Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Impact or Aroma? An important distinction

Pastors, just like real people, have trade journals and magazines, which of course, are filled with advertisments and articles intended to make us better at what we do. A quick purusal of these tools reveals that a recurring theme, in both articles and ads alike, is how important it is to make an IMPACT for Christ. "We're going to impact the world by planting one thousand churches." "How to impact your neighborhood with the gospel." "The impact factor!" "Impact your city for Jesus!!" "Real leaders make an impact!!"

I finally decided to look up the word in order to see what it really means. I discovered that the word, while occassionally used with positive connotation, is largely negative and destructive. It means,

" affect or influence, especially in a significant or undesirable manner..."

" collide or forcefully strike..."

I don't want to make too much out of a single word, but I'm afraid that overusing the word "impact" as it applies to our calling might not be wise. It can have the subtle effect of creating Christ followers who are militant, ambitious, unduly confrontive, and intent on overhauling the culture "for the cause of Christ." What does this look like?

It looks like Dobson's now famous letter intended to scare America away from Barack Obama.

It looks like calls to boycott certain companies because they offer employee benefits to same sex partners.

It looks like pastors and organizations with large audiences decrying a certain few sins, centering in on sexual issues and declaring that the future of the free world hangs on our wholesale condemnation of these issues, while turning a blind eye to the greed, militarism, and nationalism that might just be the bigger problems.

It looks churches driven by ambition and lofty goals, mobilizing their congregants to activist lifestyles that are ultimately exhausting. Working hard, like Martha, to make in impact, while neglecting the more important things. Thus do emotionally, phsyically, and spiritually spent pastors, flame out in nervous breakdown, financial misconduct, or sexual sin, in spite of their impactful message. IMPACT for certain, but too often, in the worst sense of the word. Did I mention that a quick look at my concordance revealed that this word is entirely absent from my Bible? There's a different word used by God to describe influence...

It's liberating for me to realize that even the great Paul, whom none of us could possibly characterize as a spiritual slacker, chose a gentler word to describe what He knew God was doing through him. In II Corinthians, he declares his confidence that God is expressing, through him, the sweet aroma of Christ.

It's the difference between a wrecking ball and the smell of your morning coffee, the difference between blowing up a building, and walking through a forest wet with fragrant morning dew. Which is noisier? Which elicits more public response? Which is more appealling?

I'm increasingly convinced that our ambitions related to making an impact are misguided, nothing more than a cloak to cover our own insecurities with God's 'blessing'. Instead of an impact, our ambitions ought to be related to being an aroma, as Paul says, "TO God... AMONG men." Aromas are a byproduct that reveal the essence of something. They don't set out to BE aromas, they simply are: Pine trees smell like pine; cigarette smoke like tabacco; coffee like heaven. That's the way it is.

Christ followers, when they're living in the moment as worshipplers, listening for the voice of Jesus and stepping into His calling, smell like Christ. They're bringing words and actions of hope. They're following their master in a thousand little acts of self-denial, putting their spouses needs before their own, loving, giving, encouraging. They're living creatively, embodying beauty in unique ways, whether through the cooking of a meal, the healing of a body, the encouragement of a tired soul, or the empowering and liberating of someone held in bondage, for whatever reason.

It's these unheralded, unprogrammed, un-noticed acts that are filling the world with the incense, the sweet aroma, of Christ's life. When I was young, I was obsessed with impact. As I grow older, I'm less impressed, even increasingly wary, of impact. Aroma is where it's at, becoming the quiet fragrance of life in a world where the stench and pollution of death is everywhere.

The aroma ambition is liberating, in that it frees me from the ambitions, constant measurements, fears, and obsessions, that are necessarily wed with IMPACT. I've pretty much traded in IMPACT for AROMA... wake up and smell the coffee. You'll like it better here.


At 18/8/09 09:40, Blogger Kevin said...

I like this distinction, although the question for many Evangelicals will likely be "what do we do?" The idea of aroma doesn't yield the kind of action items and ministry strategies that make people feel empowered, important, and valuable. While it may come as a relief to me that the Kingdom of God will come to fruition regardless of my participation, I often wonder if I have enough self-worth to not question whether or not I have a place in that Kingdom. The question that lingers in my mind is "even were there nothing to do and no other person to interact with, would I still have value?" For, even though I come from a faith tradition which espouses faith before works, I would much rather wrap myself in the warmth of my works than be for one moment in the nakedness of faith; I would much rather be impactful than aromatic.

I still like this distinction, though, and I wonder if what is needed is a hermeneutic which seeks to reveal the God-given value in every human person, rather than focus so precisely on sin and condemnation. How about a little more redemption in the way that we live and love? How about learning to love ourselves and find worth in ourselves before we try to give it others?

At 18/8/09 11:21, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am drawn to aroma over impact as you describe it not least because my personality is more tuned to naturally express Christ in that manner as opposed to the confrontational alternative.

It is hard to sell to those who are inspired by the language of impact. Christians that come to mind are those who use phrases such as "saving souls" "fighting the enemy" etc as the focus of the Gospel. They like "impact" because it seems to go hand-in-hand with those and another Christian catchphrase: "being missional". Aroma seems less focused, less concerned about "reaping the harvest". All good things, right? But for some reason my skin crawls some when that's the sole language used about Christ's work, and you touch on the reasons in this blog why I respond that way. I'll admit that is something I am working on; I need to change that response while still advocating for broader language.

So my question is, how do we address the charge that switching from impact to aroma may lead us to complacency in being artisans of hope and reconciliation? In other words what does "aroma" look like in practice when set against the unhealthy use of "impact".

At 18/8/09 12:42, Anonymous Nathan said...

Of course, as Paul warns- "we're the fragrance of life... and the stench of death..."

Scene One:

What's the sweet sweet smell? Why, it's Christ followers loving their brothers and sisters and forgiving each other as Christ forgave them! Amazing!

Scene Two:

What's that awful stench of death? Why, it's Christ followers whose choice to live in but not of this world personally convicts me of my own fallen nature every time I interact with them! Bleh!

At 18/8/09 20:09, Anonymous julie said...

What a wonderful freedom we have in Christ. Freedom to simply "be" in this world of, "do, do, do (and have)." As opposed to doing more, it's about being more like Him every day - more gracious, more loving, more wise, more discerning, more patient, and more forgiving.

At 18/8/09 23:42, Blogger Randy said...

I just wanted you to know that those small moments when we can talk have impact in my life, thanks

At 19/8/09 17:29, Blogger amy said...


At 19/8/09 23:00, Anonymous Graham said...

I definately agree with you that there is inherent danger in the "impact" model as you describe it. However while there are always going to be the James Dobson's, Pat Robertson's, and Jerry Falwell's who are overly militant and agressive and seemingly just pushing their own agenda in the name of "making an impact," don't we also have a huge problem in the Western Church with apathy, passivity, and a lack of involvement/application of our faith? Perhaps I'm comparing apples and oranges and you're speaking of pastors and churches and their desire to make an impact and grow their spiritual influence...
All I am saying is perhaps there is a time and season for these things. Like being "militat"...we don't talk much about spiritual warfare in non-charasmatic churches but it's something I think we could do a better job or recognizing and being equipped for. Or perhaps there are times to be more evangelistic as well as times to be more "aromatic" (not that the two can't coexist, but perhaps you know what I'm getting at).

I really think at some level this generation needs a spiritual "call to arms," something that reuqires action, or as you put in in a previous post 'jumping into the river.' Now obviously this call should not be about changing the culutre, or a focus on sexual sins, or something more politicized.. but if not these things, then what? What will rattle the cages of our apathy in our cushy well-protected lives?

At 20/8/09 11:53, Blogger bleev said...

Graham -

Reading your comment immediately reminded me of "The Vision" written by Pete Grieg. He is one of the founders of the 24-7 Prayer Movement... (not all of it will fit here so I will attach the rest in another comment)

The Vision
by Pete Grieg

So this guy comes up to me and says, “What’s the vision? What’s the big idea?”

I open up my mouth and the words come out like this…

The vision?
The vision is Jesus:
obsessively, dangerously, undeniably Jesus.

The vision is of an army of young people.
You see bones?
I see an army.

And they are free from materialism—
They laugh at nine-to-five little prisons.
They could eat caviar on Monday and crusts on Tuesday.
They wouldn’t even notice.
They know the meaning of the Matrix, the way the West was won.

They are mobile like the wind.
They belong to the nations.
They need no passport.
People write their addresses in pencil and wonder at their strange existence.
They are free yet they are slaves of the hurting, dirty and dying.

What is the vision?
The vision is holiness that hurts the eyes.
It makes children laugh and adults angry.
It gave up the game of minimal integrity long ago to reach for the stars.
It scorns the good and strains for the best.
It is dangerously pure.

Light flickers from every secret motive, from every conversation.
It loves people away from their suicide leaps—their Satan games.

This is an army that would lay down its life for the cause.
A million times a day, its soldiers choose to lose that they might one day win the great “well done” of faithful sons and daughters.

Such heroes are as radical on Monday morning as Sunday night.

They don’t need fame from names.
Instead they grin quietly upwards and hear the crowds chanting again and again: “COME ON!”
And this is the sound of the underground, the whisper of history in the making, foundations shaking, revolutionaries dreaming once again.
Mystery is scheming in whispers, conspiracy is breathing…
This is the sound of the underground.

And the army is disciple(in)ed—
Young people who beat their bodies into submission.
Every soldier would take a bullet for his comrade at arms.
The tattoo on their back boasts “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Sacrifice fuels the fire of victory in their upward eyes.
Who can stop them?
Can hormones hold them back?
Can failure succeed?
Can fear scare them or death kill them?

And the generation prays like a dying man with groans beyond talking, with warrior cries, sulfuric tears and great barrow loads of laughter!


At 20/8/09 11:53, Blogger bleev said...

The Vision...


Whatever it takes they will give:
Breaking the rules,
Shaking mediocrity from its cozy little hide,
Laying down their rights and their precious little wrongs,
Laughing at labels,
Fasting essentials.
The advertisers cannot mold them.
Peer-pressure is powerless to shake their resolve at late-night parties before the cockerel cries.

They are incredibly cool, dangerously attractive on the inside.
On the outside?
They hardly care!
They wear clothes like costumes: to communicate and celebrate, but never to hide.

Would they surrender their image or their popularity?
They would lay down their lives, swap seats with the man on death row, guilty as hell: a throne of an electric chair.

With blood and sweat and many tears, with sleepless nights and fruitless days, they pray as if it all depends on God and live as though it all depends on them.

Their DNA chooses Jesus.
He breathes out.
They breathe in.
Their subconscious sings.
They had a blood transfusion with Jesus.

Their words make demons scream in shopping malls.
Don’t you hear them coming?

Herald the weirdoes!
Summon the losers and the freaks.
Here come the frightened and forgotten with fire in their eyes!
They walk tall and trees applaud.
Skyscrapers bow.
Mountains are dwarfed by these children of another dimension.

Their prayers summon the Hound of Heaven and evoke the dream of Eden.

And, this vision will be.
It will come to pass.
It will come easily.
It will come soon.

How do I know?
Because, this is the longing of creation itself, the groaning of the spirit, the very dream of God.

My tomorrow is His today.
My distant hope is His 3-D.
And, my feeble, whispered, faithless prayer invokes a thunderous, resounding, bone-shaking, great “AMEN!” from countless angels, from heroes of the faith, from Christ himself.

And He is the original dreamer, the ultimate winner.

At 24/8/09 00:13, Blogger amy said...

there seems to be questions around action.... like if we get too liberal and embrace this whole "aroma" idea, we're giving people reason to simply just "be." with this lazy sort of connotation. but i think if we really truly understand what it means to be the embodiment of christ. if we're truly in communion with the lord - and he is flowing out of us as the aroma of christ... then our lives will naturally be full of actions that are to his glory! there won't be questions i "doing" enough? how can i measure my usefulness in ministry? our lives will be bubbling over with the spirit of christ - and that is naturally through service and generosity and kindness and gentleness.... all the fruits of the spirit. and these very character traits lead to humble hearts that serve one another. those around us won't be able to deny the sweet fragrance : ) may we be able to let go of our agendas and let the lord build his kingdom within and through us.

At 28/8/09 08:12, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Lord calls us to be faithful and true, He will take care of the rest...


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