Monday, August 27, 2007

Ken Myers on the Church's Cultural Carelessness

I've been a satisfied subscriber to Mars Hill Audio Journal for many years. When the cassette-carrying envelope arrives in the mail every other month (I know, I'm a dinosaur opting for cassettes instead of mp3's or CD's) my day is made. If I had any complaints, it would only be that I wish it were issued monthly rather than bi-monthly but that's just because I enjoy it so and hate having to wait for the next volume. I suppose the exercise in patience is good for me. Actually, when I consider that the quality of the journal would most likely suffer from shortening the span between volumes, the wait is worth it. Through his conversations with guests from diverse areas of expertise as well as his thoughtful commentary, Ken Myers provokes me to consider implications of the faith I profess in ways that I had not previously.In a recent letter to subscribers, Ken restated the convictions that motivate his work and made some noteworthy yet disturbing observations about the state of the Church. Here's an excerpt posted with permission:
For fifteen years, I have guided the work of MARS HILL AUDIO with the belief that the shape of cultural life really does matter; that faithlessness can take cultural as well as personal forms; and that, because cultural life matters, the Church must often strive to be counter-cultural. I have learned a lot in those years, and I have changed my mind about a number of things. But there are two conclusions with which I started this project (based on previous study and observation) which have been remarkably reinforced. The first is that what is called "modernity" is essentially incompatible with Christian faithfulness, that what makes modern culture distinctively "modern" involves a rejection of important Christian beliefs and practices. The second is that one of the greatest temptations faced by the Church and her leaders is the desire to be approved by the world, that the evangelistic motive can produce a dangerous preoccupation with "getting along," with being "winsome." When the Church gives in to this temptation, the result is a form of cultural captivity in which the Church is simply a chaplain to some cultural status quo, reducing the consequences of faith to personal, "spiritual" matters, but incapable of encouraging a truly counter-cultural stance except at the margins.

As I have read the books written by my guests, talked with them, and with pastors and lay-people around the country, I have come to a deeper conviction of the truth of the first point above. And as I have looked at the books that sell really well among Christians, as I have watched the churches and parachurch groups with large and growing constituencies (some of them, admittedly, short-lived), and as I have talked with younger Christians whose experience and assumptions have been shaped only by "culture-affirming" institutions, I sense a growing level of uncritical identification with contemporary culture. While there are a number of wonderfully insightful books by Christian authors who see the underlying dynamic of many cultural conventions (books about technology or commodification or narcissism or our addiction to entertainment or the state of modern marriage), the insights of such prophetic thinkers seem to be ignored by celebrated Christian leaders, and hence by most Christians. It is easier to keep a big church program running if you don't introduce too much cognitive dissonance between what you say on Sunday and what advertisers and entertainers and professors and miscellaneous experts say the rest of the week.

Of course many good things happen even in churches that are culturally assimilated, just as many good things happen in churches that are culturally disengaged. But bad things in people's lives that are culturally induced and sustained are much harder to deal with when believers aren't ready to recognize that the Church's ways need not be the world's ways. Churches that are culturally careless will not be likely to nurture disciples capable of recognizing cultural disorder outside the church. So, for example, a congregation that adopts contemporary media techniques without reflection is unlikely to produce people alert to the limitations and liabilities of mass media. The church with a food court is unlikely to foster thoughtfulness about the deep cultural losses sustained by modern eating habits. The pastor committed to "entertainment evangelism" will never be able to convey the wisdom in Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and other similarly prophetic books.
I, too, frequently lament most of the items situated on the bestseller shelves of Christian bookstores. Money and time spent on these would be so much better invested in resources like the Journal. It won't give you more "how to's" or steps to spiritual victory or building a successful church. What it will give you is rich food for thought about what fidelity to Jesus Christ (both individually and corporately) should look like in our cultural setting. A subscription would make a wonderful gift to a pastor or any believer interested in thinking and living in a more thoroughly Christian manner. You can learn about receiving and/or giving a demonstration issue here.

1 comment:

John Haller said...

Thanks for this. While I am sensing a subtle shift in thought throughout evangelicalism that I hope will eventually carry the day, I must admit that I am not optimistic at this point. We need these prophetic voices.