Skating rinks. Who doesn’t love these wonderful, wretched institutions? I think I started and ended more middle school “relationships” there than I care to remember. The distinct sound of the air hockey puck smacking against the table, the smell of buttery popcorn at the snack bar, and the feel of those worn tan skates with bright orange wheels — these memories define my early adolescent years. Of course, my parents allowed me to attend only “Christian” skate nights. My virgin ears weren’t allowed to hear the likes of Madonna or Color Me Badd. But even these sanctified skate nights had their limits. Every Thursday at the stroke of nine, the disc jockey switched the music from Christian back to secular. That’s when my friends and I had better be out of the building or else we would promptly turn into pumpkins.
For some reason on one particular night I lingered past the safety of 9:00 p.m. Maybe my laces got tangled. Maybe my friend’s mom forgot to pick us up. I can’t remember. What I do remember are the lyrics from that one song, that “secular” song: “That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion.” I felt like Judas when I heard it, like I was betraying the faith. Although the song sounded irreligious, I couldn’t deny that something about the plaintive voice coming through the speakers at the skating rink that night resonated with me. The song put words to feelings lodged deep within me. Whether the band R.E.M. intended it or not, I viewed the song as a type of psalm boldly declaring doubts and concerns.
I didn’t know much about the band at the time, but an entire generation latched on to that song, evidenced by the fact that in 1991, R.E.M. won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance and “Losing My Religion” is listed as #169 on Rolling Stone’s five hundred greatest songs of all time. All I knew was that lead singer Michael Stipe had a unique voice and R.E.M. a unique sound, at least compared to the Christian songs popular during the early nineties. I think Michael W. Smith’s “crossover” song “Place in This World” was about as edgy as things got back then. Stipe’s haunting voice and penetrating lyrics stuck with me for months, re-creating in me the same side effect I feel when I eat one too many barbecue ribs at summer cookouts: heavy and lethargic— no touch football after lunch. Odd, isn’t it? Here I was an eighth grader caught somewhere between two songs, echoing the cries of two Michaels. At that time in my life, I often prayed to God that he would show me my place in this world while feeling that I was losing my religion.
Sometimes things don’t change much. Fast-forward a whole bunch of years and I am still caught between the same two songs. I’m still waiting for the angst to end. I know Jesus and I love Jesus more today than I did back in that skating rink many years ago, but today it seems as though I have more questions about Christianity than answers.
I’m not happy about my angst. And if it were possible, I wish I could go back to a time when everything was black and white and simple, to the time when life was easily categorized like the music in the skating rink: Christian or secular. I think back to that time, somewhere in my childhood, when making Bible characters out of Popsicle sticks was about as complicated as life got. Even though I’m thirty-one, I’m still trying to find my place in this world. Shouldn’t I know by now what I want to be when I grow up?
But it’s bigger than simply what I want to do in the future. It’s also about how I should live now. I want to be relevant to the world, to impact it and maybe even transform it. At the same time, I don’t want to look just like the world looks.
This tension isn’t unique to middle school skaters. It’s the unavoidable tension that exists for each of us who believe in the God of the Bible. Jesus addressed this tension when he instructed his followers about their relationship with the world. He told them to be in the world but not of it. As if that makes things a whole lot clearer. Or easier. 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.
I’m pretty sure this tension that’s been with me from childhood until now isn’t going away anytime soon. Discovering the fine line between in the world and of the world isn’t easy, but I have to try. I don’t want to be caught living a lie — or manufacturing one. If you’re like me, then you’re willing to explore this tension and you’re willing to pay the cost of living with this tension. At certain times throughout history, Christians avoided the tension and the church and the world suffered because of it.
Living a lie prevents people from living free. At other times, people ventured into the unknown and celebrated the mystery instead of suppressing it. Within the process, some lost their religion. Others not only found their place in the world but, more importantly, they found Jesus.
(Excerpt from The Fine Line: Re-envisioning the Gap between Christ and Culture. Used with permission from Zondervan Publishing. ISBN: 0310285453)
Kary Oberbrunner is the founder of Redeem the Day Ministries and author of The Fine Line his new Zondervan release as well as Called and The Journey Toward Relevance. He earned his M.Div. in Counseling and his D.Min. in Transformational Leadership and serves as the Pastor of Discipleship and Leadership Development at Grace Church in Powell, Ohio. He and his soul-mate, Kelly, are blessed parents of Keegan and Isabel. Contact him at www.KaryOberbrunner.com.