04/15/2014 04:04 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2014

Prophets in Stolen Bowling Shoes

I got a call one time when I was 19-years-old from a friend of mine, who asked, “Could you do me a favor? Could you ride down to Kokomo with Rich Mullins, so he can pick up his truck?”

I was pretty stoked. I grew up in the Evangelical heartland -- which is to say, I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And in 1984 Rich Mullins was fast becoming something of a “thing” in the Contemporary Christian Music world, the music of choice among young Evangelicals. Needless to say, this was a pretty great opportunity for a teenage Bible College student.

Now, I don’t run in Evangelical circles much anymore; and, for a variety of reasons -- from aesthetics to theology -- I don’t much care for Contemporary Christian Music. But I have an abiding love and respect for Rich Mullins, who died in a tragic jeep accident in 1997.

I had known Rich for a couple of years when I got the call, having worked with him at Rock Lake Christian Assembly, a church camp up in Vestaburg, Michigan. We had been counselors together. He always showed up late, after camp had already started, having hitchhiked his way in from God knows where. He would amble into camp shaggy haired and unshaven, wearing jeans, an old shirt, stolen bowling shoes, and carrying not much else. At camp he played music and told middle schoolers about a weird Jesus who loved poor people and refused to fit in, just for the sake of fitting in.

Rich Mullins and I drove down to Kokomo from Grand Rapids in a borrowed Chevy S–10, listening to Genesis’ epononymously titled album, which had been released the year before. We talked about music and theology and girls. After supper, we continued our conversation, talking late into the night at the Red Roof Inn. The next morning we got up and drove to the garage to pick up his truck. Then he went on to Ohio or some place, and I went home. It was one of the most formative experiences of my young Christian life.

Apart from his obvious musical talent, Rich Mullins thought differently about Christianity than anyone I’d ever known. Hell, he thought about life differently from anyone I’d ever known. He went to Bible College in Cincinnati for something like seven years, and nearly exhausted the curriculum without ever graduating. He was fascinated with St. Francis of Assissi -- a wandering (gasp!) Catholic saint, who cared more about following Jesus than following the rules. Did I mention … he wore stolen bowling shoes?

Rich Mullins refused to buy into conventional understandings of success and how his art could be leveraged. In a world concerned first about taking, he pursued a path of generosity.

Perhaps what struck me as so rare about his life (and the life of St. Francis, for that matter) is the extent to which Rich refused to succumb to the temptation to care more about what everyone else wanted than about his vision of what he believed God had called him to be and to do. Indeed, he rejected the idea that the spoils of his success were something he deserved, opting to give all the money he generated from his art to his church, and then having the church pay him a salary equal to the annual average American worker’s salary.

I often wonder how it is that Christianity -- centered as it is on Jesus, and sacrifice, and laying down your life, and stuff -- should find stories like this so odd, and therefore, so rare.

Somewhere along the line, Christianity traded its revolutionary impulse for respectability -- its bug-eating prophets for Buick-driving middle managers.

The world groans with the voice of those who’ve been too easily ignored -- they are poor, uninsured, immigrants, women, children, gay. They live in bad neighborhoods, have little fresh food, can find few good jobs, and have to stand in line for hours on end just to vote. Their children eat free lunches in schools that don’t have the resources to teach them, their young women are sold as offerings to a world of selfish male desires, and their young men are sacrificed to a criminal justice system rigged to satisfy the self-righteous thirst of the privileged for the blood of the scapegoat.

Those who follow Jesus -- that creative band of radicals and troublemakers -- we have to find our voice to speak up for them.

It’s Holy Week. Jesus didn’t get strung up because those in power were jealous of how sweet he was; they killed him because his unwillingness to play the game posed a threat to the barricade erected by those in power between themselves and a world crying out for a little justice. How can we who wear his name settle for anything less from ourselves?

I think the real question we as Christians have to ask ourselves is why we’re producing more clergy in suits and collars than prophets in jeans and stolen bowling shoes.