Romancing Your City
The following article is an excerpt of Reframation: Seeing God, People, and Mission Through Reenchanted Frames, a new book by Alan Hirsch and Mark Nelson on reframing our worldview to enlarge our perception of God and the gospel.
In quite possibly the most painfully excruciating eight minutes of film ever recorded, Prince Charles (Prince of Wales and heir apparent to the British throne) was interviewed in 1981 alongside his newly announced fiancée, Diana Spencer. In what is labeled their “engagement interview,” Charles and Diana’s attempt to describe their courtship and pending nuptials succeeds in making all who watch feel quite uncomfortable in so many different ways.
When the interviewer asks the couple, “I suppose then that the two of you are in love?” the nineteen-year-old Diana responds immediately, “Of course.” In contrast, the ever-starchy Charles, fourteen years her elder, pauses briefly, then responds in the most impersonal and dispassionate of ways, “Well, I suppose so … whatever being in love means.”¹
This Prince Charles way of thinking is similar to the wife who asks the husband, “But, darling, do you love me?” to which the man replies, “Of course I love you. I married you, didn’t I?” It effectively communicates that the grand gesture and declaration of a wedding says and does all that needs to be said and done.
Unfortunately, too many churches treat love the same way. We fear that too many depend upon grand evangelistic gestures to “win souls for Jesus.” (“Of course we love you, we planted a church for you, didn’t we?”) Many of us are unwilling to engage in the loving work of “wooing people to Jesus” that is necessary in our post-Christian world.
But in order to grow in relationship with others, we must acknowledge that any proclamation in word and deed must go deeper than grand gestures and declarations. We must learn to court those we encounter. The church cannot continue proclaiming the good news of Jesus the same way Prince Charles approached love.²
We want to suggest that the idea of romancing your city — a metaphor first suggested by Michael Frost — is an incredibly useful way of approaching mission with a focus on winning the love of the people we seek to reach, lovingly engaging with those who have no idea how life-changing an experience with God can be.
“We must learn to court those we encounter.”
What does it take to romance a culture well? It’s the same thing it takes to go beyond a first date: finding the keys to the beloved’s heart, to attend, to court, to woo with the intention of marriage, for better or worse, richer or poorer. It requires a willingness to learn about and understand someone else, a willingness to consciously stop talking about ourselves and what only we believe for a moment. And it requires stepping outside of our cultural box and learning to ask questions about the other — simple, genuinely curious questions, not designed to lead someone to your cleverly designed agenda for the relationship, but ones that lead to a genuine understanding of the other. Those who are the worst at romance are those who have not learned how to simply pay attention, listen, and use interpathy (we’ll explain this term later).
The Art of Paying Attention
Jesus said, “The truth is that the Son does nothing on His own; all these actions are led by the Father. The Son watches the Father closely and then mimics the work of the Father” (John 5:19 The Voice). In other words, when Jesus went out on the streets or to the market, he looked for what the Father was already doing, and he subsequently joined the Father in what he was already doing. And we believe this is exactly what we need to do when engaging in any and every context of life.
This means we must pay attention. We must learn to become aware of what God is doing and where he is doing it. Again, in the words of Jesus, “I have not ever acted, and will not in the future act, on My own. I listen to the directions of the One who sent Me and act on these divine instructions. For this reason, My judgment is always fair and never self-serving. I’m committed to pursuing God’s agenda and not My own” (John 5:30 The Voice).
How long had the bush been burning before Moses stopped long enough to notice it? How long did he have to stare at it to realize it wasn’t going to stop? Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “The burning bush was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke.”³
If Kushner is correct, we have to consider—are we too busy and preoccupied to pay attention to the fact that we stand on holy ground? Do our desires lead us to fill our schedules to the brim, so much so that we fail to notice God speaking to us because we’re too busy “doing ministry”? How long has he been calling without us noticing?
Can we learn the practice of paying attention and apply that rhythm to our lives?
Day by day, year by year, your own story unfolds, your life’s story. Things happen. People come and go. The scene shifts. Time runs by, runs out. Maybe it is all utterly meaningless. Maybe it is all unutterably meaningful. If you want to know which, pay attention.
The unexpected sound of your name on somebody’s lips. The good dream. The odd coincidence. The moment that brings tears to your eyes. The person who brings life to your life. Maybe even the smallest events hold the greatest dues. If it is God we are looking for, as I suspect we all of us are even if we don’t think of it that way and wouldn’t use such language on a bet, maybe the reason we haven’t found him is that we are not looking in the right places. Pay attention.⁴
The Art of Listening
In addition to the practice of paying attention, if we’re going to move toward a deeper anthropological understanding of culture, we need to listen well. We must learn the rhythm of stopping and noticing burning bushes, absolutely. But we must move beyond awareness and learn the art of listening.
Listening is one of the least-practiced skills among the church (like a bad first date, we love to be the ones talking). And yet, if Jesus’ followers are serious about entering a culture with a story of good news that will change the world, we should probably understand exactly what good news is to its people. If we will listen, they are telling us how to love them—how to bring the gospel to them. As the inventor of the stethoscope, René Laennec, stated, “Listen, listen, listen to your patients. They are telling you the answer.”
Mike Breen tells the story of English missionaries, well-supplied with money and resources, who travel to a slum in a small village in India, prepared to start a ministry, build a clinic, establish a new church, whatever this impoverished village needed. Fortunately, the missionaries were smart enough to adopt a posture of listening. The leaders of the village were very clear what good news was to their people: “What we really need is a PIN [zip] code, a post box, and a post office.”
The missionaries responded with, “Yes, of course. But what about a big-ticket item? What can we build for you? What can we throw our money toward? Please tell us.”
The response of the people was simple: “No, really … what we need is a PIN code. In the poorest parts of our country, if you are considered a slum by the governmental system and don’t have a PIN code, then you don’t exist on a map. There could be 20,000 people living in the village, but without a PIN you don’t exist. We’re not entitled to social services, any forms of structure, or health care. We are invisible. If you are really here to help—if you’re really listening to what we’re saying—get us a postbox. The whole world would open up to us.”
The missionaries listened. It took two years, but the village finally became registered as a recognized neighborhood. It happened partially because the privileged missionaries were able to posture themselves to listen to their “patients,” rather than dictating the particulars of the good news for these villagers.⁵
The art of listening and speaking with people—not just to them—is what makes them feel like they’re not invisible anymore.
The Art of Interpathy
In Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, the protagonist and narrator, Scout Finch, is a young girl in southern Alabama forced to grow up quickly in the ever-changing world of the 1930s. Her father, Atticus, becomes the attorney for a black man accused of raping a white woman. Six-year-old Scout and her older brother, Jem, are thrust into the middle of the complexities of race and social class and “the other.”
In an attempt to help her understand the social intricacies of the 1930s culture, Atticus tells his daughter “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”⁶ Atticus’ words seem to be instructional wisdom for us as we attempt to tell of the story of God to the world around us.
A term that missiologists use to describe this strong sense of affinity with a group of people, a cross-cultural form of empathy, is interpathy. Interpathy is a sense of feeling with the other, climbing into another’s skin and walking around in it. It describes that depth of relationship when an outsider develops a burden in their heart for a group. It refers to the capacity for an outsider to examine a community’s sense of values, what has hurt them, and where they’re headed. It’s a form of identification so deep that the guest almost becomes one of the tribe … an insider.⁷
The practice of interpathy is key for empathy to cross-cultural boundaries.⁸ “In interpathic ‘feeling with,’ empathy is extended beyond known borders to offer a grace that draws no lines, refuses limits, claims universal humanness as sufficient foundation for joining another in a unique world of experience.”⁹
The story is told of an encounter the French poet Jacque Prévert had with a beggar on the street. The man held a sign that said, “Blind Man without a home.” Prévert approached the man to learn if he was getting any donations.
“Oh, no,” the man replied. “People pass by and drop nothing in my hat, the swines.”
Rather than putting money in the man’s cup, Prévert took the sign from him and altered it. A few days later, he came upon the beggar again and asked if things had changed.
“Oh, yes. It’s wonderful. My hat fills up three times a day.”
Prévert had changed the phrase on the sign to say, “Spring is coming, but I won’t see it.” Now, when people came upon the blind man, they entered into a different story with him. They were invited into the practice of interpathy. They put themselves in his place, crossed a boundary into his circumstance of life. By remembering their own springtime memories, they could understand the great tragedy this man was living.¹º
We believe it is possible that practicing interpathy changes not only how someone views the world, but how they respond to it.
Like Falling in Love for the First Time
Ultimately, all these examples and practices should lead us to a wi(l)der appreciation of God, his story, and his world. Adopting these rhythms will help us grasp what truly sounds like ravishingly good news for people in all spaces of life and faith … something that will make their hearts sing. When we are able to discern what good news looks like in each context, we will find the key to an individual’s heart and, by extension, the heart of their community.
May we give the gift of news that is greater than our wildest imaginations—news that means death doesn’t carry the same weight anymore and that the gospel isn’t just about where you go when you die, but about the chance you get to truly live right now.
The good news comes knocking on doors that we didn’t even know we had; it flings open the curtains on windows we didn’t know existed to reveal the rising sun flooding the room with glory when we had imagined that all light came from candles; it woos our cold hearts and awakens them, like someone falling in love for the first time, to a joy and fulfillment never before imagined.¹²
¹ iLovePrincessDiana, 2010, “Princess Diana’s engagement interview”, online video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wg_fib2gQaU
² Much of the “romancing” language and thinking comes from Michael Frost, Exponential Conference, main session, 2011. Also here: Michael Frost, “Romancing the City,” August 27, 2012, in Exponential Podcast. https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/exponential/id194168324
³ Lawrence Kushner, God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know it: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2016), 27.
⁴ Buechner, Secrets in the Dark, 183.
⁵ Mike Breen story, told by Mike Frost at Exponential Conference, main session, 2011.
⁶ Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (New York: Popular Library, 1960), 34.
⁷ Frost and Hirsch, Shaping, 88.
⁸ Eric Fromm, The Art of Listening (New York: Continuum International, 1994), 192–193.
⁹ David W. Augsburger, Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 31.
¹⁰ John Wood, “David Ogilvy’s Copywriting Technique That Made a Homeless Man’s Cup Runneth Over…”, American Writers & Artists Inc., February 2013. https://www.awai.com/2013/02/david-ogilvys-copywriting-technique/
¹² Wright, Simply Good News, 154.