Saturday, November 15, 2014

Are You Ahead of the Cultural Curve?

A few days ago, I received a voice mail from a ministry representative inviting me to attend a well-known [rather expensive] Christian conference in the DC-area. In her message, she exuded a kind of cultivated charisma, brimming with back-slapping enthusiasm as she used my first name unabashedly at opportune moments throughout her spiel. I listened as she confidently rattled off the reasons why it was importantno, imperativethat I should benefit from all that the conference had to offer. Two reactions surfaced as I listened to the message. My first was along the lines of: wow, this ministry is employing some gifted young Christians who know how to sell a ticket. This reaction was then quickly followed by a distinct feeling of unease.

I quickly forgot about the voice mail, until couple of days later, when I received a follow-up email about the conference. And the uncomfortable feeling crept back. The message read:

Do You feel like the church is constantly one step behind our culture? Our environment is constantly advancing, constantly shifting, constantly adapting, and if we want to stay ahead we have to know what's coming before it gets here.
You are ready to break this cycle. You are a Change Maker - A forward thinking, innovative leader who wants to be ahead of the curve in addressing the issues and questions our culture is grappling with. We've designed this gathering to help us answer those very questions.
Questioning whether my sense of unease was misplaced or perhaps unfounded altogether, I pondered for a moment what it really was that had disturbed me about the message. Was it because I didn't like being bossed about by a presumptuous 20-something telling me I needed to learn something? Well, maybe a little. But that's my own heart-issueWas it because I didn't like being pressured into buying a conference ticket in order to "get head"? Yes, probably. But I quickly realized that these things weren't the crux of it. It was actually the perspective reflected in the message that had really unsettled me. And my heart sank a little further.

The thing is, it's no fun to be a party-pooper. Who wants to be the old curmudgeon in the corner shaking his bony finger at an upbeat crowd of young believers setting out to change the world for Jesus? Why attempt to pour cold water on their enthusiasm? After all, their message is a positive one. And anyone who takes issue with it comes across as negative, mean-spirited, and unloving.

But the truth is, the Bible calls believers to test everything (1 Thess 5:21), especially when it comes to teaching. And especially when it comes to a highly influential Christian conference such as the one in question. We should all be like the Bereans in Acts who examined Scripture carefully to see if Paul's teaching was true (Acts 17:11). John wrote, "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1 John 4:1). In the same vein, Paul wrote to the Romans, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God." (Rom 12:2). If we are to test everything, then, it follows that at some point we'll have to play the role of whistle-blower as well. (For recovering people-pleasers like me, this is never an enjoyable task). And so, after some "testing," and a deeper look into the conference sessions and some of the speakers (there's a fairly wide spectrum of theological positions represented), the root of my unease was exposed...

The idea that Christians should "get ahead" of our culture implies a need to go with the cultural flow in an effort to anticipate, and respond more effectively to, the issues and trends of the times. This has become an influential way of thinking among many church leaders today. The effort to be "relevant," "culturally sensitive," or "seeker-friendly," etc., is part of a widespread movement over the last decade or two to make Christianity more relatable to younger generations (who have been leaving the church in droves) by speaking more directly to their lives. But more often than not, trying to be relevant to young people has led churches to mirror secular culture as opposed to presenting a counter-cultural [ie biblical] worldview. This is because it seeks to please people first, not God first.

Furthermore, the assertion that we are to race ahead of, or somehow outfox, worldly culture, is found nowhere in Scripture. In contrast, Christians are simply urged not to conform to the pattern of this world (Rom 12:2). Instead of competing with secular culture, then, we are to reject it altogether. In other words, the Bible teaches us that rather than attempting to surf the cultural tide, we are to go against it.

And the truth is, you can't surf the waves foreverfor eventually, you're going to be engulfed by them. Worldly culture is already seeping insidiously into our churches as it is—so any attempt to ride its treacherous waves seems like opening the flood-gates. While it is true, as the conference emails states, that "our environment is constantly advancing, constantly shifting, constantly adapting," attempting to "stay head" of these rapidly evolving developments seems like an exhaustingfutileeven deadlyundertaking! For getting ahead of the curve is near impossible when the waves of our worldly culture are in constant, often tumultuous, motion.

And even if we do succeed in riding one of the waves for a moment, it will soon come crashing down even so. In other words, the world will ultimately bring us down even if we rise up for a time. How many celebrities have we see rise and fall in popularity? How many stars who were once idolized have we seen plummet from fame? They may seem fashion-forward, edgy, or culturally relevant for a moment, but they are soon outmoded by the inevitable next-best-thing who rises up to steal the stage.

After so many "ground-breaking" artists, TV programs, and movies, the foundations of our culture have been shaken to the core. How much ground left is there to be broken before everything falls apart? In light of this, we mustn't forget that our broken, crumbling world is ruthless and fickleleading many who pursue its approval only to death. Those intent on earning it's favor, therefore, will soon become last month's flavor, and yesterday's news. Why, then, should the Church even attempt to win worldly popularity and acceptance in the name of outreach or "loving neighbor"?

But wait! You might say. Shouldn't the church be outreach-minded and provide a welcoming, unintimidating environment for seekers to find Jesus? Yes and Yes. But it is not our job to finesse or tweak the Christian message to make it more culturally appealing. It's the job of the Holy Spirit to draw people to His Church and to convict hearts. Christians are called to be witnesses, not sales representatives.

But surely the Church needs to stay up-to-date on current issues facing young people today! You might also say. Surely the Church should speak directly to those issues in order to remain relevant to peoples' lives! This is a valid point. There are contemporary issues that the Church must grapple with. But while the Church should take a biblical stand on these issues, strategizing about how to repackage Christianity to make it appear more culturally relevant is missing the mark. This canand hasled our churches down a dangerous path.

Within Emergent churches, for example, Christians strive to incorporate culturally sensitive approaches to reaching the postmodern, un-churched population with the Christian message. In doing so, however, these churches often promote a feelings- and experience-based relationship with God, while downplaying the need for sound doctrine and a cognizant understanding of His word. Polarizing and inconvenient biblical truths, along with the gravity of sin in the eyes of a just and holy God, are often glossed over in an effort not to alienate anyone and to make everyone feel more comfortable. But once you downplay sin, you detract from the amazing grace of the gospel. It isn't so much about making people feel guilty as it is about highlighting the vast extent of God's love and mercy for them. It is this that makes the gospel of grace so amazing.

The truth is, the gospel isn't compatible with what our culture demands. While our culture will encourage us to be proud of ourselves, to promote and "actualize" ourselves, and to seek worldly status, pride is actually our biggest hurdle to salvation by grace. The Bible counters that we need to let go of our pride (Prov 16:5; 16:18; Ja 4:6). To brush sin under the rug is prideful because it tries to elevate the self to a holier status that it deserves. And enabling sin is not acting in line with the truth of the gospel (Gal 2:14).

Our focus, then, shouldn't be on cultural relevance and sensitivity, but on the transcendental truth of the gospel. The gospel is always applicable to people's lives, regardless of their cultural or demographic context. Furthermore, if we go with the cultural flow, instead of remaining anchored in Christ, we may find ourselves following an abstract Jesusa false Christof our own making.

The distinction between numbers-driven popularity and furthering the authentic Kingdom of God is becoming increasingly blurred in the minds of many Christian leaders today. But, if we base the way we "do church" on worldly opinions, we will find ourselves being blown about by every wind of teaching. Outreach strategies and church models that do this, often end up being inconsistent with Scripture. It's when we turn to God's Word, however, that we can drop our anchor and withstand the swirling chaos. Unlike worldly popularity and cultural trends, the love and truth of God endures forever. In light of this, we should seek to please God first, not people first, in how we lead our churcheseven if doing so might not win us mass appeal, make us more culturally relatable, or seem cutting-edge and innovative in the here-and-now.

The mass email I received told the generic "me" that I am a change-maker. But it's not I who can change the world. It's the transformational gospel of Jesus Christ. While I am merely a messenger, empowered by the Holy Spirit to be His witness in the world (Acts 1:8), it is Jesus who actually changes lives.

I guess the conference representative's sales pitch reminded me of Paul's words to the Romans, "For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive." (Rom 16:18). This may sound harsh, but I think the gravest mistake the Church is making today is to look to the world first, not God first on how to further His Kingdom. When this happens we begin to devolvewe begin to look and sound more like the world, and less like the One whom it has rejected.

And as foreigners in the world (1 Peter 2:11), then, we should stand out from the crowd, not blend in. Sometimes, this might mean we are rejected by the world, just as Jesus warned us (John 15:19). And it might mean that we aren't getting ahead of the cultural curve. But we shouldn't be measuring ourselves against the bell-curve of this world, which rises and falls, and tapers away to nothing. Instead, we should set our feet steadily on the eternal, immovable, unchanging ROCK that stands high above the stormy seas.

1 comment:

Denny Eitniear said...

This is a very insightful and well written piece, thank you for it. I have a friend, an older conservative Christian who read a critique of Joel Osteen's message. She was incensed. But the critique was from a credible well established Theologian. To her credit, she researched and as a result has changed her entire attitude toward the prosperity/seeker friendly/socially relevant Gospel. You really nailed it in this blog. "What does God want?" is the question that are we are to act upon, not "What is the social flavor of the week?" I attend church to be fed God's word, not attend a Black Sabbath concert. Be well.