In the first post on this topic, I began to compare and contrast two books that diagnose our current cultural situation and prescribe ways in which the church should engage the current culture: David Wells’ The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World, and Tim Stevens’ Pop Goes the Church: Should the Church Engage Pop Culture?
I noted that Wells and Stevens agree on the deconstruction of the current cultural situation. However, the difference between the two books is primarily in each author’s reconstruction. In other words, given the current cultural situation, how do we “do church”?
There are at least two things that concerned me with what some have called the “culture-driven” church marketing approach championed in the book Pop Goes the Church.
The first concern is with the idea that God “speaks through culture.”
Somehow, our theology has taught us that God speaks only at church. He only talks to us through his written word or through an individual (aka pastor or priest) who has been trained. That belief is very confusing to us when we feel God tugging at our heart through the culture.
Yes, we’ve been taught about the power of the Holy Spirit and about how he can prompt you 24/7. But in reality, many of us were never given any context for God speaking to us through a secular song, a blockbuster movie, or a graphic novel (pp. 60, 61). . . .
So we can celebrate the art—knowing it came from the skills, intelligence, and creativity of a being fashioned by God himself. We can also celebrate the content of much of the art in the world today—art that reflects a real search and longing for that which is right and true. Like Paul speaking to the Athenians, we can say, “I see you are seeking God. Let me tell you more about this God you seek.” . . .
What does make my heart beat fast, however, is to see how God is alive and well in today’s pop culture. You cannot turn on the TV, listen to the radio, watch a movie, or browse the shelves for a bestseller without seeing evidence of God speaking through our culture.
The Bible is clear that all truth is God’s truth, regardless of the source (pp. 86, 87).
Tim goes on to cite examples from the band Linkin Park and the TV shows Shark and Desperate Housewives that challenged him personally.
How does God reveal Himself? He has done so through the general revelation of Creation (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:18–20) and through the specific or direct revelation of visions and dreams, through audible communication, and through His Son (John 1:1–18; Heb. 1:1–3; note that I do not believe God reveals Himself today through visions, dreams, or audible communication). Of course, the ultimate means of revelation is through His Word. I do not see any evidence in Scripture that God “speaks through” the culture in the same sense that He does through His Word. And even if this were true in a general sense, it must always be interpreted in light of His Word.
The second concern with the culture-driven approach is its lack of Scriptural support.
Tim gives five ways each church can choose to respond to the culture, “and the choice [each church] makes determines how much of an impact it will have on its community” (p. 67). The five options are: (1) condemn it; (2) separate from it; (3) embrace it; (4) ignore it; and (5) leverage it (pp. 68–81). Tim’s choice is to leverage the culture. What does this mean?
You have to help meet those needs first. And so you scratch them where they itch. You identify people’s needs and let them know you have some answers they should consider. You are still teaching the Bible. You are just initially choosing to teach the portions of the Bible that address the in-front-of-the-face needs of the people in your community. And you don’t just teach truths or quote Bible verses, but you come along beside them and show them the love of Jesus.
You see, if you don’t offer something people need, they won’t come. If the people don’t come, you can’t teach them the truth. So an effective church is busy identifying people’s needs and letting the community know you have some help they should consider. If you speak their language, there is a better chance they will come to a service. If they do that, the odds increase significantly that they will hear how much they matter to God, and they just might respond (pp. 120, 121).
Here’s the problem: If it were so important for churches to “leverage the culture,” why don’t we see any hint of it whatsoever in the majority of the New Testament? The only clear example that might be relevant is that of Paul in Acts 17 (and here Paul is speaking to philosophers on Mars Hill, not to “seekers” at church). But what about all the other sermons in Acts? What about Paul’s letters? And most telling, what about the Pastoral Epistles? These letters were written by Paul to Timothy to specifically address how Timothy was to lead his church(es), and yet there is absolutely no mention of the idea of “leveraging the culture” to reach people for Christ. But over and over and over again Paul tells Timothy to guard, fight for, teach, explain, and preach sound doctrine. The focus is doctrinal, not cultural. “Doctrine” is mentioned 15 times and “preach/teach/teaching” 11 times.
This is where I think Wells’s book is so helpful. He (borrowing from Os Guinness) asks if we will be sola Scriptura or sola cultura? Do we start with Scripture and then look to culture, or do we start with culture (or with the customer) and then look to Scripture?
One way this manifests itself is through preaching. Is it expository, based primarily on preaching through books of the Bible (although perhaps not exclusively), allowing God to dictate what should be communicated? Or is it topical, looking to culture to dictate what should be communicated?
And what are the consequences of the seeker-driven/culture-driven approach? Wells writes,
A methodology for success that circumvents issues of truth is one that will rapidly emancipate itself from biblical Christianity or, to put it differently, will rapidly eviscerate biblical faith.
That, indeed, is what is happening because the marketing model, if followed, empties the truth out of the gospel. First, the needs consumers have are needs they identify for themselves. The needs sinners have are needs God identifies for us, and the way we see our needs is rather different from the way he sees them (p. 52). . . .
What is of first importance to the church is not that it learn to mimic the culture but that it learn to think God’s thoughts after him (p. 98).
Much more could be said, but I hope this has given you some food for thought.
- Read part 1