In the World, Not of the World

An interesting post and related interview video by Matt Olson that highlights a true issue: the isolationism of the fundamentalist subculture.  Here’s the post:

It has been my growing concern that many of our churches have created a sub-culture that is not built on the Word but on a comfortable lifestyle of yesteryear. Often it is simply a conservative pragmatism that gives a false sense of separation and safety from “the world”. In reality it is nothing more than a pop culture taken from a different decade. The past culture is no more spiritual than today’s culture—only irrelevant. Orthodox churches are losing relevance and don’t even realize it. They are also losing the ability to be salt and light. And what troubles me most is that we are losing the next generation and then turning around and blaming the young people for abandoning their parent’s faith. It is not the faith they are abandoning. Forms, traditions, and methods maybe, but not the faith—in fact I think they are more in tune with theology and what the Bible says.

Walking into many church buildings is like stepping back in time – it is an entry to another world.  When children grow up in this environment they really struggle with communicating the gospel with the 21st century life. The separation they are taught is not biblical or theological separation, it is sectarian isolationism and it is crippling great commission work. My prayer is that we return to a biblical example of reaching this world the way Christ and the early church did – in the world but not of the world, current with our culture but not contaminated by it. Fruit is what God wants, it is what glorifies Him, it is what proves us to be disciples, and it is what brings joy into the church. It is possible to be both biblical and relevant. Let’s be salt and light in 2012!

I think he is spot on to say that in many cases fundamentalist churches are perpetuating the pop culture of a past decade, and Kevin Bauder has been saying the same thing in the realm of church music for years (read: gospel songs).  And he puts his finger on a significant failing when he points out that a young person who grows up insulated in a fundamentalist church is essentially going to a foreign land when he attempts to engage the broader culture because he has no idea what that broader culture is all about.  But what is the solution?  Is it to perpetuate in the church the pop culture of the present day, and then to make sure we keep up with it at all costs?  If I mistake not, that’s the sort of philosophy popularized by Charles Finney.

In the video associated with the post, Dave Brown marshals 1 Corinthians 9 in support of Matt’s proposal:

As I go out [with the gospel] I need to be willing to morph and to change . . . [Paul] said I’m going to adapt, I’m going to morph in the things that are not hostile to the Word of God, I’m going to change anything that is flexible in order to meet my target culture.

In an outstanding essay, however, Kevin Bauder bids the reader cast his eyes upon the context of the oft-used 1 Corinthians 9 “all things to all men” passage:

This entire discourse [of 1 Corinthians 8-11, in which Paul emphasizes limiting his rights] provides the context for 1 Corinthians 9:19‐23. These verses are popularly taken as Paul’s description of his positive strategy to gain a hearing for the gospel. People often assume that Paul attempted to imitate the customs, habits, and mores of those to whom he ministered, acting like a Jew when with Jews, a Gentile when with Gentiles, a weak person when among the weak, and so forth.

Some Christians go a step further. They find in this passage permission, or even an obligation, to adopt the same evangelistic strategy. . . .

Paul’s point, however, is not that he imitates the customs, habits, traditions, mores, or even the look and feel of his intended audience. Rather, his point is about the exercise of his rights and liberties. When among Jews, he exercises no right that would be offensive to Jews. Among the weak, he does nothing to offend the weak. Among the Gentiles, he does nothing that would offend a Gentile. Paul’s point is that rights and liberties are to be freely surrendered for the sake of the gospel.

Perhaps we should mimic the customs and even the preferences of those to whom we minister. If so, that will have to be justified from some other passage. 1 Corinthians 9:19‐23 simply teaches us not to offend those whom we love.

Dr. Olson notes in his post that “Walking into many church buildings is like stepping back in time – it is an entry to another world.” And that is true. I agree with the point he is stressing in this particular statement: that churches have embraced and become stuck in a culture of yesteryear.  But is there not a sense in which walking into a church building should be like entering another world?  A world that doesn’t feel like the mall, or a circus, or Starbucks, or a rock concert?  A world that embraces both ancient truth and ancient traditions, both biblical content and the forms that can rightly express it?

I believe so.

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17 Responses to In the World, Not of the World

  1. Good thoughts, Chuck. The critics of the fundamentalist culture have often grasped something of the right diagnosis of the problem, but prescribe entirely the wrong cure.

  2. Don Johnson says:

    Chuck, I am not entirely clear on your conclusion. Are you mainly agreeing or disagreeing with Matt? Or somewhere in between.

    For my part, Matt sounds like the leaders of the evangelical churches I grew up in during the 60s and early 70s. They wanted to make every accommodation to the culture possible in order to keep their young people. The irony is that most of the young people I knew in those days abandoned their churches anyway.

    • I am agreeing in large part with Matt’s view of the problem. For most of my life I’ve been in churches in what I would consider the saner wing of fundamentalism, but even so, I see what he is talking about. From my limited experience, it does seem as if Fundamentalist churches are happy to grab onto popular culture — just 20 years late or so, as if time has improved it in some way.

      At the same time, I am disagreeing with what I understand to be Matt’s solution to the problem, which seems to be to become like the world in all the externals that Scripture doesn’t directly prohibit, in hopes of winning the world. I am suggesting instead that the solution does not lie in embracing either yesterday’s pop culture (which both Matt and I agree is a bad idea), nor today’s pop culture (which I think Matt might be more amenable to).

      • Don Johnson says:

        Thanks for the reply.

        Well, I don’t buy the argument that the church has bought into the culture of 20 or 30 years ago. I went to public schools, remember what that culture was like, and don’t recognize any of that in our churches.

        It is true that the culture of our churches as churches are quite different from that of the modern world, and it can be argued that there are things in our church culture that should be changed. The question is, what to change and how to change it. And the next question is, would that make a difference? Would it retain the young? Would it help to reach the lost?

        Don Johnson
        Jer 33.3

  3. Jason Parker says:

    Good points, Chuck. Thanks for bringing it up.

  4. mlward says:

    Really good post, Chuck. I think this is such an important point. Bauder, to his credit, has been making it for a while.

    Pastor Minnick recently preached through the 1 Corinthians passages at issue here, and the title of his message was “Rights Unused.” That’s the focus of the passage, as Bauder has said. That doesn’t seem to be the focus of contemporary evangelicalism.

    On the other hand, fundamentalism’s cries against cultural accommodation do ring hollow when they are accommodated to a culture I wasn’t even alive to see. An older music director I know made a good point when he said, “The church isn’t just for young people,” but—I’ve often thought—it isn’t just for old people, either. If the use of trite gospel songs went down by 50% in fundamentalism, making way for theologically richer songs like those of Chris Anderson, that might make an appropriate compromise. Older and younger folks would both have to give something up that they value, but they’d gain an intergenerational unity that the NT praises (1 Tim 5:1ff.). And we’d still keep the even older songs from our theologically rich heritage, the ones predating the gospel-song era.

    • Don Johnson says:

      Mark, on “On the other hand, fundamentalism’s cries against cultural accommodation do ring hollow when they are accommodated to a culture I wasn’t even alive to see.”

      How do you know that fundamentalism is accommodated to a culture if you weren’t alive to see it? What if, on the other hand, the culture of fundamentalism is the product of the belief system? I’m not arguing that it is, just pointing out that, in my mind at least, the jury is still out on these questions. I don’t think the case that fundamentalism is driven by pop culture of the 40s/50s has been persuasively made. Just saying it is so doesn’t make it so.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

      • Don, you raise a good point and a good question. And you are certainly right to say that asserting something doesn’t make it so. Do you think looking at the musical styles of the popular culture and their effect on the church could help us with an answer? I packed all of my music / cultural history books away when we moved, and don’t have them handy to look up documentation on the matter. As a case study, would examining the relationship of the gospel song (as a genre) to the popular music of the era in which it was birthed provide some evidence, in that those songs provide the mainstay for church music in quite a few fundamentalist churches (along with Majesty Music)? That’s the sort of thing Mark had in mind, I think, and that Bauder has mentioned before. Mark, what do you think?

        (I also packed away my books on fundamentalism that are written by outsiders looking in, which sometime provide some good insights in this regard.)

        As well, I certainly do think that the culture of fundamentalism is absolutely a product of its belief system. In fact, I’ll stick my neck out and say that (as it seems to me) at least a large part of any culture is a reflection of their belief system. I think that the belief system of fundamentalism, however, has been known to be amenable to embracing popular culture to further its churchly aims.

        As to how one might know a movement is accommodated to a culture without one having been part of that culture, I’ll note first that it might actually be easier to see such an accommodation in retrospect than when one is in the midst of it–but that’s not what you are asking. Even if one was not in the midst of it, I imagine one could examine the culture historically and compare it to the present-day movement, looking for similarities between the two that were absent before that era, and absent in the present-day culture, but which continue on in the movement.

      • Don Johnson says:

        Hi again, your library is packed up too, eh? We moved a year ago and I still haven’t managed to get anything out of boxes except my current stuff.

        When I say the case for the cultural borrowing hasn’t convinced me, I should clarify. I think that there are some similarities between the style of revivalist music and popular music of the day, but I have hear it said “correlation doesn’t equal causation”. (I think that’s in Hezekiah somewhere!) So I am not certain that it can be said that the similarity means so much that it is an embrace of pop culture or not. I have read Scott Aniol’s book where he tries to make something of this case, but I wasn’t convinced.

        Part of my reluctance to be convinced lies in the fact that evangelical/fundamentalist culture of the revivalist period is pretty well marching in sync in terms of worship, preaching, church culture and so on. I suspect that the criticism stems from antipathy towards revivalism rather than pure objective cultural analysis. I also happen to think that the evangelical/fundamentalist/revivalist church was pretty effective and (for the most part) biblical in its practices. I find it hard to accept the notion that the Christians who preserved Bible believing Christianity through the rise of modernism into the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy could at the same time be so far off on culture and music. The current criticism of these Christians seems to me to tend towards elitism and isn’t very becoming of a humble appreciation for God’s working among our forefathers.

        In any case, your article (and Matt’s) have gotten me thinking about this. I’ll have to write something on the subject myself, hopefully with more clarity and coherence than in a blog comment section.

        Don Johnson
        Jer 33.3

    • Thanks for the input, Mark. As to reducing the use of trite gospel songs by 50%, I’d suggest that anything trite might well be eliminated altogether from being used in the worship of the church. Not everything produced in the gospel-song era was theologically trite, of course, but I’d submit that the genre itself encouraged it by the sort of music that was typically used. I certainly acknowledge that I am neither a music historian nor a music theorist, but when I sing even the better gospel songs back-to-back with the older standard hymns that preceded them, there seems to me to be a distinct difference in musical “flavor,” and the sort of music typically used with the gospel song strikes me as less suitable to carry the theologically rich texts you reference.

      One might ask whether “popular music” (as a production of “pop culture”)–whether yesterday’s or today’s–is not by its nature of such a character as to make it unsuitable to undergird the texts the church ought to be singing. That is, what characterizes pop music that makes it pop music? And are those things compatible with biblical truth?

      • mlward says:

        Agreed, Chuck. My comment about the 50% drop was only an effort to recognize the validity of that music director’s comment that church isn’t only for younger people. If younger people way, and I mean theologically conservative ones, perhaps very little of the gospel song tradition would remain in our worship (?). But eliminating the older generation’s preference wholesale doesn’t seem to be a very loving thing to do. Perhaps, as you imply, keeping gospel songs that are theologically richer and just getting rid of the trite ones might do the trick.

        Pop music does seem to have worsened over time as commercial interests have further debased it. If I didn’t have to go to lunch this instant I could dredge up a Ken Myers quote or two. But I’m not disagreeing with your latter paragraph. That’s worth thinking on.

  5. Joel Arnold says:

    Great thoughts. Thanks for the helpful analysis.

  6. Aaron Blumer says:

    “Pop music does seem to have worsened over time as commercial interests have further debased it” It isn’t really “commercial interests” that debased it. Commerce is nothing more than how people trade what they want less for what they want more. In short, *people* debased it–if it wasn’t debased to begin with.

    • mlward says:

      Right… The people whose money fuels commerce. Good clarification!

      Back from lunch; here’s the Ken Myers quote (All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes) I was thinking of:

      Since it is the purpose of most forms of popular culture to provide exciting distraction, we should not be surprised that over time, television programs, popular music, and other forms become more extreme (and more offensive) in their pursuit of titillation. Folk culture has the capacity to limit extremes, since it is the expression of the values and aspirations of a community. Popular culture, on the other hand, presupposes the absence of community of belief or conviction.

      Here’s a post I wrote about it.

      • Hi, Aaron.

        Yes, there is a sense in which commerce is, technically speaking, “how people trade what they want less for what they want more.” All the same, I think we ought to give due attention to the “how” in that definition. We should probably not impute all too much altruism to the brokers of pop culture, and recognize that they are not in the business in order to raise the overall level of virtue in the present culture. I have little doubt that, instead, they are in it for the money (and for the actual performers, the fame), and as Mark has noted (especially in his linked post), willing to do what is necessary to increase their take. This in turn does not have positive ramifications for using pop culture as a vehicle to communicate Christian truth, in my opinion.

  7. Adam Blumer says:

    Hi, Chuck

    Thanks for addressing this issue. I read Dr. Olson’s article and your response, and I’m still rather in the dark as far as his message. Dr. Olson has used a lot of generalities to poke at many churches who, I’m sure, are seeking to make godly choices based on the Word. If they are not living by the Word, then he should call them out with specific charges and Scriptural reproof. It could be very well true that they’ve embraced a culture that they feel aligns with God’s Word and the admonition to be separate from the world. As far as being comfortable in yesteryear, I really don’t have any idea what he’s talking about. I wish he would clarify what he means. Does he mean . . .

    Using pews as opposed to chairs?
    Singing old hymns as opposed to the latest CCM?
    Coming to church in business casual as opposed to clothes one would wear to a baseball game?

    What are we using in our churches that relate to yesteryear? Our church uses PowerPoint, a more recent invention, I believe. We use Majesty Hymnals, which came out in the last decade, I think. We sometimes project song lyrics, which I don’t think was done twenty years ago. The chairs are only about seven or eight years old. The building . . . yeah, it’s pretty old, but we’re gradually renovating it.

    So what’s the issue here?

    I agree with Don. Just saying this is so doesn’t make it so. I grew up in several good churches and was a member at one in Chicago, the subject of a chuckle in the video. The Chicago churches I was involved with were not, as far as I could tell, behind the times and were certainly making a concerted effort to reach the community. I’d hesitate to criticize God’s good work in any church just because I think they’re not quite as hip as I think they should be.

    As far as youth growing up in fundamentalism and not being able to witness, apparently because they are culturally challenged . . . that really seems like hyperbole to me. I grew up in fundamental churches, and I’m not aware of culture every being a major stumbling block in witnessing opportunities. What culture is he referring to? The rock culture? The Hollywood culture? The clothes culture? The video game culture? Christians need to guard their priorities, and I doubt a major focus on any of those cultures would be especially edifying.

    So while I think it’s an interesting discussion, without more specifics, it’s a pretty weak argument. i agree with you. Church should be an oasis away from the world, so I don’t understand what he’s referring to. And I searched my Bible for “Be ye relevant, for I am relevant” and can’t find it. My two cents.

  8. Thank you for drawing a careful, accurate and much needed distinction.

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