What book are you reading right now? Maybe you’re not much of a reader. If so, which TV show currently has your attention? I don’t watch much TV. I read far more than I watch. When it comes to people, I do both. I watch, and I read.
I suppose, hypocritically, I don’t like being watched. Unfortunately for me, it happens a lot. I wear a clerical collar pretty much everywhere I go. Because far too many clergymen have ditched the traditional pastoral garb, trading it for whatever is more acceptable to the secular culture at the time, for many onlookers, a guy dressed in priestly duds is little more than a traveling relic. He’s weird and out of place. Spend five minutes in Walmart with me. You’ll see. Ask Jennifer. Ask my kids. They’ll tell you, too.
I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing it, but I think Jennifer has far too much fun with the staring. For example, we’ll be walking near to one another in a store, not necessarily close enough for people to assume we’re associated. She’ll see someone watching me, and immediately she’ll come over and take my hand. If she’s feeling somewhat rambunctious, she may even give me an affectionate kiss on the cheek as she leads me past the stunned spectator like a prized bull. I don’t use “prize” as though I’m exceptional. I mean “prize” in the sense that she’s exceptional. In other words, experience continually proves that anyone wearing clerical attire must be a Roman Catholic priest. When an onlooker sees Jennifer attending to me tenderly, I’m guessing they think that she must be exceptionally divine among all women, having managed to rope a man sworn to celibacy.
Once again proving the “Roman Catholic priest” theory, I took Evelyn to the dentist on Tuesday. Standing together at the receptionist’s desk before leaving, a high school girl watched us closely. As we departed, I heard her say to the gentleman beside her, whom I assumed was her father, “I didn’t think priests could marry and have kids.” Her dad replied, “The churches are way different now.”
He’s not wrong. Many churches are different now. I offered a subtle hint before as to how this is true. The hint: they’re becoming indistinguishable from the secular world. Regardless of your agreement, this is an important point. As people watch, they are also reading, or perhaps better said, interpreting. This interpretation reminds me of another recent incident. When I told my family about it at dinner, they were astonished.
Two weeks ago, I’d just left the self-checkout area at the Meijer in Hartland and was making my way to the exit doors. About fifty feet from full escape to the parking lot, a woman reached out and grabbed my arm as I walked by. Can you believe it? She actually took hold of my arm to stop me.
“What church are you from?” the bold woman asked, almost gruffly.
Stunned by her aggressive approach, I’m surprised I replied relatively peacefully, “I’m from a Lutheran church just down the street.” After that, she did all the talking. And her reason for stopping me, that is, what did her words directly imply? Assuming the conservative nature of my Christianity by looking at me, she needed me to know there was nothing special about my church compared to hers. In her words, all faiths worship the same God and lead to the same place. Taking a hint from both her demeanor and her “Love is Love” shirt, I interpreted her. The result: I assumed the nature of her church and the minimal likelihood that I’d convince her of its dreadful heresies. With that, I said absolutely nothing. I mean that. I did what one of my former seminary professors would do. He would meet illogically incoherent commentary with an uncomfortable smirking stare.
When the woman finished with her foolishness, the awkward nature of my grinning silence was enough for her to say, “Well, okay, thanks for chatting, and have a great day,” or something to that effect. I can’t recall for sure. The end of her final sentence met the back of my head.
Now, for all the seasoned people-watchers reading this note, had you watched this scenario unfold, you would have accurately interpreted the tenor of my response without me having to explain it. People-watchers are highly attuned to visual cues, making them adept conversationalists and skillful navigators of humanity. In other words, when a person learns to see what someone is likely thinking, the communication game changes. It elevates to another sphere.
Alfred Hitchcock once said something about how the dialogue in his films was just sound among sounds. For him, the real story was told through the characters’ movements, facial expressions, and the like. This is probably why he famously said, “If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off, and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.”
How might this principle apply to so many churches embracing a seemingly secular trajectory? What is the “perfectly clear idea of what’s going on” the unchurched onlooker will likely have?
Perhaps from another perspective, I wonder if that’s part of what Jesus meant by His words, “You are the light of the world…. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16). He knew the world was watching. Saint Paul certainly knew the same. For example, in Colossians 4:5-6 he calls for behavioral distinctions before unbelievers. He urges the same in Philippians 1:27, insisting on observable behavior unique to the Gospel.
Don’t think for one second that I believe Jesus and His great apostle, Paul, are saying that words don’t matter. They do. The power for faith leading to salvation is given by way of the Word of the Gospel (Romans 1:16). However, feel free to accuse me of believing that the Word produces communicative behaviors that both carry and display it. These behaviors are distinct from the world. How do I know? The flesh gives birth to flesh while the Spirit gives birth to spirit (John 3:6). This is Christian faith. It produces visual cues, ones that, whether you’re speaking or not, transmit to others who you are in Christ and what you think is true and untrue about Him. If your church believes the LGBTQ, Inc.’s mantra that love is love—which is to say, homosexuality is perfectly acceptable before God, you’ll demonstrate it. That’s how it works.
By the way, silence is a demonstrative behavior, too. No matter the situation, it communicates. My cold silence that day in Meijer told the woman in unmistakable terms what I thought of her goofy theological impositions. On the other hand, how does the world interpret a Christian’s passive silence relative to abortion, gender confusion, and so many more gross atrocities happening in our world?
As a pastor, I know what God thinks of his pastors’ who prefer to keep a safe distance from their voices: “For with you is my contention, O priest…. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me” (Hosea 4:4,6).
The world is watching and learning what we believe. Our worship—the depth of its substance—demonstrates. Christian silence in the face of ungodliness does, too.