In 2010, I took a trip to New York City with my former pastor. I think it was an eye-opening experience for both of us. If you’ve ever been to (or lived in) NYC, then you know that “fast-paced” is an understatement. Though seeing the sights and the culture of a mega-city was incredibly exciting, I think we both felt WAY out of our small-town, North Alabama element.
To go to New York City is to experience close-proximity diversity and culture in a way you don’t find anywhere else. Sure, it was great to see the landmarks: Times Square, The Empire State Building, Ground Zero, Central Park. But even more interesting were the people. So many different races, belief systems, and nationalities are represented – all living and working side-by-side in a city that truly never sleeps.
And as you watch people nearly racing via foot or cab or bus or subway to wherever it is they need to go, you can’t help but become overwhelmed by the sheer pace of it.
Then it hit me.
All the stupid, petty things we argue about in our small town, southern church culture don’t mean a dadgum (yes, that’s the word I thought) thing to people in a culture like this. I had never suddenly felt more irrelevant and more ineffective as a leader/minister in my entire life. Ironically, we were THERE to film a video about the possibility of being involved in helping plant churches in major cities like New York. Yet, suddenly, I felt like an alien in my own country – an ambassador to a culture I knew little about, because I was too consumed in my own.
If you’ve been in church at all during your life, then you know “church culture.” You see the drama that happens underneath the steeple (or the stage lights, if that’s more relevant). People want deeper Bible Study. Someone didn’t like that an AC/DC song was played in church. Someone didn’t like the change in carpet color.
And that’s just the beginning: There are staff wars – where the student minister leaves to plant his own church because he’s mad at the pastor. There are church wars – where churches defame each other from their own pulpits (I’ve even seen churches near my home wage war against each other by what they put on their church signs).
We flood small towns with “Vote No” to liquor sales campaigns. We grimace when we’re around someone who uses the “F” word as a verb, noun, adjective…maybe even as a pronoun.
We shop at Christian bookstores and listen to Christian radio (sure, we may not be completely counter-cultural, but we still have what’s ours).
And it’s worse among the people at the top – we leaders who either purposefully or inadvertently create our own sub-culture. The worst get their congregations to destroy their secular CDs and cast out the demons of those who would wear two-piece swimsuits. But even the ones that are attempting to be relevant… Well, let’s just say you can almost pick a worship leader out of a crowd by his skinny jeans, v-necks, and Toms (and scarf, if he’s really into it). Likewise, I’ve gone to conferences where – I kid you not – it looked like every pastor in the room had the same bald head, the same thick-rimmed glasses, the same black button-down shirt, and the same MacBook Pro. And – in spite of edgy songs or high-tech light shows – even our church services themselves have even become more elaborate attempts to lure people into our culture, rather than truly reflect any desire to engage people in theirs – and these services are remarkably similar, regardless of location or available talent.
My point? We’ve become consumed by our own Christian sub-culture. And I would argue, we are so consumed by it that it keeps us in a state of perpetual irrelevancy and ineffectiveness. Even those of us who have tried to do newer, “edgy-er,” more contemporary things may actually be right back at a place we feared other churches were 10-20 years ago.
And there are consequences to our created sub-culture. Here’s how the ensuing irrelevancy and ineffectiveness play out:
1. The People in Our Culture Around Us Think We Hate Them
Every time an alcohol vote comes up in a nearby town, I cringe. I cringe – not because of one’s personal views on the consumption of alcohol – but because suddenly every church that slaps a “Vote No” sign on their front lawn suddenly sets themselves on one side of an issue, leaving the very culture they are trying to reach on the other. As the saying goes, “People know us more for what we are AGAINST than what we are FOR.”
Sure, not every Christian in every church supports these pseudo-political/moral agendas. In fact, we may go out of our way to make sure people don’t associate us with our politically-minded brethren. And – because of this loving spirit – if someone makes it in the doors of many churches, they may find themselves welcome. They may even want to come back. Why wouldn’t they? Most Christians really do believe in loving the people that come through their doors and sharing the gospel with them.
But the problem is that many people are NOT coming. They have presuppositions about the dividing lines that will keep them from ever truly being accepted – everything from political views to fear of their own sins being exposed. Don’t take my word for it. ASK them. They’ll be glad to tell you why they don’t come.
Worse, we don’t seem to truly care about anything but our own interests. The body of Christ, a community with the mandate to serve widows and orphans – to get into the community and serve people where help is needed most – seems to be more content to build up its own programs and services rather than truly engage people where help is needed. And even when they do have the occasional community outreach or service project, it comes across more as a marketing ploy just to bring more people to church (in spite of their best intentions to serve others).
But worst of all, sometimes we really do act like we hate people. Ask any waitress who works a shift in a restaurant on Sunday after church what she thinks of church crowds – those who treat her rudely and leave bible tracts instead of tips. Ask the pregnant teenager who’s been ostracized by her friends because she made a mistake. Ask a girl who’s been called a “slut” by Christians simply because she was wearing a two-piece (I was there when that one happened). Whether we reflect this behavior personally or not, there are hordes of people bearing the name “Christian” who treat people horribly.
Whether because of our snobbish behavior or an unfortunate mis-perception outsiders have of the church, the bottom line is that the world does not trust us. They don’t trust our agenda. They think we are a hateful, spiteful, small-minded people who don’t care about anything but ourselves. In fact, they’re convinced we’re on the way out. And as we currently exist in our culture, I would have to agree. Christendom is dead.
An important note on this: I know this probably makes you mad to read this. It makes me angry, and I’m writing it! Because most of us are not hateful or self-centered. We truly do have a heart to connect with people. We truly do want them to know Christ. We keep trying harder and harder to get them in the doors. We invite and invite. And some churches are seeing incredible success in their contexts. BUT even those of us attempting “cutting-edge” worship services often fail to realize that our best efforts are still playing out in a Sunday morning sandbox where we think a certain “style” is the way to win the hearts of the surrounding culture. And if we’ve learned anything from previous generations and their “styles” of church, this rapid growth is not sustainable long-term unless something changes.
So I think – even with our best intentions – we have become so consumed by our Christian sub-culture, that we fail to realize how alien and irrelevant we truly have become to a rapidly evolving world.
2. The People in Our Culture Think We Hate Each Other
While I’ve covered this extensively in another post, I will reiterate that the culture around us sees us a divided people. Not only do we stand against them, we stand against each other. Traditional vs. Contemporary. Wine vs. grape juice. Free will vs. Predestination. To dunk or to sprinkle. Baptist. Presbyterian. Methodist. Catholic. Lutheran.
In regards to the church I worked at for 11 years, I heard it all: “They don’t use Scripture.” “They play secular music, so they’re not a real church.” “Their pastor dressed in drag” (amazing how a sketch to make teenagers laugh could get perverted into that kind of a rumor). Even my own daughter was called an “enemy” by a girl at school because of the church we attend.
Other churches’ successes are seen as threats to our own. Cooperation seems nearly impossible in such a climate. Even during a season where we were desperately trying to help people whose homes and lives were ravaged by a massive tornado outbreak in 2011, you saw the division. One group from our church walked into a neighborhood (or what was left of it), only to be met by a person from another church who challenged them, “We got this. You go somewhere else.” Looking at the devastation, our group could only stare dumbstruck at this one person claiming that his group “had this.” Fortunately, common sense (in the form of another person from that same church) intervened and said they could use all the help they could get. Still, I was dumbstruck at the audacity one person could display by showing a divisive spirit even in the midst of unspeakable tragedy.
I need not list more. We see the division. More importantly, our culture sees it. And they want nothing of it.
Back to New York
So there we were. Standing in the middle of Times Square at about 1:30 in the morning. Nearby is a group of women from another country all posing for photographs. People pass by reeking of alcohol and body spray. I couldn’t begin to count the nationalities and faiths represented by the people who walked by. I remember the crazy stare a girl gave us earlier in the day atop the Empire State Building as we filmed a video about church in a big city. Her reaction literally made me think that merely talking about our “church culture” in her presence somehow invaded her space.
As I got back on the plane to fly back to North Alabama, I could not help but think that we were missing the whole point of the Gospel and what needed to happen to change the world.
We have to break down the barriers we’ve built between ourselves and our culture. We have to engage people where they are – not merely invite them to where we are.
We have to break down the barriers we’ve built between each other. As my former pastor told me this morning, “God likes it when his children play well together.” Can you imagine what we could do if we stood united, not divided?
We have to serve the world if we want the world to hear us at all.
And that will only begin if we spend more time breaking down the walls…
…instead of building them.