The Danger of Awareness

At a recent New Denver Church staff meeting we were discussing the Outside magazine article by Bill Gifford about Lance Armstrong and his LiveStrong foundation. It’s an excellent article, and I’d recommend you click the link and at least skim it before reading this post. If you don’t have time, here’s the teaser from the beginning of the article:

It’s Not About the Lab Rats

If Lance Armstrong went to jail and Livestrong went away, that would be a huge setback in our war against cancer, right? Not exactly, because the ­famous nonprofit donates almost ­nothing to scientific research. BILL GIFFORD looks at where the money goes and finds a mix of fine ideas, millions of dollars aimed at “awareness,” and a few very blurry lines.

The article raised an interesting question that we discussed as a staff: Does contributing to awareness about a need or cause make you feel like you’re helping without actually helping? The article raises disturbing questions of whether we really know where our money goes when we contribute to organizations. Gifford makes the point that most people who buy the little yellow “LiveStrong” bracelets believe that by doing so they are contributing to cancer research and helping to fight cancer. The truth is that none of that money goes to research. While the value of the LiveStrong programs that the money is used for is debatable, the point is that whether or not buying one of those little yellow bracelets actually helps in the fight against cancer is questionable. Yet everyone who has bought one or contributed to LiveStrong did so, because they thought they were helping the cause. And after they had done so they felt like they had helped. So did giving in this way effectively anesthetize them from feeling the need to continue contributing to this need?

These days there are hundreds, probably thousands, of organizations that claim to be working for the common good by addressing the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of our world. The question is, how much of that work is engaging those needs through action and how many are just raising awareness? And at what point does contributing to awareness about an issue make us feel like we’re helping when we really aren’t? Where has our awareness anesthetized us from actively engaging? This conversation helped reinforce our desire at New Denver to develop strong relationships with the people and organizations with whom we partner to contribute to the common good of our community, our city, our country, and the world. We need to make good choices about where we invest our time and resources and ensure that we aren’t just raising awareness about issues but also actively engaging the issues. Awareness is a good thing – a necessary step before engagement. But it’s not the final step.

To close this post I’ll throw out some deeper and more personal questions that this raised for me, and I’ll come back in a later post (more likely a series of posts) to address them. Has the way we’ve presented Jesus and the gospel effectively anesthetized people from discipleship (the process of actively following him with their lives)? By focusing on gathering large crowds to church on Sunday and teaching about Jesus have we raised awareness about him and given people the feeling that they’re following him when they really aren’t? Have we truncated the full message of the gospel into the plan of salvation (read Scot McKnight’s book King Jesus Gospel to understand what I mean by that) and called people to a decision instead of discipleship? Has doing so given them the impression that their journey of faith is complete when in fact they have only taken a first critical step?

Awareness is an important and necessary first step, but it cannot be our last step.

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