how can I do it in a way that looks like Jesus?”
So where would Jesus show up at SXSW?
Jesus would be at the downtown corner where a man drove into a crowd killing two and injuring 28.
Jesus would be a pedicabber if that was the job he had to do.
Jesus would pour the best drinks if bartending was the job he had to do.
Jesus would give a great presentation, run sound for a venue, or help film a movie, if that was the job he had to do.
The way of Jesus is to do our jobs and live our life with a full understanding and expectation that God is both our boss and our daddy.