By Drew Larson

Nazareth U. and Central Indiana: The Spiritual Discipline of Uncool Places

There is a place on Earth which is a smear of cornfields and grassland, a yellow-ish blur of land that ancient glaciers rolling-pinned into smoothness on their way from elsewhere to elsewhere. The wind races around those fields as if it could still catch the glaciers somehow, like a child chasing after an older sibling. It is flat enough, empty enough, that it almost feels friction-less. A place seemingly meant for gliding over and passing through.

This place is central Indiana. I went to college there. 

Indiana is not, by any definition I or anyone else would ever use, “cool.” In the years since I’ve graduated, I’ve heard a million conversations about cool places people would love to live: Colorado, Austin, New England, Seattle, SoCal, Nashville, among countless others. I’ve never heard anyone say central Indiana. 

Part of my heart still lives there and will forever. I like it that way. 

Without central Indiana, I wouldn’t understand Nazareth. Or the spiritual discipline of uncool places.

The most certain fact we have about Nazareth from Scripture is that it was uncool. “Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael famously exclaimed when he heard it was Jesus’ hometown (Jn 1:46). We don’t know the exact reasons for Nazareth’s uncoolness. Perhaps it was its location, its culture and customs, its small size, or something else. We don’t know for sure if Nathanael is speaking a word of prejudice or describing Nazareth’s insignificance.

What we do know is that Nazareth was so uncool that its uncool-ness was the first thing Nathanael knew about it.

We know one other thing about Nazareth: it had a school. Sort of.

More to the point, it was a school. Luke 2:51-52 tells us, after the story of teenage Jesus’ synagogue adventure, “Then [Jesus] went down to Nazareth with [his parents] and was obedient to them … And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature…”

Jesus didn’t just grow up in Nazareth. Jesus grew in Nazareth, in wisdom and in stature.

As year stacked on year, as inch stacked on inch, the most important thing happening in Nazareth for Jesus is that he was—in the mystery of the Incarnation, unchanging God and humanity joined together—growing, taking shape, becoming. 

For decades of his life, Jesus lived each day in an uncool city. He walked and played and learned and made friends in a town whose primary identity was its insignificance. I wonder if, on occasion, Jesus hiked to the top of the ridge and looked for miles on all the other towns who couldn’t care less that Nazareth existed. And in that uncool town, marinating in its un-coolness for year after year, Jesus’ wisdom grew. He learned, matured, became, in semester after semester in the college of life at Nazareth U.

So I wonder if un-coolness is why it had to be Nazareth. Of course Jesus’ becoming, whatever it was, could have been perfectly stewarded and achieved in fashionable and popular towns like Jerusalem, in geographically stunning locales like Capernaum. But what if the point of Nazareth is that ‘place’ is its own kind of school? That there are things “cool” places teach us that God would have us unlearn—and Nazareth-shaped ways of God’s kingdom that only can be learned in “uncool” places? What if “uncool places” – uncool campuses, even — are their own kind of spiritual discipline, unique settings where years of life might produce indispensable spiritual formation? If that’s true, then maybe that’s why God enrolled his one and only Son at Nazareth U.  

So what fruit might grow from the spiritual discipline of uncool places? Two possibilities come to mind.

1. Trusting in God’s Story

We are all born into places and stories that we did not choose. Almost all of those places and stories are ordinary, anonymous, unspectacular. How will we think of them? As “less than” compared to the cool lives we wish we’d been given? And how will we live them? Always frustrated, sure that there has been some kind of mix-up in God’s Perfect Life Delivery Plan? Or fearful, certain that our lives will be lame and third-rate unless we can somehow run fast enough on the world’s Infinite Upgrade Treadmill?

It sounds exhausting. And it is. 

The treasure of contentment can only be found by trusting in God’s story and his storytelling. Uncool places are the perfect setting for learning to trust that, wherever you live and whatever your story, God’s story is always at work in you.

2. Training in God’s Love

None of us begin following Jesus with advanced skills in unconditional love. We are not born with perfect instincts for loving the unlovable, for valuing the plain and common and unimpressive around us, for honoring them and speaking of them with the same loving delight that God does. We have to learn it. 

There are plenty of ways in life to learn this. But surely one of them might be to look around at the uncool places that we or others inhabit and ask Jesus—Jesus, the one from Nazareth, the one who has been lovingly present in every uncool place on Earth—what he loves about that place, and what he might want you to love about it, too. A life spent asking this question will, over time, train your heart to love the way God loves. 

Life in central Indiana wasn’t perfect. My face has never felt colder than it did walking to class during those four wind-ravaged winters. I had to drive 21 miles to reach anything resembling a coffee shop. It was so flat that sometimes the horizon felt like the literal edge of the world.

But oh, was it ever uncool. That is the one thing I would never change, the thing I loved about it the most. I don’t know what my heart would look like without central Indiana, what Nazareth training this spiritual discipline of uncool places gave me that I might not have found elsewhere. 

What I do know is this: any semester at Nazareth U., if God uses it to give you a more Nazareth-shaped heart, is worth it. And then some.


Drew Larson works as a writer on InterVarsity’s Communications Team in Madison, Wisconsin. You can buy his book hereYou can support his ministry with InterVarsity here