The Implicit Message

I've had a powerful concept rolling around in my brain ever since the National Youth Workers Convention. Mike King, founder of the organization Youthfront, sparked it in a seminar he gave at the conference. It's the concept of the "implicit" message. Essentially, we as people and we as the Church have not only a spoken message--an explicit message--but an "implicit" message as well. We have both the confession of our lips (read, "explicit") and the expression of our behavior (read "implicit").

Now, this is not an original thought by any stretch of the imagination. If the prophet Isaiah didn't get at it with, "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me," and if Jesus didn't imply this concept when he said, "You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence," and if James didn't say it when he wrote, "If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead," then maybe Saint Francis of Assisi had it in mind when he said, "preach the gospel and, if at all necessary, use words." Perhaps this is another reason why the Shema is so profoundly important. If the Lord our God, Yahweh, is ONE... if God's not preaching two different messages and if God's not undermining God's confession with God's behavior... then we can only reflect God's image by being single-minded, by living and loving with the harmony of our heart, mind, soul, and strength--with our behavior and our confession, with implicit and explicit messages.

This holds huge implications for not only what we choose to say but what we choose to do. What sort of patterns and cultures have we cultivated in our churches? Do our behaviors undermine or solidify the confessions that come from our pulpits? Do we speak one way and act another? If we dare to suggest that the gospel is "good news to the poor," as Jesus suggested, then do our budgets and board meetings reflect a belief in that suggestion? Belief, after all, is far more than a cognitive exercise. Belief is about environment and behavior.

This morning I was reading a friend's blog. In his most recent post, "Is that a bad thing?," Wes (yes, another one) shares his gut reactions to seeing a picture of a huge and glamorous church building in a magazine... "This was a huge, brand new, sterile, yet charming place of worship. It looked more like a hunting lodge to me than a church... Is this wasteful? Is this really important? ...The more I started to ask those questions, the more upset I was getting..." I share his sentiments and I share his openness to hearing out whatever justification there may be to the costly extravagance of so many of the church facilities we have in the U.S.--standing alongside (if only figuratively) other churches whose Pastor's have to work two jobs just to make their ministry possible, not to mention the millions among us struggling in poverty and the billions more around the globe who'd benefit from a share in the value of those buildings. Wes' post made me realize just how huge this implicit message can be.

The environments we create, including but not limited to the spaces in which we gather, are part of that implicit message. Don't bother talking about the incarnation if you don't cultivate environments of community. Don't think about suggesting "good news to the poor" if your building screams out, "I don't care about you!" If our message to the world is, "follow Jesus and get cool stuff" (and that's exactly what some have apparently gotten out of their faith experience), then extravagance is an accurate reflection of our value system. But if your explicit message involves sharing in the sufferings of Christ, loving and bringing good news to the poor, experiencing "abundant life" through the irony of sacrifice, or participating with God in the healing of the world, then you should know that glamour and bells & whistles will undermine and render void our explicit confession. It's hard to identify with the poor when you're driving a Bentley.

Yes, you might reach more people with a bigger, prettier, and more expensive building. You might attract different people with lights, screens, and awesome bands... but to what will you be attracting them? You may convert more people but to what will they be converted? How will their souls be shaped after they've been formed in the context you've created? What are you implying in the environment you've created? What message is going without saying?

Theological reflection on this issue is a necessary discipline for Pastors and architects alike (perhaps neither are doing enough of that). If you know your message, if you know what your God is like, the you'll know what your life should look like--the space in which you gather, the content of your conduct, the liturgy of your daily routines.

Let not the implicit message of your life render void the explicit message of your mouth. Let that bring new meaning to the saying "preach the gospel and if at all necessary, use words." for thought...


Kevin Boer said…
Great Stuff Wes. Let our words match our deeds. Mike King is profound in his depth and love for teenagers. There is room for extravagance in the Kingdom of God. His love is extravagant. And yet I too struggle with big church buildings. I would rather give to people than buildings.