Not So with the Onlookers

A Word in Praise of Ordinary Discipleship

Her name was Mrs. Billie Jo. She and her husband were volunteer youth group leaders at our little Baptist church. She had us over to their home, was a chaperone at our youth camps, and even braved a lock-in or two if my memory serves me correctly. I caught her ire on at least one occasion, but what I remember most was her steadiness and her conviction. Mrs. Billie Jo was dealing from a different hand than the authors I was caught up with. She had learned from years of following Christ what it meant to ask questions, but not for the sake of asking them; she inquired in order to know.


Recently, during one of our weekly Community Group discussions, a friend’s comment brought to mind the travelers/”balconeers” analogy written first by John Mackay and used by J.I. Packer in his introduction to Knowing God. In the bit, Mackay envisions two types of people, those who happen in on a particular experience and those who are actually involved in the experience itself.

Here’s Packer recounting Mackay’s illustration:

In A Preface to Christian Theology, John Mackay illustrated two kinds of interest in Christian things by picturing persons sitting on the high front balcony of a Spanish house watching travelers go by on the road below. The “balconeers” can overhear the travelers’ talk and chat with them; they may comment critically on the way that the travelers walk; or they may discuss questions about the road, how it can exist at all or lead anywhere, what might be seen from different points along it, and so forth; but they are onlookers, and their problems are theoretical only. The travelers, by contrast, face problems which, though they have their theoretical angle, are essentially practical—problems of the “which-way-to-go” and “how-to-make-it” type, problems which call not merely for comprehension but for decision and action too.

Packer goes on to give several theological examples of the tension that exists between the traveler and the “balconeer.” The former, in Packer’s view, is given more to the question of how to obey in light of theological truths, while the latter digs his heels in, persistently asking, “What is truth, anyway?” Travelers want to know which way to go; the onlookers wonder if there is such thing as a way at all. Knowing God, Packer writes, “is a book for travelers…”

I’ve been a Christian for over fifteen years now, the first four of which I spent as a traveler listening to onlookers. I was attending a small Baptist church and loved the people there. Thanks to the growing popularity of internet message boards, I was also privy to a much larger conversation going on within and on the fringes of evangelicalism. I was mostly unaware of the term “postmodernism,” but a glance at my meager bookshelf would’ve convinced you I was an expert. I had all the right authors and was asking the kinds of questions that, by design, didn’t have answers. It was a formative time to be sure, but exactly what was being formed in me ultimately gave me pause. The effort to become more settled was altogether unsettling.

Read More