The Clamp

April 23, 2007, 8:34 am; posted by
Filed under Articles, Mike J  | 9 Comments

Here is something I came across in my reading for school this week.

The clamp in which evangelical Christianity perpetually finds itself is that it simultaneously wants to define itself over against modern culture and yet be convincing or persuasive with respect to that culture.
~ Graham Hughes, Worship as Meaning

Hughes does not write as an evangelical Christian, but I think he lays a finger on the evangelical dilemma and perhaps the reason for so much evangelical ennui.

On the one hand, we reject much of modern culture. We decry it as hedonistic or relativistic or insufficiently grounded. Yet, on the other hand, we are the masters at imitating that culture and twisting it to other ends.

So we can go to our local Christian bookstore and find a chart that says, “If you like U2, you might like (insert flavor-of-the-week band here).” Or we can stress the ease with which a person becomes a Christian, saying, “You’re still the same person; it’s just, you know, you have Jesus now.” Or we can create thoroughly consumerist modern Christian churches which offer all the music and good coffee you could want, so long as you’re willing to accept the Gospel as part of the bundle.

I have to admit that I am both fascinated and repelled by our ability to use culture so well. It demonstrates a certain flexibility and resourcefulness that is commendable.

Yet I wonder if it does not cost us. In our desire to make the gospel so accessible, we often play up its similarity to modern culture. Yet it makes the next, vital step of Christian discipleship extremely difficult, perhaps impossible. That next step is being able to self-differentiate from modern culture, asking critical questions of it. How does the modern way of living bring Christlikeness, bring true life? How does the modern way of life bring death and distance between us and Christ? Sadly, we know that there are too few ways modern culture brings life, and too many where it brings death. Mature Christians have to be capable of detecting and avoiding that which is dangerous in the culture around us.

But because we are so wedded to the similarities between our churches and modern culture, all too often our churches (clergy included) are ill-equipped to help people navigate these waters.

Perhaps our church music and architecture and our very ways of evangelism and living should not seek to impress the world with how much like the world we are, but how very different we are.


9 Comments to “The Clamp”

  1. dsweetgoober on April 23rd, 2007 9:27 am

    I think the the mistake is letting people make this about us acccepting or rejecting modern culture. It has nothing to do with it. We wake up where we are in history and we use whatever is around us to wage war against the enemy. Like Samson grabbing the jawbone, if I can get my hand around something that I can use that is not sinful, I’ll use it. The mistake we make is we compromise. We don’t expect people to come in and worship Jesus and endure sound teaching so we entertain them.

  2. misserose on April 23rd, 2007 9:37 am

    I wonder what it is specifically that you think we need to be different from the world about, besides sin itself, idolatry, self-centered-ness, etc. The intangibles are to me obvious, but I believe the things that attract the world in the world, as far as tastes and expressions, are merely perversions of something pure that could bring the Lord glory. Using music as an example, as you did- certain sounds or styles, when infused with the light of Christ, can bring God glory. Our focus shouldn’t be on how we appear to the world, but how we appear to God, it seems to me. The world will come to the brightness of His rising. (my 2 cents)

  3. Mike J on April 23rd, 2007 1:43 pm

    Good thoughts Dave and Missy–

    Dave, you have a good point. But let me give an example. Let’s talk about Willow Creek. Since their inception, they have had two types of services–one on weekends for “seekers” which is intentionally evangelistic and one on weekdays which is for believers and stresses spiritual growth. Yet consistently they have had trouble getting people to move from one to the other–there has been a crowd that comes week after week to seeker services to hear evangelistic messages that sees no point whatsoever in growing.

    Couldn’t this be because they are the prime example of a church that seeks to use modern sensibilities to reach modern people? Could the fact that the church looks like an office building and uses music straight from the radio actually speak louder to people than the sermons they’re preaching? The medium is a message too.

    Please understand that I’m not condemning contemporary music in general; I’m not a staunch traditionalist. Every medium (however traditional) we use to proclaim the gospel has the potential to distort and undermine the gospel. What I’m saying is that in Willow Creek’s case, they have bound themselves to a certain way of proclaiming the Gospel that may carry the seeds of its own destruction.

    So I guess my contention still is that we have to be careful when we imitate the culture to share a message, because in our imitation we may undermine the message we want to share.

    (will deal with Missy’s comment below)

  4. Mike J on April 23rd, 2007 1:46 pm

    Missy–How should we be different? Tough to name a list. I guess in my experience as a pastor, I’ve seen the damage our consumer society has done. People come to church expecting a certain “product” (worship), and if they don’t like the product we serve up, they go and look for another brand.

    But the fact is that if you go to church and everything is just like you want it to be, you won’t learn much about real Christianity, which is after all about a cross and nails. So the first thing I want people to see at our church when they visit or when they attend is “this place doesn’t always make me happy.”

    Maybe that’s deepest, most primal lesson the church can offer Western culture.

  5. aaron.guest on April 23rd, 2007 2:45 pm


    Good post. Tough questions. Ones I think about quite often. Though I think that quote’s wrong. I don’t see the Church wanting to define itself over and against culture…only within it. Within it’s certain point in history.

    The thing is it’s those beliefs of the church that stand outside and stand through every era. You would think that Christianity and the Church would be able to do the same. But the “truth is never sexy”. So the church keeps “selling truth in candy bars, billboards and backs of cars.” And becomes this subculture that is merely repackinging it’s content with brand names.

    It’s frustrating as a Christian. As someone who sees the message of the cross as the most persuasive element in history. At once beautiful and horrific. AS the greatest of paradoxes. And it’s hidden behind sunday morning productions.

  6. Mike J on April 23rd, 2007 3:29 pm

    Hi Aaron–thanks for your thought-provoking comment. As a pastor, it’s so easy for me to want to hide the cross behind something I know people are more eager to “buy.”

  7. dsweetgoober on April 23rd, 2007 5:35 pm

    I agree that the attempt to blend in can carry the seeds of it’s own destruction. I watched a Christian band last night on INSP TV and the 5 young men seemed to be in some sort of contest to see who could be the most relevant to their generation. Points were apparently being doled out based on such things as wild hair, beards/goatees, tattoos, various piercings that covered the entire ear, nose, tongue, eyebrow and lip spectrum, and dorky:.I mean hip:clothing. I understand their desire to fit in but it seemed to be ridiculous. It’s one thing to accept aspects of a culture; it’s another thing to worship it. But equating rejection of modern culture with godliness is the other danger. If that works we should all be Amish.

  8. dsweetgoober on April 23rd, 2007 5:43 pm

    As you can tell I really appreciated your article! Keep up the good work!

  9. Mike on April 24th, 2007 7:02 am

    Good reminders, Dave–we certainly can’t all be Amish (at least we can’t be Amish and post on a blog like this). :)

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