However, I was not prepared for Bel Air Presbyterian, our hosts.
If you have never been to Bel Air Pres, it pretty much resembles what you would expect when Bel Air is invoked in the title. Perched on the hillside with a magnificent view of the city, the church itself was a display of opulence and modern architecture. That was just the half of it. As the well-sculpted and uber-styled Bel Air youth arrived, I was so awestruck that it lead me to easily proclaim Bel Air to be the hippest church I have ever been in.
When worship started, you could say that I was fairly distracted and a bit flustered by my surroundings. (I even spilled my drink on the floor. Doh!) The band was composed of people that actually looked as cool as what you would expect from rock star folk. So as I soaked in my environment, I become a bit curious with who this Shane Claiborne guy was. I wondered where he was sitting and if I could pick him out. It took all of two seconds. I immediately spotted a guy sitting in the front row with dreads and baggy appearance. When he got on stage his southern twang and homemade clothes fully underscored the “one of these things is not like the other” element in the unfolding encounter. In Shane’s book he acknowledges this dynamic. “When I show up to speak at a fancy banquet and they don’t let me in until they realize that I’m the speaker, and then they escort me to the front row apologizing the whole way. (It has happened a few times!)”
You couldn’t have asked for more contrast. Here I was sitting in a Bel Air Church with Bel Air folk and guy from the inner city was talking about working with the homeless, orphans and prostitutes. Shane shared stories about his time in India with Mother Teresa and time in Iraq.
When he was done, the disjointedness of the setting quickly surfaced again as the pastor attempted to craft an adequate response for his congregation. The gulf was fairly wide and was apparent in his tone of moderation in how to understand and apply Shane's concepts and stories.
After the pastor’s response, worship reconvened with stylistic PowerPoints on the 15 ft jumbotron screen and with sonorous music from the gifted youth band. At the end we prayed and the most attractive, well-dressed prayer team ever made its way to the front of the sanctuary. I couldn’t worship. My mind was racing with all the contradictions and it sputtered to understand what I just took part in.
What just happened! This guy was talking about “Have Less, Live More” right in the heart of LA cosmopolitopia . He was advocating for radical discipleship as a way of being born again. He was saying that to follow Jesus required cost and your best.
As I tried to bring some measure of restraint to my over used cynical and critical faculties, I had to pause with humility. When I looked around at Shane and the Bel Air crowd, I had to admit that I was more indistinguishable with them then I was with Shane and could probably relate more to them after hearing a message like this. As I pondered further, I began to appreciate the youth pastor more, who apparently against many objections had advocated for Shane to speak at the church. In the end I admired Shane even more, because he was at Bel Air. He was talking to the very people that should hear it.
It revealed a few things about where I come from. As a Mennonite, I have grown up all my life being taught the value of service and the radical nature of discipleship. I hope to live a life of serving Christ and loving others. However, because of my traditions culture and history, we tend also to distance ourselves from encounters like Bel Air. Mainstream messaging is not our bag. We rarely venture out there because we often don’t want to get associated with other Christians or would feel compromised by associating with folks like Bel Air. We keep our distant from “all those Christians.” This is what I was going through at Bel Air. In that moment, I realized what I was doing and that I need to see them as fellow Christians.
From what I understand Shane espouses an affinity for Anabaptism. What I appreciated most about Shane is that he is counter-cultural, advocates social justice and calls for radical discipleship, and does this without mincing words about being a follower of Christ. This highlights a problem in my tradition - Anabaptist Nominalism. As Anabaptists we express ourselves in forms very reminiscent of what Shane says, but just leave out the Jesus element or let it remain an unspoken assumption. Shane eloquently speaks about and embodies what groups of Christians have always intuitively grasped and lived out, no matter the corruption, abuses or co-opting of the church – it is about following Jesus. For those of us that have grown up within the Anabaptist traditions, I think there is a lot to learn from folks like Shane. That was my experience at Bel Air.
More on Shane Claiborne and New Monasticism: