Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Culture-Driven Church

A provocative interview with David Wells by 9 Marks Ministries: Satanism, Starbucks, and Other Gospel Challengers
An excerpt:
9M: Apostles of church growth tell us that pop culture is our friend and the best vehicle for advancing the gospel. Why do you think that pop culture poses a threat to the church’s ability to hold onto and articulate the gospel?

DW: Let me start by saying there isn’t a lot of difference between popular and elite culture at some points. The main difference is in the number who participate. So the real question, I think, is what does our culture, in its different layers, have in its life that is contrary to the truth of God and the gospel? That’s the question we’ve got to be asking. The people that you mentioned are asking the question, "What is it in our culture"—and the more popular the better—"that we can utilize for our own success?" These are the folks who get their surfboards out and wait for any wave that they can ride to the shore. They look at the culture as a means to their own success.

What we should be doing, however, is looking at the culture—whether high or low—and asking the question, "At what points is this antithetical to the Word of God?" Now that’s a question not often asked—I don’t really see it.

What’s been lost in all of this is a serious working doctrine of sin. If Barna’s numbers are correct, the majority—54 percent—of those who claim to be born again in America do not believe that we are born with a bent human nature. In theological terms, these are Pelagians. If you start with this sort of naïve, innocent view of human life, you will have a naïve and innocent view of human culture. The one carries over into the other. We today in the evangelical church don’t preach as if—and we don’t think as if—we had enemies. And that is a huge mistake.

9M: Then what specific elements of culture today, whether pop or elite, does the church wrongly treat as "neutral" and take for granted? Are there certain things that we should be more careful about?

DW: In every culture, you’ve always got to ask what any given practice, fad, fashion, or way of thinking does to Christian faith. That’s your fundamental question. Some things may be neutral. How long men grow their hair, I don’t think, is particularly important. Nor is what musical instruments contribute to the popularity of music styles. But those are not really the things that the church marketers have their eye on. They’re trying to find ways of being hip. That’s the bottom line.

9M: Many churches and ministries today boast of using new methods, while proclaiming the same message. Is this the right way to go about it, or not? Isn’t there at least some truth in the phrase "the medium is the message"?

DW: I think there is a lot of truth in that phrase ["the medium is the message"]. This argument that the message is preserved while the means of delivery is changed is a misleading proposition, because the message being delivered almost invariably is stripped of its theological content. That is the whole point about it. In many of these churches, they disguise their identity. You see it visually because they don’t want to be thought of as a church. So religious symbols go. Pews go. The pulpit is replaced by a Plexiglas stand. And then the Plexiglas stand disappears and you have people on barstools.

Now you could say that perhaps nothing has changed—and I certainly wouldn’t die on a hill for a pulpit. But subtle messages are being sent by all of this. In an earlier generation, the pulpit was at the center of the church. It was visually central. You saw it. Oftentimes it was elevated. And this was a way of saying to the congregation, "The Word of God that we are about to hear is above normal human discussions. We’ve got to pay attention to it, because it is authoritative."

Up front: I don't agree with every jot and tittle of Wells's prescriptive advice. For instance, he sort of loses me with the whole "put down the Starbucks and stand behind a pulpit" thing. (In his defense, he admits he's only using that as a (hyperbolic?) example to make a point.) I would think a preacher holding coffee and standing unobstructed from his congregation might be an example of the sort of "cultural missiological behavior" Wells figures is advisable.

In any event, I am so down with his larger point, which is that the authority of the Word has been displaced in the Church by the attractiveness of culture, and that we must take steps to recover it.

I also like that he refers to studies that suggest real "seekers" actually prefer the "old" way.

(HT: shoot, I lost the link where I saw the interview linked. if you're reading this, my apologies)


Unknown said...

I have to commend you on your use of the phrase "jot and tittle." Simply amazing :)

Jared said...

LOL! Thanks, Aaron.

Rick Shott said...

I agree with your affirmation that the authority of the Word has been lost in modern churches. However, I think it was a slide that began a long time ago. The example you quote about a pulpit being replaced by lecture then by nothing is an example of the culture shift. For many ministries the meaning of the pulpit has shifted from where God's Word is expounded to where our superstar pastor gives his show. There may be solid exposition going on, yet if the pulpit is centering focus on how good the pastor sounds then there is a failure or our symbols.

I do not want to be too long winded so I will close. I agree with what was said, however, I think it goes even deeper. Culture is not static.

Anonymous said...

If the Christian approaches the non-Christian with his answer to this question - "At what points is this antithetical to the Word of God?" - he may have blown his chance to tell the story of Jesus by coming on as judgemental or at least critical. (Let the Lord bring that up later.) On the other hand, if he approaches the non-believer with the answer to this question - "At what points is this compatible to the Word of God?"- then they have a bridge, not for the non-believer to lead the Christian across (as is done too often by "seeker-sensitive" types) but to lead the non-believer across toward their mutual jourey toward Christ and into the Kingdom of God.