As Christians, we often hear the phrase “in the world, but not of it” used to describe how we’re called to move throughout the culture surrounding us. We typically say this as a shorthand to mean that believers should not be totally removed from what’s going on around us in the “secular” world, but we should not emulate that culture either. While that particular phraseology is not explicitly stated in the Bible, the idea is certainly woven throughout Jesus’s life and teachings.
But it’s easy to slide into one extreme or the other: isolated from the world in a Christian “bubble” or so indistinguishable from the rest of the culture that no one would know we were Christians. Finding a middle ground is a difficult journey, and I think most of us want to be able to engage the world meaningfully without succumbing to its temptations or being at risk of danger. But how do we do that practically? How do we exist as set-apart Christians without isolating ourselves from the world around us?
My friend Dr. Dan Boone is the president of Nashville’s Trevecca Nazarene University, and he recently sat down with me for an episode of the Real Hope podcast to talk about his experience. As the leader of a Christian school in the heart of Nashville, Dan ran into this question in a very real and practical way. The neighborhood where Trevecca is located is not exactly the picturesque, innocuous community you might expect for a private Christian university. It’s diverse; it’s rough around the edges. The community includes people from all walks of life, including many different nationalities and cultures. Dan says that when he arrived in 2005, the Trevecca community had tended to downplay the neighborhood — seeking to thrive in spite of it, separately from it. But instead, he took a different approach.
“I decided we would stop apologizing for our neighborhood and turn it into a classroom,” he says. “For too long Murfreesboro Road had been spoken of as a high-crime area or an impoverished area, and I thought, no, this is an area in which we’re going to teach the city of Nashville what it means to establish neighborhood within communities.”
The student body and leadership has really taken this directive to heart, humbly and intentionally engaging the community with enthusiasm. Over the last 15 years, Trevecca has become an integral part of the neighborhood, serving their neighbors through partnerships with local organizations like Nashville Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army, and programs like the urban garden they established, teaching people in a “food desert” (a community without adequate access to healthy foods) to grow their own vegetables in their backyard. Dan says he even has students who teach English at the Somali center, representing just one of many different cultures in the area.
Dan says this unique experience is what makes Trevecca a truly special place for students to learn what it’s like to go out and bring the love of Jesus to a world that’s hurting, and do it in a way that fosters true relationships — something that would not be possible in a more insulated environment.
“What I love about our community is that we have been able to give our students a world-class education touching the deep brokenness of humankind in ways you could never do if you were in a sheltered neighborhood somewhere,” he explains.
Interestingly, though safety would be a natural concern for students immersed in a neighborhood that might not have the lowest crime rate or highest income levels, Dan says they haven’t seen safety be an issue at all.
“Trevecca has remained one of the top two or three safest campuses in the entire state of Tennessee,” he shares.
How is this possible? I believe it’s because when we truly invest in the community around us and make genuine connections with people, even when they are different from us, real change can happen. Dan says Trevecca has seen the outcome of that investment firsthand.
“Police have often told us because Trevecca has had such a neighborly influence in the communities around them, you find the neighborhood itself has great value and respect for this community.”
Take off the Bubble Wrap
I think one of the most important things we can do as Christians, especially in the U.S., is to evaluate whether or not we’re living insulated in Christian “bubble wrap.” We have to take a step back and consider whether or not we have any interaction with nonbelievers on a regular basis. If we don’t interact with nonbelievers — more than that, if we don’t have real relationships with them — how can we expect to impact them? Lives aren’t changed from far away. They’re changed through up-close, face-to-face relationships. (Of course, this is metaphorical during a pandemic!)
So if we look at our lives and all of our friends are Christians, we might be living in Christian bubble wrap. This might be particularly true for you if you work for a church or a Christian nonprofit, or perhaps most of the people in your workplace (or simply your work friends) happen to be Christians. You might even have your kids participating in faith-based sports or attending a Christian school. None of these things are bad on their own, of course, but if we take a look around and we are almost never interacting in meaningful ways with nonbelievers, we might need to make some changes.
Trevor Lee writes about his experience in “bubble wrap” for Christianity Today, remembering how strange it was to take the first step out of it.
“We had spent our entire lives doing Christian things with Christian people, and engaging people who did not share our faith felt as awkward as a first date,” he says.
But he soon discovered how powerful it was to embrace the discomfort of it all.
“When you actually get close enough to become friends, you are confronted with the complexity of their lives—their struggles, their beauty, their sin, their humanity. You can’t stereotype anymore. You start to care about them. You want them to trust and love Jesus because you love them, not just because they’re ‘sinners.’ That is a tremendous shift.”
I think that’s what Dan and the Trevecca community have discovered as well. When you live life alongside people who are different from you, especially nonbelievers, you can see them more clearly. You become invested in them as people and want them to have the joy and redemption you have. You become more than a missionary trying to serve — you become friends.
We’ll never make a difference in the world if we don’t engage with it.
Impacting Communities Through Connection
Today, research is showing that the need for connection as a driver for change is true for any kind of change, not just spiritual change. Many organizations, governments and community leaders who are trying to get to the root of problems like poverty, crime and obesity and have realized these problems are all interconnected. If we invest in communities on the front end and truly get to know people and their needs, we avoid problems in the future.
“It’s not just poverty but disconnectedness, from both your neighbors and the police that causes crime,” LA City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson said on a panel discussion covered in an article for Zocalo Public Square. He represents South LA, which his family left because it was unsafe.
“I’m interested in why crime clusters where it does, why it occurs where it does,” fellow panelist UC Irvine criminologist Charis Kubrin said. “To understand that you have to know how neighborhoods are shaped by larger social forces.”
A pediatrician on the same panel, Chris Mink, explained that when she sees, for example, an obese child living in poverty with food insecurity, there are a number of issues at play.
“To combat that, she added, you need a grocery store where the family can buy good food, a parent with a job to buy that food, and a park that’s safe for the child to go out and play,” the article summarized.
In the case of lowering crime, the panelists explained that allocating funds to investing in the community was more effective than spending money on punishment.
“The money is there, the panelists agreed. Unfortunately, most of it is going into what Kubrin called ‘back-end criminal justice solution’ rather than ‘front-end prevention.’ The state, she said, spends $60,000 per year to house a prisoner,” the article states.
When the community comes together to try to tackle these underlying problems, healing and thriving can begin.
I think that’s how we engage our world in a meaningful way as Christians, if we are brave enough to step outside our comfort zones. If Jesus, holy and set apart from humanity while being fully human Himself, could live side-by-side with sinners — people who were despised in his culture, surely we can ask God for the courage to engage our next-door neighbors. That’s the only way we can impact others. It might be uncomfortable, but it’s the reason we’re here.
The community at Trevecca is doing this in real, tangible ways, I am so inspired by how they’re loving their neighborhood. Young adults are learning to engage with people who look, act and think differently than them, serve them humbly and form real relationships with them, and I think that’s a very unique experience in a very divided world. I’m thankful for Dan and his leadership in this way. If you want to hear more about how Trevecca is involved with the Nashville community and how they’re changing lives, check out the most recent episode of Real Hope here.