If you are a movie or film buff, you know the bar game The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Built on the idea of “six degrees of separation,” the trivia game involves connecting any actor/actress to Kevin Bacon, no matter how obscure. For instance:
- Jeff Cohen (who played Chunk on the 80’s classic The Goonies) was also in that movie with Sean Astin (who played Mikey) – FIRST DEGREE. Then, Sean Astin was in White Water Summer in 1985 with Kevin Bacon – SECOND DEGREE.
However, that “degrees of separation” number is getting smaller: across some social networks and email, it has been shown to be closer to 3-4 degrees of separation. The world of social media has made us closer by degrees. So our world is getting smaller thanks increasing interconnections between each other, including super-connectors like those celebrities on social media (the “Kevin Bacons” of online). It doesn’t mean we know people better, just that our degrees of connection are lowering, and our chances at mutual impact are increasing.
The parallel I would like to make is that getting closer to one another by degrees is the goal of discipleship.
I had lunch with Rev. Steve Ross who heads up the Vital Church Project in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. In our conversation he said this: “I would define Discipleship as one degree of separation between us and Jesus.” Discipleship then is to have our lives look like Jesus’ separated only by time, to become like Jesus in all aspects of our lives, and to remove the gatekeepers who stand in the way.
During the Protestant Reformation, there were several actions that removed the gatekeepers and encouraged the people to get closer by degrees to Jesus Christ.
- Instead of praying through our priests who would pray to Jesus on our behalf (2 degrees of separation), we could pray directly to Jesus (one degree of separation).
- Instead of relying on a priest to translate the Latin bible for us (2 degrees of separation), the bible was printed in the language of the people so they could read it themselves (one degree of separation).
Today, with the institutions and denominations more-or-less in decline, people seem to want to be closer to God by degrees as well.
- Instead of joining a denomination of the catholic (universal) church (2 degrees of separation, one might say), people join non-denominational or single-church plants so they have more authority and autonomy (one degree of separation…but less accountability).
- Instead of going to church to learn what the pastor learned in seminary about God (4 degrees of separation), people can stay home and google knowledge and wisdom and inspiration about God (3 degrees because someone had to put it up there).
So we continue to lower the degrees of separation with every passing revolution in either communication, education, or cooperative ministry.
But that’s in the past. How do we lower the degrees of separation today?
As a pastor, I’m acutely aware of the times when I put roadblocks (degrees) in the way of others. When a bible study is dependent on me being there, there’s not enough shared knowledge or passion in the group to go alone. I’ve put a degree of separation between God and them…that degree is me. When as a Methodist I am moved to another church and a ministry struggles after I leave, that ministry was too dependent on me. When a church worship is so intoxicating that people need their weekly “fix” of emotion-laden worship, that worship has become a degree of separation between people. It’s not healthy to create spiritual dependency. So my goal as a pastor is to remove the degrees of separation between congregants and Jesus…and let Jesus do the work.
As a congregation, the goal is to remove degrees by which people know one another. To sit next to someone in the church is to share the same air but not the same words. To sit next to someone in a committee meeting is to share the same passion (or…obligation!) but not the same life. To share a meal with someone and really get to know them starts to lessen the degrees. Anyone with a BFF knows that there are very few degrees that the one person does not know the other. Little wonder these “growing together” moments happen over a meal, a study, or mission work. The goal of a congregation is to remove the degrees of separation between congregants so they can grow together in mutual affection and service.
But I would say that there are areas where I want more degrees of separation.
- I want more wisdom and a chain of smart people who have handled a theological idea before I touch it. I want it to be peer-reviewed and exegeted by smart dedicated people to lessen my chances at eisegesis (which has zero degrees, kinda like some Wikipedia writers).
- I want ideas for outreach and mission to have more degrees. I want them to come from the people and be tossed around by groups and be collaborated by many people before they become a reality, with or without the pastor’s approval.
- I want healthy boundaries where there are degrees of separation between adults and students, money-counters and money-spenders, pastors and former churches, and so on. In those situations, the degrees insulate the areas of growth from areas of potential harm that have been discerned throughout our history (and still discerning today!).
Sometimes degrees of separation are a good thing as they keep us from being burned. But the goal of discipleship might be to remove the roadblocks and the degrees of separation between us and Jesus so that our lives fully resemble his, separated by only one degree.
Thoughts? Thanks for reading.