I've Seen More Impotent Churches than Effective Ones

I can’t imagine anyone else more sarcastically skeptical than I am. I pretty much never believe the company line and don’t trust anyone who will gain by the advice they are giving me (i.e. the insurance man telling me why I need an umbrella liability policy or the quick lube joint selling me the really expensive oil). Granted, they may be very educated on the subject and might actually be telling me the truth—but I still don’t believe it. I’ve been burned too many times. And so, I’ve become cynical.

I don’t think I’m all that different from the growing percentage of people of faith in our communities who love God the best they know how, but see the church as totally irrelevant. It doesn’t even cross their mind to go to a church service to figure out the next spiritual step they should take. They’ve been to church. They’ve seen so-called Christians who are no different than their other friends. They’ve sat through one-too-many songs that are written like funeral dirges and talk about raising your Ebenezer (doing what to my what?). They listened to some guy drone on about living a sanctified life and being washed in the blood of the lamb (are these people cannibals?). So they leave, without hope, still trying to figure out the answers on their own. They do this two or three times, and pretty soon they’ve been burned. And they become cynical.

But they are still spiritual beings. They still want to find hope and purpose and meaning. So they turn to the only language they really understand at the core of their heart—where they feel deeply and experience life fully—they turn to pop culture for their answers.

They turn on the radio and hear Linkin Park reveal their angst singing, “…let mercy come and wash away what I’ve done,” and it touches them. It marks them in a deeply personal way. They view a movie like Little Children and watch the tormented lives of four individuals who are trying to make sense of their humanity and yet continue to make one bad choice after another. They identify with the struggle of the actors and it moves them to take a step…to do something differently.

It’s not that people are going to the culture to learn a different angle about God or faith. In truth, the values and faith of most of the people around us are actually being shaped by the culture.

I think that followers of Christ began to realize this some time ago, perhaps subconsciously, and entered a season of boycotts and petitions and black lists. Like an animal looking for its’ next meal, the church was blindly and obsessively driven by two primary goals: First, protect ourselves from the culture at all costs. So rather than prepare our children to engage and discern and make good choices, we put our hands over their eyes and our fingers in their ears. But through the internet and new media, the culture was able to invade our homes, yet our kids were ill-prepared to deal with it.

Our second goal was to use our combined Christian-power to legislate and pressure the culture to change to reflect our values. But society has changed little, and our efforts have served to further ostracize us and give every follower of Christ the feared stereotypical tag of “extremist” or “fundamentalist.”

In recent years there have been a number of books that have been written to discuss the merging of faith and culture. It has been encouraging to see a segment of the church wake up to the potential of leveraging the culture to reach our friends. These writings are helping us learn how to negotiate relationships with the unchurched, utilize pop culture to start spiritual conversations, and be discerning so as not to pollute our own souls in the process.

But these authors almost solely focus on our personal faith. Any mention of the local church is negative or absent. It’s almost as if the authors are all saying that church is irrelevant. It’s not even a part of the conversation. If you want to have a spiritual conversation with a friend, the church will only get in your way. It must happen outside of the church. Faith can be relevant. You can be relevant. But the church is not relevant, nor can it be.

I understand that, I do. I’ve seen more impotent churches than effective ones. And it makes me cynical. It drowns out hope that it could ever be different.

But I’ve also seen churches that get it. I’ve seen with my own eyes what happens when the power of the local church is energized with the creativity of the arts utilizing the language of the popular culture. I’m jazzed about the spiritual longing I see in our culture. And I love what happens when faith and culture come together—can we even say they collide—in the local church so that people who were far from God hear for the first time how much they matter to him.

So hang with me. In the coming months we’re going to get real practical about ways that churches today are using the language of the popular culture to make a difference in the lives of real people. It’s a journey I’m looking forward to taking with you.

Reprinted with permission from my column in Collide Magazine, Issue #1.

Tim Stevens5 Comments