First of all, this:
Do your best to make it to the 5 minute mark. It will make you laugh and cringe in equal measure.
I never really got into King of the Hill when it aired, but since then I have gone back and watched scattered episodes and been fairly impressed. It was never the laugh factory that, say, the golden age Simpsons was, but it told solid, heartwarming stories with a deeply satirical edge to them. In particular I have found the show to be sharp in its assessment of Christianity and its role in American society. Many shows might outright mock religious belief, but KotH portrayed its characters as sincere, well intentioned Christians while still skewering some of the oddities of Protestant Christianity in America. The episode “Reborn to Be Wild” features Bobby (the son) hanging out with skater punk Christians, which leads to a surge of interest in the language of evangelical Christianity wrapped in the trappings of skating culture. The ever square Hank objects to Bobby’s fervor, and near the climax of the episode delivers a great line to the energetic young leader of the skaters. Regarding the “edgy” Christian music the leader plays, Hank says, “Can’t you see that you aren’t making Christianity better; you’re just making rock and roll worse.”
Don’t worry – this won’t be yet another diatribe about CCM or its related evils. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the mission of the church, and how incarnation fits into that mission. There have been many debates in the past few decades (which will continue to be for many years, doubtless) about the place of innovation in worship. To what extent should the church be putting the Gospel in the language of the culture? The beachhead for this debate has been, of course, worship. The pro-contemporary group usually follows this line: “We need to be incarnational in our forms of worship. We have to put the Gospel in a language people understand. We need to be all things to all people.” The anti-contemporary group usually counters with something along the lines of “New styles tend to dilute traditional worship and make it more shallow.”
I must confess, though, that – like so many debates within the church – this controversy holds little of interest for me. As always, people get very invested, both emotionally and with regard to their time, in answering the wrong questions. In the end both sides flat out miss the point. For now I want to concentrate on the misunderstanding involved in the phrase quoted above, from the Apostle Paul: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) For their part the ultra-traditional Christians simply seem to ignore the verse. They show little interest in reaching out to people and meeting them where they are. If someone attending their church is not willing to march out into the ocean of their particular traditions, the visitor will find little to welcome them.
On the other hand, the more contemporary churches have adopted Paul’s passing phrase as a kind of mantra. Many “cutting edge” churches throw every tool in their repertoire at people in the desperate hope of catching some. Smoke and mirrors (and I mean that literally, not in some metaphorical sense), loud pulsing guitars, flashing lights. There is a church here in Tulsa which holds a Harley Davidson rally every year called “Tougher Than Hell” where they give away a free motorcycle and hire an ex-famous rock band to provide music (last year it was REO Speedwagon). A friend of mine recalls a youth group he once attended where students were lured in with video games and basketball, then forced (they locked the doors!) to listen to a sermon. These are extreme examples, of course, but they raise an important question. Is this what Paul meant, that spreading Christianity entails chasing trends, looking for the next big thing?
I think the shallowness of many interpretations of Paul’s words is troubling. I am not saying that we shouldn’t speak the language of those we are around – quite the contrary! The problem people run into is not usually going too far but not going far enough! God has always worked dialectically in people’s hearts, confronting them jarringly with His severe grace, rattling them loose of their tightly held illusions. The problem with trend chasing worship (to be clear, I have no problem with contemporary worship per se) is that it only attempts to “be all things” at the level of people’s felt needs, not at the much deeper and more important level where their real needs reside. Worship patterened after Nickelback or Enrique Iglesias or Skrillex (that’s a thing, right?) may do a very good job at drawing crowds to your church, but if that is what you offer then you will never satisfy the core needs of your congregation. If Jesus rock is as far as your understanding of “all things” goes, you run the very real risk of missing the forest for the trees.
The job of thoughtful Christians, as they consider how to further the kingdom, must be to analyze the culture in which they live, seeking out its essence. What lies at the heart of our particular culture that must be confronted by the Gospel? If your analysis of culture consists of “Kids sure do love that rock music, let’s do that”, then you have failed utterly to understand it. On the other side, of course, the ultra-traditionalists have also failed to understand it. They tend to reduce “worldly” culture down to a series of moral failings (too much drinking, too much sex, too much swearing). Again, these are but the outer trappings and not the heart of the culture.
What does lie at the heart of our own culture? Specifically, what core traits need confronting? Put another way, what are the deep felt needs that people look to culture to fulfill but find it cannot do so? I am not so foolhardy as to claim that I understand completely, but I have my guesses. One large trend I notice is the business of life and the real need people have (usually unrecognized) for rest, solitude, and silence. Hardly an original observation on my part, I realize, but what are churches doing to address this real need? Most churches I have observed seem intent on cramming people’s already over stimulated lives full of things to do! Worship itself has been redesigned to shift the emphasis away from contemplation and towards sensory stimulation. Our worship, in fact, is too busy! Why do we endlessly emphasize integrating technology into the life of our churches?
One reason I love Kierkegaard (so badly abused and misunderstood by the church) is that he keenly observed the world and the church around him. He had this to say of his own generation, but I think it rings equally true for our own:
The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I would reply: Create silence! Bring men to silence. The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. And even if it were blazoned forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noise, then it would no longer be the Word of God. Therefore create silence.
By filling every moment of our lives with clutter, noise, Tweets, clips, and the rest, we have become a people who do not know true rest. We fear silence, fear being alone with ourselves. Yet at the same time people, when they wake up to the deeply embedded desires of their heart, intuitively grasp the need for rest and space. This is why, I believe, more and more young people are converting to Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Whatever their drawbacks, the liturgical denominations create space and silence in their worship. True rest meets people where they are, confronting their deepest longings and stripping away their worst tendencies. It goes beyond merely giving people what they think they want and gives them what they didn’t even know they needed.
I will let the last word belong to Eugene Peterson, one of the most thoughtful Christians writing today. Here is an interview he gave a few years back on the shallowness of much Christian spirituality. He does an excellent job of stripping away the clutter to get at the heart of what it means to worship. Here it is.