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    All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Chapter One

    January 7, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.

    -From Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer {John 17:14-19}

    [H]e prayed that the Father would keep them from the evil, from being corrupted by the world, the remains of sin in their hearts, and from the power and craft of Satan. So that they might pass through the world as through an enemy’s country, as he had done. They are not left here to pursue the same objects as the men around them, but to glorify God, and to serve their generation. The Spirit of God in true Christians is opposed to the spirit of the world.

    Matthew Henry’s Commentary on John 17

    For those of you who aren’t actually reading along, Chapter One is titled Of the World, But Not in the World. The focus of this particular chapter isn’t just popular culture in general, but Christian popular culture in specific. I feel really out of touch in this regard. So much so that commenting on this chapter has been something of a struggle for me. There was a time in my life when I was slightly enamored with Christian pop culture. Following that, I went through the postgraduate jaded stage. Now, I’m in the pop-culture-doesn’t-really-matter-to-me stage. What I mean is, I just don’t think about it much. I don’t buy Christian T-shirts, but it doesn’t bother me that someone else does.

    Can a T-shirt be Christian?

    Actually, Si had a friend once who wore a shirt I thought was hysterical. On the front it said something like, “This shirt is Calvinist. It chose me.” And on the back it said something like, “This shirt is Armenian. I chose this shirt.” Now that, my friends, was a shirt worth buying.

    Anyhow, I am usually much more concerned with technology than I am with the content the technology is carrying. I tend to view technology with a wary eye, even if there is a shiny happy preacher on the front. So Myers’ discussion of Christian popular culture essentially being a knock-off {a poor one at that–it was the late 80s after all} of secular popular culture wasn’t something I could really dig into. However, there was one bit that really caught my eye:

    The thin Christian veneer in such projects very quickly wears away, and what is underneath determines the response of consumers of such products. Such a strategy is a sad reminder that most of the Christian criticism of popular culture has focused on content while ignoring form. A generation after Marshall McLuhan, the Church still behaves as if the forms of culture, especially the forms of mass media and the role they play in our lives, are value-neutral.

    So let’s spend some time listing some of the forms of culture the Church has adopted. And when I say Church, I mean Church as a meeting of believers, the local churches both collectively and individually, including the extremes like Saddleback. Many churches have adopted:

    1. sound systems
    2. auditoriums with stages and without choir lofts
    3. age segregation
    4. announcements done by slideshow complete with rocker background music
    5. jokes during sermons
    6. stage lighting
    7. cry rooms
    8. rock bands leading worship
    9. telecasting of sermons
    10. telecasting of worship songs
    11. coffee bars
    12. corporate-style management practices
    13. campuses reminiscent of either industrial manufacturing or, alternately, universities
    14. websites
    15. casual dress
    16. pop-culture references embedded in sermons

    All of this would, of course, be in contrast to at least a thousand years of tradition, and also in contrast to the early church with its simple, house-church sort of form.

    Naturally, I’m not condemning each and every single item on the list. I, for one, have a deep affection for cry rooms and have spent many years of my life in one. They are perfect for training children to sit in church without disturbing my neighbor.

    My concern is the lack of thoughtfulness I see within the Church in general. It seems like there isn’t much consideration for what a form or medium communicates in and of itself.

    I once glimpsed this through the eyes of a child. Let’s just say my family attended a rock-band style worship service, complete with stage. Later that same day, my daughter happened to see a commercial advertising a rock concert. I don’t even remember how that came to be as we don’t watch television with the children. What I vividly remember was her response. She pointed at the concert and she said, “Look Mommy! Church!”

    Yes. My daughter thought the closest thing to church she’d ever seen was a concert. Another name for a concert is a show. In other words, something one watches rather than participates in.

    One church that Si and I attended early in our marriage did all the cutting-edge stuff. At the time I was amazed at it all, but now it feels more like chasing the wind than anything. Anyhow, one of the things this church was planning to do around the time we left was to telecast the sermons to another location. This was a method of church-planting without church-planting, as it meant that one pastor could preach at all the churches.

    Discussions concerning this project centered on logistics and cost-effectiveness. However, I think the most important questions were the ones that seemed to go unasked. This would include questions like: What does it mean to be a pastor? Does telecasting to separate locations undermine what it means to pastor a church? What is the effect of watching a sermon on a screen upon parishoners? Might such activity later lead to staying home and watching a sermon on television rather than attending church at all? What is the nature of doing church? Does a virtual sermon undermine that nature? What is communion and how is it changed when a sermon is telecasted?

    I could go on.

    The point is that it is dangerous to play with the latest thing without considering its potential effects. Postman once wrote:

    [I]t is inescapable that every culture must negotiate with technology, whether it does so intelligently or not.

    As a final thought, I cannot help but wonder how chasing impermanent things like the latest technology might actually harm our ability to convey and also experience Permanent Things like holiness and reverence.

    ________________
    Links:
    Technopoly, Poetic Knowledge, and the Disappearance of a Bookstore
    Negotiating With Modernity
    Dominion Family for more…
    Putting Technology in its Place

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    5 Comments

  • Reply magistramater January 8, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    Thanks for your commentary. Your final thought just went into my journal, right underneath Laura’s on an unforgettable culture.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

  • Reply Brandy January 8, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    Cindy, What a sweet story about your son!

    KM, What you said about cry rooms brought back a memory for me. Once, I was in a cry room and a mom was there who was using it as a substitute for Sunday School as her child wasn’t normally in church but was too sick to be accepted to SS that day. This toddler wandered all over the cry room touching everything and talking very loudly and also playing with noisy toys her mother had allowed her to bring. Now, this rarely happens at my church. Usually the moms in there are either with new babies or with toddlers who are being trained. But if that had been a regular occurence, it would have made training difficult for me, for sure! My daughter was baffled as to why she had to sit still and quiet on my lap while the other child got to wander around. All of this is to say that I see your point.

    Jennifer, Never apologize for being controversial, at least not around here. I really want this to be a safe place for people to say what they are really thinking about without fear of someone getting offended. I think that offense gets in the way of actually thinking through an issue. And, by the way, even though we don’t attend your church, you know we have a certain fondness for it. You are blessed indeed. 🙂

    As a final thought, I think the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and some of the “high church” denominations have done well holding the bar as far as church services go. I don’t believe in tradition for mere tradition’s sake, but I do believe that many traditions have meaning and purpose and evangelicalism tends to ignore that fact. In fact, sometimes the tradition seems to be not to have traditions, which is self-refuting when we think about it.

    I really like what KM said about the purpose of church not being “fun.” That would be a good sentence to roll around for a few days. Our culture tends to pursue fun, and in its name is sacrificed all the glories of the deeper things. We exchange depth, awe, and other transcendent joys for the fleeting laughter of fun. I’m not say fun is bad, but it is a bad focus for one’s life. Or one’s church, as the case may be.

  • Reply Jennifer January 8, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Ooooh, a nerve has been hit! Coming from a Catholic background, I have grown up with a “high church” mindset. We dressed up for church, we attended the service together at every age, we sung instrumental, reverent hymns, etc. I think one of my biggest shocks as a new Christian was to see how relaxed church could be. For awhile, I felt lost in a huge sea of newness and shininess. I felt most at home and most fed at our small Sunday school class. Truthfully, we would skip the main service often because the sermons were somewhat anemic compared to the deeper teaching of a smaller setting. There was “show”, as you called it, in lieu of real meaty teaching. It is discouraging to see churches become more and more like this. “You can’t please all the people all the time” is a secular quote, but should apply to churches more than the world. When did true men of God- the men we entrust elements of our sanctification with- begin believing the lie that numbers of attendees and the surfaceful happiness of the “body” is what really matters? A pastor-teacher is accountable before the Father for every member of his congregation. How is that feasible in a tele-conferenced room full of lukewarm believers- many not sure if they are truly saved? Sorry to be controversial. I am thankful for a small, doctrinally-sound church where I am accountable to my pastor and my fellow congregants. I feel like I have grown so much in the past few years. Thanks for this post.

  • Reply Kansas Mom January 8, 2009 at 2:30 am

    Wonderful post!

    I tend to disagree on the benefit of cry rooms, but it’s probably mostly because the other parents in a cry room are not making any attempt to teach their children how to worship so we found our kids learning entirely the wrong way to behave at church. Luckily, our new church does not have a cry room.

    Church isn’t meant to be “fun;” it’s supposed to be awe-inspiring worship to God. In the Catholic church, we are literally celebrating each mass surrounded by the heavenly host. It’s hard to believe they are there, let alone experience their participation, with a hokey folk band strumming some bouncy 1980 “hymn.”

  • Reply Dominion Family January 7, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    “As a final thought, I cannot help but wonder how chasing impermanent things like the latest technology might actually harm our ability to convey and also experience Permanent Things like holiness and reverence.”

    Beautifully said!

    We once saw a pentecostal lady with big hair in a Christian book store. My tiny son couldn’t stop staring so I explained she was trying to glorify God with her hair. Later that day, he said, “I saw a Christian lady.” I asked him how he knew she was a Christian. He said, “She had a pony tail.”

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