Not too long ago a good friend of ours [I am co-writing this with Sean Harrelson] attended an evangelical pastors’ conference to tell people about his ministry to the disabled, to their families, and to their churches. There were nearly one thousand godly, theologically-astute, gospel-enamored leaders in attendance. What an opportunity, right?
As we spoke to our friend in the aftermath of the event, he told us that his booth, located in a prime spot in the busy exhibit hall, had generated a grand total of five conversations—five conversations in three days. Two of those were with inattentive attendees who apparently mistook the display for something else. In an attempt to escape the awkward moment, one of them uttered, “This doesn’t affect me” before turning his back and rushing away. Apparently booths displaying mentally disabled children and disfigured adults in wheelchairs do not attract crowds. Of the thousand people who repeatedly walked by the booth, only three engaged our friend. One pastor watched the promotional video, wept, and said “Thank you,” telling about his son who has a rare neurological disorder.
We love that man. We understand his reaction. We too are pastors. We too have seen disability up-close, in our churches and in our families. We too have wept and thanked our friend for his ministry. And we have a keen interest in why 997 aspiring evangelical leaders avoided The Elisha Foundation.
The Thing With Beauty
To be fair, there may have been many reasons. But our friend has manned his booth at many conferences and has usually experienced a great response with many meaningful conversations. So what was unique about this event? What we realized as we thought it through was that this conference had two significant emphases: beauty and mission.
Ours is a highly marketed culture popping with logos, sound bites, and all kinds of bling. Where the mainstream church of yesteryear was criticized for isolating itself from culture, our younger generation of evangelical leaders care a great deal for aesthetic quality in music, technology, architecture, interior design, and graphic arts. They value beauty.
We are grateful for this emphasis on aesthetic quality and the resurgence in art and creativity, and especially so when those same people value sound doctrine and biblical preaching. But make no mistake: beauty has become more than a catchword to many Christians today. Beauty has joined truth, worship and mission as a core value in many churches.
This conference displayed beauty at every turn and heralded beauty from the pulpit. It expressed that beauty is missional, that we can appeal to people better through beauty than through ugliness. And in that beautiful and put-together event there was just one area that stood apart: a booth covered with pictures of broken bodies and disfigured faces.
Could it be that the emphasis on beauty and the lack of interest in disability are related? We think it may be. After all, the disabled have a way of disturbing our commitment to beauty.
Let’s be clear: There are good and biblical reasons for a focus on beauty and aesthetics. Our God is an aesthetic God. He created all that exists and pronounced it good and very good. He took rigorous care over the design of the tabernacle and priestly garments in the book of Exodus, demanding that they be exquisite in their design and creation. We see many places in the Bible where “beauty” is loaded with theological meaning associated with God’s glory and God’s salvation. Beauty is good!
Beauty serves an especially important purpose in this broken and sin-stained world. God is beautiful and God made us in his beautiful image. Every bit of beauty in this world is just a glimpse of his beauty. In his perfect Creation there was not a single stain of ugliness. But then we chose to be ugly before him. We chose to go our way instead of his way, and in doing that we became hopelessly marred and disfigured. Now God’s beauty highlights our lack of beauty. It draws attention to the stark contrast between God and us. What every Christian wants to do is give unbelieving people a vision of God’s beauty, and primarily, the beauty of the salvation he offers to people who have deliberately made themselves ugly through sin. God’s beauty draws those whom he gives eyes to see. In this way beauty is closely tied to mission. We tell people about a beautiful God who wants to bring a beautiful salvation to lead to a beautiful future.
Beauty is good, but allegiance to it can be damaging because so often the disabled do not fit our perception of beauty. The greater our focus on beauty and the greater our desire to be known for it, the more jarring their presence may be. A heightened emphasis on aesthetics simply creates a greater contrast. Could that contrast become so pronounced that it causes us to walk away from booths at a conference, or away from an opportunity to serve the disabled, their families, their churches?
Isaiah tells us that our Savior came into this world with “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Nor did Jesus surround himself with beauty. He spent most of his time with the blind, sick, diseased, deformed, demon-possessed, and dead. Why? Because they were Jesus’ mission. He had come to seek and to save the least, the lost, the last, and the lame, not the beautiful, the whole, the put-together.
What concerns us as we think about that conference, and toward our churches as they, too, pursue beauty, is the apparent contradiction between exalting the missional importance of beauty, but all the while ignoring or neglecting the disabled because their lack of beauty makes us uncomfortable. You cannot have true mission while ignoring the disabled! They too, are marred by sin, they too need to be told of the beauty of salvation, they too need to be our mission, they too are the church.