Confessions of a Jesus Impersonator

Why we value imitation over transformation

What do you do when a member of your church tells you she doesn’t see Jesus in you?

I don’t think she was expecting the man from Nazareth himself, but at least enough of what she thought he is like to be evident in my life as a Christian leader. And she didn’t see it in me. What’s more she was honest enough to let me know. Once I got over the process of self-justification, self-righteousness, and self- (fill in the blank), I realized she had a point.

I am an impersonator of Jesus.

The latest TV ad selling the latest version of fried chicken shows a competition of Elvis impersonators. One contestant eats the latest product before going on, and in a (highly debatable) inspired moment ditches his routine for a hepped-up, hip-hop, funky modern rap. You can imagine the king turning in his grave. The caption: “For something original with a modern twist”.

Something original with a modern twist. Isn’t that what churches are trying to do all the time? In the name of cultural relevance we take the original and give Him a modern twist. While it’s true that some modern twists honour the original in creative, life-transforming ways, much of what we do as a Church doesn’t come off. We end up looking contrived. Phony. Cheap. Do we generate the cringe factor in the eyes of others as much as that chicken commercial?

How can we embrace all that we see in the original Jesus and make it real for our personal lives and corporate churches? Not in my most vivid dreams can I expect to come even close to the great King (I’m talking about Jesus now, not Elvis). His example both confounds and excites, dismays and inspires me. The impossibilities of the kingdom of God as presented by Christ do not all bring comfort. So what are we to do?

We settle for imitation. I settle for imitation. I play the game. As long as life is fairly predictable, as long as I keep my emotions under control, as long as I am seen to be a nice enough guy, I can convince others that when you see me, you see a reflection of Jesus. Imitation is neat. When you get used to it, imitation is easy.

Imitation is actually promoted in church. Just go along. Don’t make waves. New Christians who join soon ‘learn the ropes’. It’s like the scene that depicts an employee on the first day of the job who gets chastised for being too enthusiastic. “Don’t go so fast”, he is counseled by a fellow workmate, “You’ll make the rest of us look bad.” While I know many mature Christians who still have the fire and passion for serving Christ, sadly, I also see a church culture that habitually and quite literally sucks the life right out those new to the Christian faith. Many new Christians (which, by the way, means ‘little Christ’) enter a church culture that- unlike its founder- values superficiality, religiosity and hypocrisy. Am I sounding too harsh? If I am it is directed at those things I see in myself. And I’m not finished.

I would be tempted to flee the traditional Church institution with all of its trappings to something else. Something more relevant. Something more real to everyday life. Something that speaks the same language as I and those I see around me do. Enter the Emerging Church. What a breath of fresh air we have found: Radical new forms of Church promoting the old truths of Scripture. What did we ever do before we discovered the word ‘missional’?

It’s a great word isn’t it? Missional. Go on, say it with me: missional. Missional church. Missional community. Missional theology. Missional movement. Let’s hear it again: missional.

Can I share a fear I have? A sneaking suspicion based on the untrustworthiness of my own heart? I fear that we are in danger of exchanging one impersonation for another.

If the institutional model of Church promotes a type of shallow spirituality- imitators of Christ rather than ‘little Christs’, could it be that the emerging, missional model of Church is also in danger of overlooking that which is central to who we are in Christ.

Personally, the missional church movement is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in my Christian lifetime. Though we are in a period of transition and no-one really knows what ‘Church’ will end up looking like in years to come, even now the experimentation and exploration of ecclesiology really inspires me. I am okay with not knowing what the future holds. But I am concerned with how we get there.

In the past the institutional Church has copped flack for loading its members up with too much. There’s always been so much to do: Church services, small groups, programs, etc. Furthermore, much of traditional church activity is ‘in-house’, largely benefiting its members but not many others. The missional church movement has re-prioritized the centrality of mission for the Church.

My question though, is even as we embrace an emerging church model for Christian life, exchanging an emphasis from the institution to the mission, have we still missed the point?

It’s a question of wineskins. I can exchange one wineskin for another; the old for the new, but where’s the wine?

Jesus commands mission. His desire is for all of His people to be missional: to impact the lives of those around us for good for the kingdom of God.

But if I’m just doing mission, being ‘missional’ because it’s the thing to do, I am still an impersonator of Jesus. One imitation has gone, another has come.

I need the wine. I need transformation. I need Christ Himself.

Imitation is easy. Transformation is deadly.

Imitation is neat. Transformation is messy.

But it’s also real. We need to rediscover the real life of the Vine, allowing His wine to do the long, hard work of transformation- both personal and corporate.

There are no shortcuts in this, and it’s not about having the right model of church. Traditional, missional, contemporary, and emerging styles of worship and witness all have the potential to become idols- further dividing the Body of Christ. What is it that unites? Real, authentic people seeking to be transformed by the Spirit of Jesus into the image of Jesus.

From where does mission flow? Not from a program, a church model, or even my enthusiasm. Mission is straight from the heart of God, and flows through a people who will no longer ‘play the game’, but who enter the slow, steady work of transformation; who surrender totally to His leading- even as it spells the death of our own attitudes and aspirations.

Who would dare walk on such a journey? Certainly not mere impersonators of Jesus, but a people who consistently and deliberately embrace the work of the cross in their lives, and, regardless of the outcome allow the Spirit of God to do His transforming work.

Stuart White