Bubble Wrapped: The insulation of the Christian subculture
When my wife and I moved to Illinois to plant a church from a missionary perspective, we had no idea how deeply embedded we were in the Christian bubble. While not a technical term, the Christian bubble has come to refer to the subculture Christians have created that allows a person to conduct their entire life having minimal contact with anything “secular.” The activities residents of the bubble participate in are determined by where they can be with other Christians—from small groups, to play dates, to basketball leagues. We have created Christian schools, Christian coffee shops, and an entire genre called Christian music. Interaction with the “world” comes to be viewed as an unfortunate necessity that should be minimized as much as possible. You may need to work in a “secular” environment, but if you try you’re sure to find a couple other Christians you can befriend. The Christian bubble can quickly envelop almost every aspect of life, and it had done so for us.
Taking a missionary perspective after our move, we began employing strategies we had read about to build relationships with non-Christians. We hung out in coffee shops, invited people to our house, and stopped to talk to our neighbors. And it was a challenge. We had spent our entire lives doing Christian things with Christian people. We were totally clueless.
Two years later we feel like we’re finally seeing what it means to live a life thoroughly engaged in our world, while maintaining our identity in Christ. That’s right; it’s taken us two years. The pace of the process has been a surprise, especially since we agreed with a missionary lifestyle in principle when we moved. The transition from principle to practice has taken a long time. It turns out the Christian bubble is pretty thick.
While there are many barriers to popping the bubble, there are three that stand out. And they end up being reasons to get out the needle.
After working part-time at Starbucks for half a year, I am convinced that many Christians wouldn’t be able to handle truly engaging people who aren’t Christians. When people found out I was a Christian I could tell they were uncomfortable about it. Some of them hid their life from me, while others ramped up the comments that were supposed to offend me to see how I’d react. There was one young woman who spent the day after finding out I was a Christian saying the “f-word” in my face and watching to see how I’d react. Not a regular occurrence in the bubble.
The bubble is comfortable. There are unwritten rules about how to be nice to each other, what you can say and what you can’t, and the correct answers to life’s difficult questions. You know what you’re getting. When you step outside the bubble and go deep with people who haven’t signed up for bubble regulations, you don’t know what you’ll get and there are no easy answers. Most Christians aren’t comfortable interacting honestly out of their perspective with people whose primary recreation is getting hammered, intelligent agnostics, or guys who spend most of their time at the strip club. In the bubble you don’t have to.
But our discomfort with discomfort that keeps us in the bubble has some serious consequences. As long as you stay in the bubble and look at “those people” from a distance, they are just stereotypes of heathens and are easily categorized. But when you spend time with them and become friends, you are confronted with the complexity of their lives. Their struggles, their beauty, their sin, and their humanity. You just can’t stereotype anymore. When you become friends with the guy who loves the strip club or the agnostic, you start to love them and care about them. You want them to trust and love Jesus because you love them, not just because they’re a “sinner.” That is a tremendous shift indeed.
Consider this; Jesus spent his time with those who made the religious people uncomfortable. He was blasted for being a friend of tax collectors and sinners, the same people the residents of the bubble won’t befriend today. Our aversion to discomfort places us closer to the religious leaders Jesus addressed so severely than it does to our Savior. That’s reason number one to start popping.
Another thing we learned as we started trying to pop the bubble was that it’s far easier to say you care about the mission of making disciples given to us by Jesus than to actually do it. My wife attends a women’s bible study each week. It is both a wonderful time of discussion and fellowship with other women, and an illuminator of how far removed from the bubble we’ve become. These are women who claim the importance of new life in Christ, but any missionary spirit has been crushed by the weight of the bubble.
One week during the discussion time the leader asked, “Should a woman’s spouse and her close friends be Christians?” As soon as the question left the tongue of the facilitator people began voicing their unanimous support for exclusively Christian spouses and close friends.
“I always pray that my kids will just have Christian friends. It’s so easy for them to be polluted by non-Christians,” one lady said.
“You become like the people you’re around. So of course your friends need to be Christians,” another woman added.
My wife listened to their comments, and while she agreed that a believer’s spouse should be a believer, and that all Christians need close Christian friends to affirm, challenge, and support them, she got the distinct impression that the group consensus was that all friends should be Christians. And to her credit, she spoke up.
“I hear what you’re saying,” she started. “We do need Christian spouses who share our faith. We all need close friends who do that too. But the Bible says we’re supposed to be salt and light too. I don’t know how we can be light if we’re in places that are always light. The light needs the dark to make a difference. And Jesus told us to go into the whole world and make disciples. Doesn’t that mean we really need to be in relationships with people who aren’t Christians too? Beyond that, friends who don’t share our faith can teach us a lot about ourselves–who we really are.”
The response? Complete silence.
This is not an indictment on these women as much as it is an illustration of the extent to which the Christian bubble has destroyed all concept of mission. It is reduced to something people do in far-away places. We just send them some money and we’ve done our part. But all followers of Christ are called to be witnesses to him. My wife hit an extremely important point that day—we cannot be light if we’re never in the dark. The bubble makes it impossible for us to be a part of Christ’s mission.
This is the reason that many churches have little to no reputation in their community. They have reduced mission to something people do in other countries and have turned their efforts to discipleship, which is usually defined as giving more information to the people who are already Christians (that definition is a whole other can of worms). Churches become havens for the cleaned up—the people who have it together.
It’s interesting that in Acts, as the early church is forming, the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is tied to witness over and over. The great gift given by Jesus to his followers is eminently present in the context of mission. Individuals and churches that lurk inside the bubble deprive themselves of the chance to fully experience the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
Seriously, go find a needle, a big one.
One of the great, or horrible, things about the bubble is that your faith is seldom if ever tested. As long as you know the right answers to make yourself look “Christian,” no one is going to push you too hard. As followers of Christ our identity is supposed to flow from him, but we’ve created a system where identity is more often based on adhering to a religious system. If you want to get brutal about it, that’s what the bubble is, a system of religion that allows people to be nice Christians without struggling through what it means to find their identity in Christ alone.
When we lived in Denver I was a young adult pastor, so I think people thought I’d be up for anything involving coffee—which was almost true. One afternoon I meandered down to the church office to pick up my mail. I didn’t usually get anything too exciting, but it was a chance to socialize, so I didn’t dread it. I removed a small stack of papers from my box, talked with the people in the office for about half an hour, and then headed back upstairs. About halfway through my stack I came to a postcard advertising a new coffee shop in downtown Denver. The logo had a big cross in the middle and the tagline was, “the best coffee, tea, and pastries this side of heaven.” The card trumpeted the opportunity to go downtown and be in a “safe, Christian environment.” They would only play Christian music, display Christian art, and host Christian groups. I got the postcard because I led a group, so we were the ones who were supposed to populate this new venture.
As I read over the entire card I felt myself becoming increasingly angry. Part of my emotion was the feeling that the cross and the gospel were being used to manipulate people who wanted to feel Christian into supporting a business venture. But I was also upset because this shop seemed to glory in their attempt to create a bubble for Christians. Having a coffee shop like this one made about as much sense as opening a Christian zoo so we could all go look at monkeys without those pesky heathens. It’s one thing to create spaces that serve as an opportunity for mission—I know people who have led coffee shops with that in mind, but it’s another to create a space that’s meant to be only for Christians.
When you are fully submersed in the Christian bubble, your identity is hijacked away from Christ and rooted firmly in safety, comfort, and affinity. None of those things fit well with Jesus or his kingdom. The coffee shop I talked about is a good example. They were providing a place where you could go hang out knowing you’d be surrounded by “Christian” music, “Christian” decorations, and “Christian” coffee. I’m not sure what Christian coffee is either, but the point is that Christian identity was transformed from a radical life of discipleship into a system of behaviors meant to keep you safe and insulated and with others who wanted to do the same.
Some of the most essential elements of what it means to follow Christ are neutered by the Christian bubble. It is a silent destructor of the mission of Jesus Christ to make disciples of those who are far from him, and the ones who believe in him already. And if you’re immersed in it, leaving will be a process that takes intention and time. You will have to put yourself in a position to be outside the bubble, without a safety net, and stay the course when it gets difficult and uncomfortable. The reward is that you will take huge steps toward Jesus as you do the things he did and love the people he loved, and loves. Your faith will come alive as it never has before. And that makes the difficult process worth it.