One of the great attractions of Christianity to me is its sheer absurdity.
I wish everyone could have had my upbringing. I come from a line of devout Christians who have been used by God in various ways to change the world. As far back as I can trace, strong Christian conviction
and devotion to Jesus Christ have been defining marks of my family legacy—a gracious gift to me from God, something I neither asked for nor deserved.
That heritage goes beyond my maternal grandparents, Billy and Ruth Graham, faithful servants of the kingdom of God for the last sixty-five years. It also includes my dad, a respected psychologist, who has always put service to God and others before himself. And it includes my mom, a Christian writer and speaker whose ministry to women, especially to mothers and wives, has spanned the globe.
With a large family entrusted to them (I’m the middle of seven children—five boys and two girls), my parents worked hard to create a home atmosphere that encouraged us kids to take God seriously but
not take ourselves too seriously. The flavor of Christianity they cultivated in our family was joyful, warm, inviting, hospitable, and real, not legalistic or oppressive. We laughed hard and often, mostly at ourselves.We were trained to think deeply about God, to feel passionately for God, and to live urgently in response to God. The gospel, according to my parents, needed to be understood with our heads, felt with our hearts, and worked out with our hands. Anything short of this was a less-than-balanced expression of true Christianity. They taught us to think, to read, to pray, to sing, to cry, to love, to serve.
Growing up,my brothers and sisters walked the straight and narrow for the most part, rarely giving my parents any real trouble. And then there was me. Different story!
Maybe it was because, despite my healthy upbringing, I found it difficult being the middle child. There’s a large age gap between my three older siblings and my three younger ones, and I couldn’t figure out if I was the youngest of the older set or the oldest of the younger group. I was in the unenviable position of being both a youngest child and an oldest child. Faced with this tension, I should have “cast all my
anxiety on the Lord,” as I was taught. But I didn’t. Unsure of where I fit inside the family, I set out trying to fit outside of it.
At sixteen I dropped out of high school. Then, because my lifestyle had become so disruptive to the rest of the household, my grieving parents decided to kickme out of the house. But I refused to go quietly.On thatmemorable, dreadful afternoon, I was escorted off my parents’ property by the police.
I’ll never forget sitting in the back of that police car and looking out the window at my crying mother. I felt no grief, no shame, no regret. In fact, I was pleased with my achievements. Having successfully
freed myself from the constraints of teachers and parents, I could now live every young guy’s dream. No one to look over my shoulder, no one to breathe down my neck, no one to tell me what I could and
couldn’t do. I was finally free—or so I thought.
My newfound freedom had me chasing the things of this world harder than most othersmy age. I sought acceptance, affection,meaning, and respect behind every worldly tree and under every worldly rock.The siren song of our culture promisedme that by pursuing the right people, places, and things, I’d find the belonging I craved. If I could look, act, and talk a certain way, my deep itch to fit in would finally get scratched.
But it didn’t work out that way.The more I pursued those things, the more lost I felt.The more I drank from the well of worldly acceptance, the thirstier I became; the faster I ran toward godless pleasure, the farther I felt from true fulfillment; themore I pursued freedom, the more enslaved I became. At twenty-one I found myself hungering for belonging more than ever.
The world hadn’t satisfied me the way it had promised, the way I’d anticipated. The world’s message and methods had, in fact, hung me out to dry. I felt betrayed. Lied to. I desperately needed to be rescued
by something—or Someone—out of this world.
One morning I woke up with an aching head and a sudden stark awareness ofmy empty heart.Having returned tomy apartment after another night of hard partying on Miami’s South Beach, I’d passed
out with allmy clothes on.Hours later, as I stirred to a vacant, painful alertness, I realized it was Sunday morning. I was so broken and longing for something transcendent, for something higher than anything
this world has to offer, that I decided to go to church. I didn’t even change my clothes. I jumped up and ran out the door.
I arrived late and foundmy way to the only seats still available, in the balcony. It wasn’t long before I realized how different everything was in this place. I immediately sensed the distinctiveness of God. In the music, in the message, and in the mingling afterward, it was clear that God, not I, was the guest of honor there. Having suffered the bankruptcy of our society’s emphasis on self-fulfillment, I was remarkably refreshed to discover a place that focused on the centrality of God.
I didn’t understand everything the preacher said that morning, and I didn’t like all the songs that were sung. But at that point the style of the service and what people were wearing became nonissues. They
could have all looked Amish or all like hipsters from Brooklyn; they could have been singing old songs or new songs—it didn’t matter.
Why? Because that morning I encountered something I couldn’t escape, somethingmore joltingly powerful than anything I’d ever experienced, something that went above and beyond typical externals.
Through both the music and the message, the transcendent presence of God punctured the roof, leaving me—like Isaiah when he entered the temple—awestruck and undone. I was on the receiving end of something infinitely larger than grand impressions of human talent. God was on full display. It was God, not the preacher or the musicians, who was being lifted up for all to see. It wasn’t some carefully orchestrated performance (which, believe me, I would have seen right through). Rather, the people of God were simply honoring God as God.
In the Bible the glory of God is God’s “heaviness,” his powerful presence. It is God’s prevailing excellence on display. That’s what I encountered that morning. I met a God who is majestically and brilliantly in command.
I was a seeker being reached, not by aman-centered, trendy show, but by a God-centered, transcendent atmosphere. I was experiencing what Ed Clowney, the late president of Westminster Theological Seminary, used to call “doxological evangelism.” It was, quite literally, out of this world.
Here, finally, was the radical difference I’d been longing for.
After the service I couldn’t leave. I had to stick around and find out who these people were. As I talked with some of them, I was struck by how different they seemed from the group I’d been out with the
night before (or any other night, for that matter). The people here seemed more solid, less superficial, more real, more grounded. They asked me questions. They listened. They genuinely cared about one
another—andme.They were indisputably peculiar, in a refreshing way.
Back in my apartment that afternoon, I thought long and hard about what had made my experience that morning so magnificently satisfying.What stood out most was just how refreshingly different it was, compared to everything I’d come to believe was cool and in style. In fact, according to the culturally fashionable standards I’d come to embrace, everything I had encountered in church that morning was
delectably unfashionable. I had not only encountered radically different people, but through those people I had encountered a radically different God—and as a result I could sense that I was being pulled in a radically different direction. The profound difference I had experienced that morning had already made a profound difference in my life—a difference that would last forever.
I couldn’t wait to go back the next week.
Looking for What?
It’s been many years since that riveting morning in church. Now I’m a pastor trying to reach the kind of person I used to be. So I reflect on that time in my life and ponder, What was I looking for? And why?
My experience in church that morning convinced me that serious seekers today aren’t looking for something appealing and trendy. They’re looking for something deeper than what’s currently in fashion.
The point I want to drive home in this book is that Christians make a difference in this world by being different from this world; they don’t make a difference by being the same.
This is critically important, because in our trend-chasing world it’s tempting for Christians to slowly lose their distinctiveness by accommodating to culture. But by trying so hard to fit in, many Christians risk having nothing distinctive to say to those who feel, in Walker Percy’s memorable phrase, “lost in the cosmos.”
In contrast, I’m asking you to embrace the delicious irony Christ demonstrated in bringing a message of God’s kingdom that subversively transforms both individuals and the world. Only by being properly unfashionable can we engage our broken world with an embodied gospel that witnesses to God’s gracious promise of restoration, significance, and life.
As you’ll come to see in the pages ahead, by unfashionable I’m not talking about what you wear or how you look, the lingo you use or the music you listen to. I’m talking about something deeper,more significant— and much more demanding.
I want to help you reimagine the potential impact of a radically unfashionable lifestyle. I want to show you whatGod-soaked, gospelinfused priorities look like in relationships, community,work, finances, and culture—and how those priorities can change the world. I’mhoping you’ll work your way through this book (and the study guide at the back) and gain a clearer picture of what itmeans to live subversively—
and redemptively—for God and his expanding kingdom. My earnest prayer is that this book will help to mobilize a generation of God saturated missionaries who will live against the world for the world.
So let’s get started.