Why Your Church Needs to Listen to the Culture

The next Christian witness will look more like the “unchurched” than the “churched.”

Early in my ministry, I found myself suddenly in the middle of a culture war, with no idea where the trenches were. I was a youth pastor, in my hometown, just down the street from an Air Force Base. Like every other evangelical youth minister, I received constant advertisements from curriculum-hawkers telling me how I could be “relevant” to “today’s teenagers,” usually by “connecting” with them through popular culture. I couldn’t do that well, though, so I just fell back on being me, and preached the gospel the best I could.

There were two groups that divided the youth group there in Biloxi. The first group was made up of “churched” kids, those who did what was expected in the Bible Belt and made professions of faith, followed by baptism, as young children.

These kids knew the gospel, from start to last, and could rattle off the right answers at will. The gospel neither surprised nor alarmed them. They knew how to embrace just enough of an almost gospel to stay within the tribe, without embracing so much gospel as to encounter the lordship of Christ.

The “unchurched” kids laughed at the Bible studies based on television shows or songs of the moment.

But as time went on, another group of teenagers started to trickle in to our Wednesday night Bible studies. The second group was mostly fatherless boys and girls, some of them gang members, all of them completely unfamiliar with the culture of the church and with the message of the gospel.

Some of them unwittingly reversed the Protestant Reformation by persistently calling me “Father Moore,” just because the only clergy they’d ever seen were Catholic priests in movies. Prayer request time often proved challenging, with one girl asking for prayer that she wouldn’t get pregnant that weekend since she’d run out of birth control pills and her boyfriend didn’t like to wear a condom. Some of them would show up in a cloud of marijuana. The church was so strange to them that they didn’t know what to hide.

The churched kids, though, learned the dark side of Bible Belt culture — how to know the books of the Bible in order, how to answer all the right questions in small group discussion, and how to get drunk, have sex, and smoke marijuana without their parents ever knowing it. Recognizing that many of the baptized kids in my orbit were, in fact, pagan, I shared the gospel, but I kept hitting wall after wall of invincible intelligence.

The “unchurched” kids laughed at the Bible studies based on television shows or songs of the moment. They weren’t impressed at all by the video clips provided by my denomination’s publisher, or by the knockoff Christian boy bands crooning about the hotness of sexual purity.

What riveted their attention wasn’t what was “relatable” to them, but what wasn’t. They were drawn not to our sameness but to our strangeness.

“So, like, you really believe this dead guy came back to life?” one of the unchurched 15-year-old boys asked me one day. “I do,” I replied. He said, “Wait, for real?” I responded, “Yep. For real.” He blinked and whispered, “Dude, that’s crazy.” But he stayed around, and he listened.

The churched kids, and some of their parents, were outraged. Didn’t I know, they asked, that some of these adolescents were in gangs, that they smoked weed, and had sex? It was beside the point that almost all of these things (save gang membership) were going on among the churched kids, too. The point was they knew how to behave.

I am convinced the next generation of Christian witness will be less like the Bible Belt kids I faced at the start of my ministry.

I explained that “how to behave” could be translated as “how to hide sin” through a cycle of Saturday decadence and Sunday repentance. But that didn’t change their minds. One teenager even quoted to me, “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). The congregation was healthy so the vast majority of the parents supported me, as did the senior pastor. But I was rattled that we had to have this argument at all.

What I was dealing with was a culture war, in miniature. The churched families saw the lost kids from the outside as “the culture,” the very thing we were supposed to protect our families from. We were to be a little outpost of the Bible Belt, with pizza parties and family values, protecting our kids from teen pregnancy or drug addiction or anything else that might wreck their lives.

They couldn’t see that we were part of the culture, too, and the culture they wanted to war against was right there, upstairs from them in their own children’s bedrooms. The mission didn’t make sense to them, because they had forgotten who they were. They were not the first.

Increasingly, I am convinced that the next generation of Christian witness will be less like the Bible Belt kids I faced at the start of my ministry, with their rehearsed professions of faith and hidden rebellions.

The next generation will confront us more with that second sort of lostness, those for whom the Christian witness — right down to the basics — seems foreign and irrelevant and antiquated and freakish. Jesus didn’t hide the oddity of the culture of the kingdom, and neither should we.

Let’s listen to what our culture is saying, hearing beneath the veneer of cool the fear of a people who know that Judgment day is coming because it’s written in their hearts (Romans 2:15–16). Let’s listen beneath the cynicism to the longings there, expressed in the culture, longings that can only be fulfilled in the reign of a Nazarene carpenter-king. Let’s deconstruct what they — and we — tell ourselves when it’s nonsense.

But let’s not stop there. Let’s run toward, and not away from, the strangeness of an old gospel of a Messiah who was run out of his own hometown, but who, oddly enough, walked out of his own graveyard. For real.

But let’s do more than talk. Let’s live together in churches that call our neighbors to consider the justice and righteousness they see demonstrated among us. Let’s witness (albeit imperfectly and waveringly) to what the whole universe will one day look like.

Let’s confront culture with the gospel, in all its strangeness, both inside and outside the church.

Let’s groan at the wreckage all around us, in this world of divorce courts and abortion clinics and gas chambers, and let’s pray for the day when, as the hymn puts it, “every foe is vanquished and Christ is Lord indeed.”

Let’s show in the makeup and ministry and witness of our congregations what matters, and who matters, in the long run. Let’s confront culture with the gospel, in all its strangeness, both inside and outside the church. And let’s model what happens to a culture when the kingdom interrupts us on our way to where we would go, if we were mapping this out on our own.

Let’s not merely advocate for causes; let’s embody a kingdom. Let’s not aspire to be a moral majority, but a gospel community, one that doesn’t exist for itself, but for the larger mission of reaching the whole world with the whole gospel.

That sort of kingdom first cultural engagement drives us not inward, but onward.

Excerpted from Onward by Russell Moore. Copyright 2015 B&H Publishing Group.

Image courtesy of Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock.com.

Russell D. Moore
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