Part 5: Becoming Truly Relevant And Truly Counter-Cultural
We Must Never Stop Evangelizing
If you've read the first 4 parts of this series, and have made it to this final post, I thank you. Hopefully, whether or not you fully agree with my argument, you have at least taken a hard look at the issues I've been discussing. However, if past experiences I've had in attempting to discuss this topic are any indication, then I fear that those fully entrenched in the pragmatic approach of evangelical capitalism - those truly in need of hearing my arguments - will have already left the conversation. If that has occurred, then it is unfortunate, because I believe that this issue is critical to how we, as evangelicals, conduct our lives in the 21st century.
Before I give you my thoughts in that area, let me be clear about what I am NOT saying. I am not saying that we should stop evangelizing. I am not saying that we should forego outreach events. I am not saying that we should stop working for church growth. I am not saying that we should stop spreading the Good News. I am not saying that we should forget about relationships. I am not saying that we should consider having fun a bad thing.
What is it we are grounded on? The Bible? Do we or do we not truly believe that the Word of God is the Word of God? I'm not asking if you believe that the words of scripture have some mystical quality - I'm asking whether or not you believe that the Word of God is the direct, objective means by which all Christ followers over the past 2,000 years have had to understand God, and who he is.
Given the amount of text in the New Testament, isn't it odd that so very little of it is devoted to explaining how to convert a non-believer (i.e., make a proselyte)? Not taking into account the four Gospels, which are historical narratives directed towards demonstrating that Jesus is the Messiah, we see much of the rest of the New Testament written to explain theology, to narrate the history of the early church, and to provide exhortation and discipleship practices for early church communities in their day to day lives as followers of Christ.
Yet, how do most twenty-first century Western churches and, by extension, evangelicals approach day to day matters of living as a Christ follower?
I find it interesting to see how many current age Western Christians are seriously interested in maintaining their body health and fitness. From the likes of Christian Yoga (an oxymoron if there ever was one) to gym memberships to full-fledged Boot Camps, it's not difficult to find Christians seriously dedicated to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. And this, in and of itself, is certainly a good thing.
But consider the following hypothetical scenarios: After hearing from friends about how great it is to be part of an exercise routine, someone decides to join a gym. After enthusiastically attending for a few weeks, the person begins to lose a driving interest, showing up sporadically with a less-than-exciting attitude of enthusiasm. Despite exhortations from her friends, this person seems to never really put forth the effort or show the determination required to fully participate in the workout sessions being presented.
Given that scenario, is it not reasonable to conclude that this person's friends would consider her commitment to the workout routine to be less than ideal, if not essentially non-existent? Would they not consider her to be undisciplined in her approach? And, if she is undisciplined, then she is either not a true disciple or, at the very least, a poor disciple of the training program?
Now, consider a similar scenario, except that the enthusiastic members of the gym do not consider commitment to the workout routine to be paramount. Instead, simply signing-up and joining the gym is the primary goal. In their view, the more members they can bring in to the gym, the better. If the members eventually become serious in their commitment to the workout routine, all the better, but if some members are lackadaisical in their commitment, well, that's to be expected - just remember - what's important is that they are in the club.
Which, of the two scenarios, better describes the typical evangelical church in America?
Would that we, as a community of believers, be half as dedicated to being and making disciples as we are to our workout routines, shopping escapades, sports commitments, hobbies, etc.
You see, when making proselytes becomes more important than making disciples, then potential converts (Gospel fodder) could become to be viewed as more important than existing followers of Christ. Combine this mentality with a pragmatic evangelical capitalism mindset and where you should have worship and disciple making directed to God's glory, you have programs designed specifically to save the lost. Instead of man's chief end being to glorify God it becomes to hold outreach events. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that outreach events are not important. I'm simply saying that when we lose sight of the body of the Church, the bride of Christ, we miss the reason for Christ coming to Earth, and we miss the reason God wants to bless the peoples of Earth.
Replacing "Justification For Real Sins" With "A Spiritual Pat On The Head"
When we market whatever church discipleship programs we have towards specific demographic groups, whether they be based on age, marital status, or special needs, I believe we are tending to corrupt the "all things to all" concept by ignoring the family of God concept readily seen in the NT text. While we truly understand that church fellowship should be for all within our midst, we effectively segregate ourselves, despite our good intentions, into groups such as: Children's, Homeschool, Marrieds, Mens, Prayer, Singles, Singles 20-30s, Singles 40-50s, Singles 60+, Spanish, Womens, Young Adults, Young Marrieds, Marrieds (Old Marrieds?), Life Groups, Care & Recovery, New Believers, Youth, College-Age, Compassion, Prison, Other. In following the methodology and conclusions of the world, we approach church as if it's simply an extension of secular business analogs. For example, while we tend to think that teenagers are rebellious and naturally repulsed by whatever the adults in their lives (typically, their parents) like, serious research is saying something different.
From Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers,
Perhaps the most widespread and persistent stereotype about teenagers in American culture is that they are intractably rebellious. In U.S. culture, the very idea of "teenagers" and "rebellion" are virtually synonymous. Decades of psychological theorizing about adolescents in the twentieth century, based primarily on observation of adolescent psychological patients, not coincidentally, portrayed the teenage years as inevitably rocked by "storm and stress." For decades, experts taught that adolescence is a time of radical identity change, emotional upheaval, and relational conflict... Although academic adolescent researchers have more recently come significantly to revise this picture of normal adolescence, many books about teenagers and religion continue to employ the "storm and stress" master frame in ways that set teenagers' religious values and interests in opposition to those of adults. They depict youth as "alone," "disillusioned," "irreverent," uniquely "postmodern," belonging to something that is "next" and "new," and "in search of an authentic faith" different from that of existing adult religion, which simply "isn't cutting it." Such stereotypical cultural frames lead to the clear impression that, when it comes to faith and religion, contemporary teenagers are deeply restless, alienated, rebellious, and determined to find something that is radically different from the faith in which they were raised.
But that impression is fundamentally wrong. What we learned by interviewing hundreds of different kinds of teenagers all around the country is that the vast majority of American teenagers are exceedingly conventional in their religious identity and practices.
[emphasis in original]
Critics may, at this point, raise some concerns - sincere concerns. Immediately, some may ask, "But what about all those who have been reached by the very methods you criticize? The touchy-feely, loss-leader, fun-entertainment methods - are all methods that really do work!" My response is that such a question is ultimately the wrong question to ask, for it relies foundationally on the balance sheet mentality. And in any method which focuses on the return on investment, there are always those demographics which are maximal revenue producers and which, by way of cost-benefit-calculating motives, must be favored over the minimal revenue producers (which are, typically, the minority). Ever wonder why there is no "quick checkout" line at a big-box warehouse store such as Costco? The very foundation of such an establishment is to get its customers to buy a lot of big, large amounts of their products. So, in effect, our evangelism methodologies take on the mantra of "the good of the many outweigh the good of the few."
From S.M. Hutchens, in a Mere Comments blog post titled Attractive Worship,
To note that those who are sent scampering off by the liturgical ordeals they must face in such churches are only a minority, like people who favor classical music, is no argument in its favor. To endorse attraction evangelism is in fact an attempt to justify such programs theologically by asserting that they attract far more sinners than they repel, which is no justification at all.
For those still clinging to the outreach events that supposedly bring in scores for Christ I would ask, If such events are so successful, if such events are so beneficial to the body of Christ, then why are such events performed only on a periodic basis? Should not these events be the very mainstay of the evangelical church in America? (after all... if only one soul is saved) Unfortunately, those fully entrenched in the notion that the pragmatic evangelical capitalism methodology is valid because it is successful will not listen - their bottom-line is that they see quantitative results and that is, in reality, what ultimately matters. A companion argument for pragmatism, when an argument is given, is that they can point to intimate, long-lasting relationships that have been developed with the use of this method. It should come as no surprise that the majority of these proponents also happen to be individuals that thrive on having many, outgoing relationships. While this paper is not meant to address this aspect of personality styles, I would only question whether or not our purpose, as Christians, is to make as many friends as we can - or to make disciples.
In discussing a similar topic with my friend and pastor, David Thomas, Ph.D., he stated the following, with regards to the good intentions of fellow believers,
"The irony, of course, is that in seeking to be more “friendly” than God, flattening critical truths about His nature and becoming overly instrumental and pragmatic in our teaching (i.e., “How will this work to lead people to Christ?” Rather than, “What is truth, and what will best reflect God’s glory?”) we surrender His very mercy and betray the knowing heart of the sinner who intuitively seeks a robust justification for real sins instead of a spiritual pat on the head."
Indeed, a spiritual pat on the head, while perhaps bringing momentary happiness, will not suffice in pulling someone from the pit of despair.
A "New Culture Capable Of Making Life... More Tolerable"
As the church responds to a decidedly different secular culture in the twenty-first century, it might do her well to look back at how the first Christians responded to the culture(s) of their day. In The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, Rodney Stark provides us with a historical analysis of what events and actions led to the quick rise of Christianity, from its humble beginnings with a small band of followers. What we see is that early Christians were not focused on growing the church but on living the truth and, in so doing, did not acquiesce or syncretize their worldview with the cultures around them but, rather, became truly counter-cultural in their lives.
This counter-cultural approach was reflected in how the early Christians acted towards those in need. Stark points out that Christian benevolence, towards anyone in need, was a virtue recognized even by those with opposing worldviews,
...there is compelling evidence from pagan sources that this was characteristic Christian behavior. Thus, a century later, the emperor Julian launched a campaign to institute pagan charities in an effort to match the Christians. Julian complained in a letter to the high priest of Galatia in 362 that the pagans needed to equal the virtues of Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their "moral character, even if pretended," and by their "benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead." In a letter to another priest, Julian wrote, "I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence." And he also wrote, "The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us"
While my constructive criticisms about how we do church in the twenty-first century West are many, I do notice and applaud the very real concern that many evangelicals have towards helping their fellow man. Yet we must not conclude that simply helping the poor and the sick, during times of natural disasters, was a necessary cause for the rise of Christianity. Indeed, it certainly could be argued, as Stark does, that while such disasters provided the opportunity for a sufficient cause for Christianity's rise, there was another aspect of Christianity that would set it apart - providing the necessary conditions for its rise. From Stark,
It must be recognized, of course, that earthquakes, fires, plagues, riots, and invasions did not first appear at the start of the Christian era. People had been enduring catastrophes for centuries without the aid of Christian theology or Christian social structures. Hence I am by no means suggesting that the misery of the ancient world caused the advent of Christianity. What I am going to argue is that once Christianity did appear, its superior capacity for meeting these chronic problems soon became evident and played a major role in its ultimate triumph.
Since Antioch suffered acutely from all of these urban problems, it was in acute need of solutions. No wonder the early Christian missionaries were so warmly received in this city. For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable.
We must take note that Christianity provided a new culture to the world it existed in. If Christians in the twenty-first century West are to truly be effective, then they must come to the realization that followers of Christ bring a new culture to society - that of real counter-cultural values. My pastor once said something to the effect of, "Listen! You are not being counter-cultural by getting a tattoo on the back of your neck." Exactly. Cultural fads are still fads (and, in the case of tattoos, permanent fads), and sycretic attempts to mesh secular fads and methodologies as being compatible with Christian thought only end up producing cheap imitations. Early Christian benevolence, to use one example, was not at all about making someone feel comfortable and happy, or providing a non-threatening relational / religious experience for a "non-churched" individual, but was simply a genuine expression of Christ, and of God's love.
For another example of how the early Christians provided a new culture, Stark illustrates the change they promoted on their view of women vs. the culture's approach at that time.
In this chapter I have attempted to establish four things. First, Christian subcultures in the ancient world rapidly developed a very substantial surplus of females, while in the pagan world around them males greatly outnumbered females. This shift was the result of Christian prohibitions against infanticide and abortion and of substantial sex bias in conversion. Second, fully in accord with... theor[ies] linking the status of women to sex ratios, Christian women enjoyed substantially higher status within the Christian subcultures than pagan women did in the world at large. This was especially marked vis-a-vis gender relations within the family, but women also filled leadership positions within the church. Third, given a surplus of Christian women and a surplus of pagan men, a substantial amount of exogamous marriage took place, thus providing the early church with a steady flow of converts. Finally, I have argued that the abundance of Christian women resulted in higher birthrates - that superior fertility contributed to the rise of Christianity.
Note that the early Christians weren't viewing women differently as a means to increase their numbers; they were viewing women differently because that was / is one of the tenets of how Christianity viewed the world. This is an important point: early Christians acted how they were supposed to act, regardless of what it might do to the bottom-line. We need to understand that our battle is a battle of worldviews - that of Christian vs. Secular. In the long run, which worldview better addresses the realities of this world, both physical and spiritual?
In fact, of course, the rise of Christianity was long and perilous. There were many crisis points when different outcomes could easily have followed. Moreover, in this chapter I have argued that had some crises not occurred, the Christians would have been deprived of major, possibly crucial opportunities.
MacMullen has warned us that this "enormous thing called paganism, then, did not one day just topple over dead." Paganism, after all, was an active, vital part of the rise of Hellenic and Roman empires and therefore must have had the capacity to fulfill basic religious impulses - at least for centuries. But the fact remains that paganism did pass into history. And if some truly devastating blows were required to bring down this "enormous thing," the terrifying crises produced by two disastrous epidemics may have been among the more damaging. If I am right, then in a sense paganism did indeed "topple over dead" or at least acquire its fatal illness during these epidemics, falling victim to its relative inability to confront these crises socially or spiritually...
[italicized emphasis original; bold emphasis mine]
In essence, early Christianity rose by addressing real needs with a new (or counter) cultural worldview that was not only new, but true. And it was validated not by its selling points, but by its veracity.
Addressing A Culture's "Pursuit Of Purpose And Meaning" Through The Worship Of God
The church in the twenty-first century West must understand that our primary reason for existing is to worship and glorify God. To best glorify him we need to know him and understand who he is. Rather than expecting to hear a word from God, we'd best be about getting into the Word of God. Discipleship designed to explain and teach God's truths provides the means with which a follower of Christ can enter into a full-orbed relationship with the Creator of the Universe. Through such a relationship, providing the means for followers to worship and glorify God, that same God then provides the means for his followers to live out their lives in his love. In doing so, their very thoughts and actions, though supremely glorifying God, will serve as ambassadors for God's call upon those lost, thereby serving God's plan of blessing the peoples of the earth.
What I argue for is that our virtuous goals need not change, but our focus must.
The church in the twenty-first century West must be decidedly Trinitarian and not effectively Unitarian.
The church in the twenty-first century West cannot exist by continuing to segregate its congregants and, indeed, its very churches, by the use of secular based marketing demographics. The church began by ministering, in community, to those from womb to old age. Churches which place higher emphasis on any demographic, for less than virtuous reasons, are not glorifying God.
The church in the twenty-first century West must expect (and demand) more from its congregants, especially in the group of what is now referred to as "youth" - those in their teen years. History has shown that teenage young adults are more than capable of handling many functions and responsibilities we now consider solely adult in scope. From Robert Epstein, in The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen,
Young people in the Bible often function fully as adults: as parents, heroes, prophets, soldiers, and even kings. It's likely that Mary gave birth to Jesus by age thirteen, and at age twelve Jesus held his own in discussions with wise men at the temple in Jerusalem. The New Testament does not restrict any activities because of someone's age. The age at which young people are held accountable for the actions varies from one religious group to another: for Catholics the age is seven; for Mormons the age is eight; for Jews the age is thirteen for males and twelve for females. In general, the world's religions recognize that young people have enormous capabilities - spiritual, intellectual, parental and inspirational. In the Bible, respect and reverence flow strongly from young to old, but with the creation of the child-centered family a century ago, parents started to serve their children in ways that have done many children more harm than good.
And from Smith & Denton, in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers,
Adults in the United States over the past many decades have recurrently emphasized what separates teenagers from grown-ups, highlighting things that make each of them different and seemingly unable to relate to each other. But our conversations with ordinary teenagers around the country made clear to us, to the contrary, that in most cases teenage religion and spirituality in the United States are much better understood as largely reflecting the world of adult religion, especially parental religion, and are in strong continuity with it.
Instead of catering to or, worse yet, entertaining our youth, we must show them their responsible part in the worship of God.
The church in the twenty-first century must be about making disciples - true disciples of Christ - striving to develop believers who understand not only the reason for the hope they have, but how their lives are to be lived to be in service to God's plan.
Christianity In The West: Either A "Pathetic Version Of Itself," Or A "New Conception Of Humanity"
In Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, he posits that participants in the coming worldwide economy must focus on three main aspects, one of which he defines as abundance. To cater to abundance, one must cater to the felt-needs brought about by our own technological advancement. From Pink,
...Today, the defining feature of social, economic, and cultural life in much of the world is abundance.
...The prosperity it has unleashed has placed a premium on less rational, ...sensibilities - beauty, spirituality, emotion. For businesses, it's no longer enough to create a product that's reasonably priced and adequately functional. It must also be beautiful, unique, and meaningful, abiding what author Virginia Postrel calls "the aesthetic imperative."
[emphasis in original]
Pink argues that one consequence of the West's prosperity is, essentially, free time. We no longer have to spend as much time on survival and, as a result, we search for things to give our lives meaning. In true human idolatrous fashion, one avenue we proceed down is that of material beauty or uniqueness. It is indeed interesting that businesses have identified and latched onto the felt-needs of consumers, and now market their wares in an attempt to address this cultural desire. Alas, I think that the church, while possessing the true answer to the desires of a prosperous self-indulgent humanity, sometimes responds in like business fashion, ultimately providing additional idols in an attempt to soothe our souls.
In an age of abundance, appealing only to rational, logical, and functional needs is woefully insufficient. Engineers must figure out how to get things to work. But if those things are not also pleasing to the eye or compelling to the soul, few will buy them. There are too many other options. Mastery of design, empathy, play, and other seemingly "soft" aptitudes is now the main way for individuals and firms to stand out in a crowded marketplace.
Think about what Pink posits, and then consider how closely aligned (to his argument) the typical evangelical church in America is. How much of our approach and our marketing strategies (sometimes disguised as "design" elements), are directed towards meeting these felt-needs?
In truth, the human desire for meaning, or some form or transcendence is a reflection of the Imago Dei - the Image of God - stamped on each and every one of us. Yet it is also true that the satisfaction said desire is found in no other place - in no other person - than God.
Again, from Pink,
Visit any moderately prosperous community in the advanced world and along with the plenteous shopping opportunities, you can glimpse this quest for transcendence in action. From the mainstream embrace of once-exotic practices such as yoga and meditation to the rise of spirituality in the workplace and evangelical themes in books and movies, the pursuit of purpose and meaning has become an integral part of our lives.
Yet living out as Christians means catering to needs - real needs. Has the evangelical West, after being provided with an opportunity to address real needs (i.e., the quest for transcendence), simply caved in to a syncretism with the very worldview it supposes to cure?
What would be the effects on a typical church in the twenty-first century West if some or all of my proposals were to be put into practice? I would predict an immediate drop in membership and / or attendance. Pure and simple. When one is used to junk food or candy, and it's suddenly taken away, they'll go looking for it elsewhere. When one has been coddled and catered to, they quite probably expect to have some right to be happy. C.S. Lewis wrote, "A right to happiness doesn't, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall..."
So we must make a choice: Do we continue to practice a pragmatic, capitalistic form of evangelism, while the culture continues to darken; or do we seek to truly be counter-cultural, and live out the truth? We must choose soon.
From Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers,
But we can say here that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity's misbegotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism... The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather, more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.
However, we are not without hope (to be sure, we are never without hope). Perhaps we can take a lesson from history. Per Stark,
In my judgment, a major way in which Christianity served as a revitalization movement within the empire was in offering a coherent culture that was entirely stripped of ethnicity...
Christianity also prompted liberating social relations between the sexes and within the family... Christianity also greatly modulated class differences - more than rhetoric was involved when slave and noble greeted one another as brothers in Christ.
But, perhaps above all else, Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death.
...Christians effectively promulgated a moral vision utterly incompatible with the casual cruelty of pagan custom.
[emphasis in original]
Yes, indeed. Christians need to stop making converts and to bring, rather, a new conception of humanity to a world steeped in pragmatic narcissism.
 Christian Smith & Melinda Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 119.
 S.M. Hutchens, Attractive Worship, Mere Comments blog, (January 27, 2005), http://merecomments.typepad.com/merecomments/2005/01/attractive_wors.html
 David Andrew Thomas, Ph.D., e-mail to author, (July, 2011)
 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 83-84.
 Stark, 161-162.
 Stark, 128.
 Stark, 93-94.
 Robert Epstein, Ph.D., The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen, (Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books, 2007), 287.
 Smith & Denton, 170.
 Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006), 32-33.
 Pink, 34.
 Pink, 35.
 C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, "We Have No Right to Happiness", (1963), 318.
 Smith & Denton, 171.
 Stark, 213-215.