By Chuck Kelley
Rarely does Hollywood contact a Southern Baptist seminary, but rarely is not never. One day location scouts for a major motion picture to be filmed in New Orleans called NOBTS and asked to tour the campus. They were looking for a place that with a bit of movie magic could be made to look like the United States Coast Guard Academy. As they looked around, the location scouts absolutely loved what they saw. The star of the movie, who was a major Hollywood player, also had to sign off on the location before they could make a formal request to film some scenes within our gates. After looking things over, he overruled the scouts and rejected the recommendation to use NOBTS, saying it was “too pristine,” meaning too unspoiled and fresh.
When news of the Hollywood conversation reached the president’s Office, I found it amusing, Upon reflection, I realized how instructive it was for the future facing Baptists. Having lived and worked on the campus for more than four decades, I was accustomed to hearing people speak of how beautiful the campus was and how different it felt when entering our campus from the city of New Orleans. The classic academic quadrangle was designed by A. Hays Town, a legendary Louisiana architect, when he was in the early years of his remarkable career. The landscaping in our semi-tropical climate is green and lush in all seasons. The contrast with the neighborhood around us, especially after Hurricane Katrina, was dramatic. Yet in the eyes of this Hollywood star, it was too good to be true, too “spic and span” to be realistic.
Every evangelism strategy ever deployed in the history of the church, from biblical times to this present day, shares one common denominator. All are based upon the assumption that the life of a Christian differs from that of a non-Christian. The distinctiveness of the way disciples of Christ live draws attention to Jesus and illustrates the Gospel. When I was growing up, people would tell jokes about Baptists because our lives were so unlike the lives of our neighbors. I rarely hear Baptist jokes these days because more and more of us look more and more like our neighbors. While holding on to the habit of worship, many Baptists embrace worldly behaviors and attitudes. As a result, Baptists no longer stand out in the culture. We blend in. Not surprisingly, our evangelism has become less and less effective.
Why should the life of a Christian stand out as distinctive? We seek to be neither different from our neighbors, nor like our neighbors. We seek intentionally to imitate the life of Jesus and in so doing provide a living illustration of who He is and what He teaches. The result: we become different and distinctive, with lifestyles unlike the people with whom we live and work. For instance, Jesus teaches us to forgive those who sin against us, no matter how deep and painful the damage. He calls upon us to honor our marriage vows. We are to be sexually pure, reserving sexual intimacy for the marriage relationship alone. All disciples of Christ are to tell the truth and be honest even when it is not in our best interest to do so. Christians are to find joy in God’s comfort during times of mourning and contentment in putting the needs of others before our own. In today’s world, those practices are uncommon and will make your life distinctive.
There is a consequence facing those who seek to live as Jesus calls us to live. If you live differently than your neighbors, you can make your neighbors uncomfortable. Your different values may make them think you are condemning their values. You may seem “too pristine” to be authentic because you are unlike everyone else. Righteousness often unsettles the unrighteous. Peer pressure towards worldliness is real and powerful, even very powerful on adults as well as students. That peer pressure toward worldliness has added power today because Baptists have been trending toward worldliness for many years.
The holy life is often unappreciated, but it is never unnoticed. Can distinctive living really help us reach our neighbors? Time and consistency in righteous behavior and kind, loving attitudes and actions towards all eventually breaks down barriers and creates a curiosity and attraction that will draw people to the Christ in us. It was so in the ancient church. The early church was engulfed by a pagan world that thought them crazy, weird, even dangerous. Yet over time, the love, the kindness, the honesty, the convictions of those early Christians won the day, attracting thousands upon thousands to Christ and transforming history. The church has learned in every age that acts of love and kindness humanize habits of holiness and make the Christian faith attractive.
Today’s world is rapidly moving further and further away from the biblical values that influenced our culture for many years. We are returning to the day when looking like Jesus makes followers of Christ seem “too pristine,” too unspoiled to be desirable company or to inspire similar behaviors. Still, we know worldliness is ultimately a dead-end street. We must continue to focus on Christlikeness if we are to win this world again. Jesus was too radical until people realized that radical transformation was the only way to fill the empty place in their souls and the only way to bring healing to a broken world.
I was not at all disappointed that Hollywood found our campus “too pristine” to use in a movie. I was encouraged that we looked unspoiled compared to the city around us. I pray that we will all seek to live distinctively and be who Jesus wants us to be in this lost and broken world. There are worse things than being labeled “too pristine.”