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Vacations, Culture, and Churchy-ology

Vacation Experiences Our experiences, upbringing, personal preferences, and surrounding context influence our opinions about pretty much everything. For example, if we were to talk about the word “vacation” there would be a plethora of opinions and mental images connected to the word. A vacation is defined as a “personal trip or journey usually for the purpose of recreation or tourism.” When I think about vacation, I think about palm trees, sunshine, relaxation, and my wife enjoying it by my side. For others, they may think about Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, and an RV. Others may think about hiking, a campsite, and the great outdoors. The core purpose of a vacation is not compromised, but rather experienced and outworked through a variety means.

While all illustrations break down at some point, this illustration relates someting that is also true about the Church. For some of us, we think about a red-faced shouting preacher, choir robes, and pews. For others, (like myself) we think of a large gathering, a full band (with drums), and a conversational style sermon. Still others, (like the service I attended in Haiti and Guatemala) we may think of loud, dynamic singing with creative clapping and a long narrative sermon.

I fully understand that there are some theologically dangerous expressions of worship. I fully understand that distorting the truth to accommodate people’s or your own desires is wrong. However, I have seen a LOT of debating over mostly peripheral issues. The purpose of the Church is to incarnationally reflect the coming Kingdom to a lost and dark world. “We are committed to describing the world not just as it should be, not just as it is, but as — by God’s grace alone! — one day it will be.” (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope) That is why the Church exists–which should not be confused with the corporate worship gatherings that happen in our local buildings we call “churches.”

The purpose of corporate worship is to proclaim the worth of the resurrected Jesus! In proclaiming his worth we both 1) Encourage and edify one another by reminding one another that Jesus has conquered death and we are raised with him and 2) we proclaim to a world that the grave is defeated and hope, love, grace, and mercy can be experientially known through a relationship with the resurrected Jesus!

The means through which we communicate this should not be dull, boring, irrelevant, disconnected or difficult to understand for the surrounding world that we should be seeking to point towards Jesus. That brings me to a brief thought on culture.

Culture War I read an article recently that talked about how the Church should stop trying to imitate the culture around her and stop being worried about being “churchy.” I understand that we are not to imitate the sinful aspects of our culture, but culture in and of itself is not bad. Culture can be quite beautiful. (We also need to distinguish the difference between culture and pop culture.) Culture has to do with a society or people group’s expression of it’s unique identity through art, language, literature, music, attire, and, my favorite, food. All of which can be appreciated as diverse expressions of God’s creativity inherent in Creation itself.

When we demonize culture and demand that our style or expression of music, art, language, etc. is holy and others are not, we vastly underestimate the value of reflecting the image of the Creator through creativity. Can culture be twisted or corrupted? Absolutely. So can sex, but that does not mean sex is inherently evil. It is actually quite beautiful inside the context of marriage — a committed relationship in which two people know and are known intimately and possess the potential to participate in the creation of new life through procreation.

I once listened to a sermon by a man who was part of a ministry that ministered to Native Americans. he noted that one of the tragedies in evangelizing the Native Americas was the tendency throughout history of the “white man” to insist that their cultural expression (music, dancing, and language) had to be abandoned in order for salvation to be attainable. This man advocates the use and appreciation of their culture and argues that their expressions can be redeemed and used for worship. This is true in a number of contexts. You do not go to another country and demand that they read an English Bible because the KJV is the only authoritative translation.

My point? Culture is redeemable. Culture is not inherently bad. Culture is actually a beautiful thing that can glorify God. The Western Church has a culture. Whether we want to admit it or not, our suits, choirs, pews, Bible translations, Sunday Schools, and even our lingo is cultural in nature. You only have to experience church in another country to realize that your idea of Church is in fact not universal. Like our experiences of vacation.

What happens though when our culture fails to connect, reflect, and communicate to the surrounding context of our local community of believers? What happens when our gatherings become what some have called “churchy.” This brings me to that dirty term “seeker friendly” and a word I made up –“churchy-ology.”

Churchy-ology Before I go any further I want to clearly say that, I believe the Bible is our authority for all matters of faith and practice, I strive to be theologically responsible and consistent (though I am a young student of theology), and I believe the hope for humanity is found through a reconciled relationship with the resurrected Jesus. When some talk about the Church needing to not be churchy, they may mean that the church should avoid all possible points of tension with the world around us. They may mean that we should “water-down” the truth. However, there are others, arguably more so, who mean that the Church should not, like the Pharisees, keep God on the top shelf but rather imitate the Incarnation and communicate who God is in a language people can understand.

I do not have the space here to go into all the specifics, but there are things about our churches that are churchy and biblical. BUT, there are also things that are just churchy. They are neither theologically nor biblically grounded. Rather, they are completely based on opinion and preference. I know some will vehemently disagree with me, but I can find no real reason why it makes a difference whether Scripture is read from an iPad or a Bible. I prefer the Bible when I preach, but the text is the same. Once upon a time, the mass production of the printed word was a new development and was a result of technological advancements.

When people talk about not being churchy, most are talking about not allowing our personal preferences and expressions to get in the way of reaching lost people. This is EXTREMELY biblical. If Peter would have adhered to his Jewish understanding of clean and unclean he never would have stepped foot in Cornelius’s home and the story of the Gospel reaching Gentiles would be a lot different (Acts 10). Paul’s primary concern for the orderliness of worship when writing the church at Corinth had to do with the “unbeliever or outsider [that] enters” (1 Cor 14: 23). Paul believed in incarnational ministry which is evident by his evangelizing the people in Athens. He used poetry from their own culture to argue for the existence of the one true God (Acts 17:28). Jesus was constantly teaching people about the Kingdom of God and he used elements that were familiar to their cultural context (farmers, seeds, widows, betrothed young women, prodigal sons).

Seekers and Friendlyness 

Jesus, to some degree was also seeker friendly (which in reality is different from seeker sensitive). Again, some would adamantly argue against this, but the gospels are full of passages that talk about “crowds” and “multitudes” of people gathering to be healed and hear this Master Teacher preach. There were times, and there is a time and place for this, that Jesus drew a line in the sand and clarified what discipleship entailed. But, by and large, he doesn’t call out the self-seeking desires of those longing to be healed or the entertainment-seeking intentions of those gathering to watch the show. Rather, he offered hope through healing and truth through preaching. Most of the “offensive” things Jesus says are directed at religious people. That should give us pause.

I believe it is possible to be relevant to the culture around us. In fact, I believe it is not only possible, but necessary. When I preach, a great deal of my preparation is reflecting on the audience I will be speaking to and discerning what the community needs to hear from God. I also spend a great deal of time trying to compose a message that contains language that most of my audience can connect with. This audience includes the reality that there may be people new to church present as well as people familiar with church and “churchy” language. I believe it is irresponsible for preachers to lazily fashion a sermon without seeking to connect to the audience. Andy Stanley says it well, “As a leader it is your job to protect the missional integrity of the Jesus gathering to which you have been called. It is your responsibility to see to it that the church under your care continues as a gathering of people in process’ a place where the curious, the unconvinced, the sceptical, the used-to-believe and the broken, as well as the committed, informed and sold-out come together around Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Deep and Wide)

I do not want to compromise truth for the sake of making the gospel palatable. But in the words of James the brother of Jesus, “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). I want to do all I can to creatively and responsibly communicate who Jesus is to people in a language they understand. If that means preaching in jeans with an iPad because it will help people drop their defenses or feel that I am more relatable, then I will do it. Jesus left the glories of heaven and wore flesh to communicate who God is to humanity. I think I could sacrifice some of my preferences too.

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