Every Sunday morning, I am transported to another place in time. There are no contemporary aesthetics, only architecture and relics that scream “church”. The pastor does not stand on a stage with cool graphics flashing in the background and deliver his sermon from a little round cafe table or no table at all. He stands behind a big wooden pulpit, you know the kind that churches used to use. The music consists of a blend of hymns (sung classic style) and more contemporary songs…well contemporary for 40 years ago. There’s no big screens to follow along, only hymn books and our worship guide. And there is an organ! When the pastor preaches, he does not bring up props or gimmicks and try to make the message cool. He exposits from a carefully selected text and preaches the word. He’ll use personal anecdotes only sparingly as it assists in the explanation of the text.
Now admittedly, I am new to the church. But I’ve been at this type of church before – small and seemingly unappealing to contemporary sensibilities (some differences in affiliation). Yet, these two churches are probably the best I’ve encountered for progress in the faith. Why? Because I believe the focus is where it needed to be – on feeding the faith of God’s gathered people through gospel-centered preaching, rich biblical studies and the provoking of genuine fellowship. It hit me a couple of weeks ago that if someone who is accustomed to cool, hip, “culturally relevant” churches were to come into these folds, they might be turned off and wonder why the church is so far behind. There might be the question of how these kind of churches will attract people to them since they don’t have any symbolism of contemporary culture.
Tim’s video on not competing with the Superbowl plucked at some strings that have been bothering me for some time, which is this observation: there seems to be this prevailing mindset that if we don’t make the church culturally relevant that we might lose people. It can become the driving force. Buildings must look aesthetically pleasing. There must be the latest technology flashing cool graphics. Sancturaries…oops I mean worship centers must situate people comfortably and look modern. Preaching is designed to connect people through language and stories that appeal to our human sensibilities. Topical preaching is designed to show people how to cope with life in ways that are relevant, preaching relevant topics as one my friends said today on Facebook “series about raising children, spiritual disciples that I fail at, character improvement that I can’t muster up, a new series about erasing world poverty, based on the latest book that the pastor is reading.”
I’m going to suggest that when cultural relevance becomes a priority something gets lost in translation. It does raise the question of the purpose of our gatherings and how much the church should accommodate seeker sensitivity. After all, isn’t it better to attract people on where they are? Well, I wrote about that here about designing ministry and liturgy around seeker sensitivity. No doubt, there will be seekers who come into our gatherings. But the church is designed for the believer so that they grow in the faith and experience genuine fellowship. It’s also important to see the church as an embassy vs a service provider, which I wrote about here. That takes clear articulation of the gospel-centered messages that provoke the heart to strengthen in faith. If one is truly converted it will necessarily change affections. That would lead to an interest in learning about the God they have now placed their trust and what that means for faith and practice.That means our churches should have a greater concern of faithfulness to the Christian message than faithfulness to cultural relevance.
Now to be clear, I am not opposed to having nice looking buildings, fancy technology or a great sounding band. But it is problematic when that becomes the impetus that drives what we do, especially with the goal to attract people. And I’m particularly disturbed when it affects preaching with the reasoning that people need cultural relevance. Then churches can become competitive to fill their flock and capitulate to the latest marketing technique. Rather, if the goal is to attract people to the beauty of Christ and the proclamation of the gospel, then it seems there would be an impetus to remove any distraction to that message and just preach the word, point to Christ and tell people through his word what that means for them. I’m thinking that this would be better without reducing it to hip sound bytes or minimal messages to make their lives better.
Well to be fair, certainly there are those who enter into the fold not having had a previous churched background. I get that. But new believers need to be introduced to the language of faith and worship that is distinctly Christian without the priority of making it appealing. I fear that when we make everything we do ministry wise on appeal that the new or returning-to-church believer becomes conditioned to cultural relevance instead of language of faith. Taken too far, their multiplication may not be based on a sound message of faith but “come see how cool my church is”.
In RetroChristianity, Michael Svigel statement here rings true;
For too long evangelicals have been trying to update the church. Today they have tamed it by removing its offensive counter-cultural equivalents. The result is not an improvement to the church, but a weakening of it. (146)
So in response to the opening questioning? I would have to say no and in fact, it may not be the best thing at all.