Evacuating the Christian Bubble

04. Bridge Builders #2 SlideAny Seinfeld fans out there?  I recognize I may have just halved my already small readership by appealing to a sitcom from the last century … but too bad!  Seinfeld is probably my favourite show ever aired on TV.  The humour usually hinges on irony, exposing some disconnect between what one says and what one means, or who one is.

Take season four and “The Bubble Boy” episode. Jerry Seinfeld and his friends meet a man who describes the sad plight of his sick son, Donald, who lives in a plastic “bubble”—a germ-free quarantine protecting his weak immune system from world’s dirt.  He’s safe, but he’s miserable.  So the dad convinces them to visit his son and cheer him up.  When they arrive, it turns out that Donald is a fully grown man—a rude, selfish letch who is impossible to sympathize with.  All he can think of is himself and his concerns in that bubble. Trying their best to connect with the bubble boy, they get into a game of trivial pursuit. The irony comes out in full force as the bubble boy is denied a second roll of the dice after his correct answer is rejected on the basis of a card misprint.  The bubble boy gets so angry that he tries to strangle one of Jerry’s friends, and the bubble punctures and depressurizes. This formerly safe but isolated man ends up stretchered out by paramedics, more miserable than ever!

My first post on the Traverse blog was on the idea of “Bridge Building”.  The focus was on our mission as Christians to take the good news of the gospel across the divide to reach an unchurched society.  I shared how it’s not Jesus’ way to set up a fortress and occasionally venture out on crusades to convert the heathen at the point of a sword.  Rather, we need to live our faith 24-7 in the world so that people will see and hear of how God is reconciling the world to Himself through Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:19-20).  This entails bridge building.  As I was thinking over a natural first step in this process, this Seinfeld episode came to mind.  For in the eyes of many in this world, the church is a kind of institutional “bubble boy.”

Looking from the outside in, I can understand why many see Christians as part of a judgmental clique, preoccupied with their own concerns inside the four walls of the church.  It’s like believers only emerge to wag their fingers at the sins of the world.  Perhaps our neighbours look over the fence to notice us rushing to and from church events, seemingly without the time to even smile and say “Hi!”  And when those Christians do have the time to talk, it always seems kind of, well, forced . . . like they have an agenda, or something—they want to save my soul, but do they even know who I am?   How ironic that Christians who are sent out to save the world are so often inward looking, strangling those who venture within their grasp.

Dan Kimball's "They Like Jesus But Not The Church" 2007

Dan Kimball’s “They Like Jesus But Not The Church” 2007

Am I being unfair?  Perhaps.  But I think the way we live our lives gives this stereotype plenty of ammunition.  Dan Kimball in his book, They Like Jesus but not the Church (2007), has also noticed the problem of the “Christian Bubble.”  In short, we’re “too busy inside the church to know those outside the church. . . . It’s too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church.”  Our greatest witness should be our transformed lives as we journey with Christ toward maturity.  But the longer we’ve been saved, the fewer friends we have outside the church.  It’s usually only brand new believers who retain their non-Church networks—whether with university friends, work-mates, or even non-Christian family members.  And new believers often have the greatest disparity between what they say and how their life looks.  No wonder Christians are known as hypocrites.

Do you identify with this?  Are you in a Christian bubble?  Let’s check.  (1) Are you out three or more nights a week with church-related programs?  (2) Do you struggle to list five or more close friends you regularly spend time with, who aren’t Christian?  (3) Does the thought of hanging out with average Aussies at a pub or a party make you nervous?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, then chances are you’re part of the Christian bubble.  (And if you answered yes to all three questions, then some drastic changes are needed before your faith suffocates.)  It may be safe in the bubble, but there’s a world out there that’s hurting, full of people whom Jesus came to love, and save.  It’s easy to be so busy with our church stuff—even in good programs that may in some way and at some time connect with those outside our bubble—that we never connect with anyone but Christians.  And I’m as guilty of this as any of you . . . perhaps even more so, given that my full-time work has been inside a church building in the past. I remember a time when Tuesday was my only night home and not doing a church program, and I had to study! Back then I tried to share with my university acquaintances about Jesus, but I didn’t even know them as people—just as souls needing saving.  If I had my time over again, I’d carefully choose one or two church-based commitments (to grow, and serve), and sink more time into loving those outside the church.

Now that I think of it, wasn’t this what Jesus did? If anyone ever lived in a happy place, a safe bubble, it had to be God.  But we read in John 1 and Philippians 2:5-11 that Jesus—being in very form God—left that sin-free, safe environment, bound for planet earth.  Going further, he was born in a dirty stable, stained in his reputation (you think most people accepted the whole “virgin birth” idea?!), to mix with everyday kind of people.  The bubble-bound Pharisees accused him of being a friend of tax-collectors and prostitutes—which He proudly was—and a “wine bibber” given all the parties he attended.  And yet this was His mission: “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor,” he explained (Matthew 9:10-12).

Jesus evacuated the bubble at His birth, but He destroyed the bubble once and for all when He died on a cross between two thieves.  I’m pretty sure Jesus never intended to establish a hermetically sealed, germ-free community that is trapped within its own walls.  Besides which, the church is not a building; it’s a people.  Church (ekklesia in Greek) means the “called out ones”—called out by Jesus to be agents of His Kingdom in the world.  Jesus is cryptic at times, but not concerning our mission in the world: “As the Father sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21) . . . not simply to save faceless souls, but to holistically love every person as Jesus loved us (Luke 4:18-19), pointing people to a God who left the safety of Heaven in radical identification with fallen humanity to suffer in our place.

So, how about it?  Is it time to evacuate the Christian bubble?  It isn’t an either/or … we need to meet together, grow, and serve.  But are you following Jesus’ model to leave the ninety-nine that you may find the lost one (Luke 15)?  What do you need to cut back on so you have the time to truly connect with, and love, those outside the church?  After all, even Jesus—with His busy schedule to save the world—initiated a dinner date with Zacchaeus (Luke 19).   Maybe you have some interest—photography, soccer, dancing—that you can pursue outside the church.  Maybe you can even have fun in the process!  Whatever steps you take, and however God leads you, I pray that together we may follow Christ and evacuate the Christian bubble in response to the Father’s lavish love for all people.  May God bless as you continue building bridges that cross the divide.

Dave Benson is founding director of Traverse, a PhD Candidate, and a lecturer at Malyon College.