Nearly a year ago I began to follow the moving and shaking that has been happening in the northern part of my state in a booming Christian congregation called Granger Community Church. A typical megachurch, Granger prides itself in being fully relevant to popular culture even to the extent of using Coldplay songs to headline services and basing sermons on popular movies, drawing out “spiritual themes” and applying them to the lives of Christians.
As a testimony to the belief in the method above the message, executive pastor Tim Stevens wrote a book called Pop Goes the Church: Should the Church Engage Pop Culture? to defend the church’s philosophy of taking pop culture as the driving force behind its weekly services rather than the good news of Jesus Christ.
Lacking theological basis, services at Granger lack the biblical substance, giving popular culture the center stage. Granger wrongly bases its success on the number of people in attendance, not on the strength of their belief. For the remainder of this post I will take chapter 8, titled “I’m Not a Theologian, But…” and address each of the ten points he tries to make to justify a position that the church should not only address popular culture, but completely embrace it.
#1 Paul Talks to Some VIPs
Tim Stevens makes an initial point that Paul was talking to people that were not part of the faith, which meant that he needed to speak their language. The reference is to the story on Mars Hill where Paul, noticing a series of idols, points to one that is to “the unknown god” and then tells them about the God that they do not know. It is a play on words; Paul does not suggest that these people have made an idol of the one true God, but instead uses a bit of wit to make a point.
This is a story of making a connection point, a good way to make a sermon illustration. However, Stevens takes this story and pulls out implications that are not in the text on being relevant to culture and changing the presentation of the message to connect to the people who are around. Even in his discussion he makes a point that Paul may have been doing this on the fly, but then uses it to suggest that his church’s preparation of secular music for Sunday services is the same thing. He claims that Paul’s strategy involved “rebranding” the Christian message, when all that really happens here is Paul making a joke at the expense of the sin and ignorance of the people he was speaking to.
#2 Paul Quotes a Secular Song
In a similar spirit as his first point, Stevens makes much of the quote that Paul uses from an apparent secular song. Indeed, Paul does quote, from memory, a line from a poem that was regarded as being part of “Hymn to Zeus.” The emphasis that Paul gives to this quotation is completely missed by Stevens: Paul uses the quote to challenge its context, not to embrace it. Paul quotes the song as a work of a pagan religion and foreign philosophy. It was not at all an effort to be relevant, but rather it was a statement against the popular culture of the day and a reorientation of the source from which “we live and move and have our being.”
#3 Paul Used the Words of Secularists to Scold Christians
Paul quotes a pagan philosopher in Titus 1:12, which Stevens takes as an embrace of secular culture. SEE POINT #2
#4 Jesus Practiced Redeeming the Culture
The concept in the title of this point do not even appear in its discussion. Similar to the arguments above about Paul’s use of a singular line of a poem/song and a quote from a philosopher, Christ borrowed a Greek concept to make a point. Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites, which was a secular term that described an actor. He used the term to effectively make the point that the action and words of these religious leaders said nothing about who they are, and it is the attitude of the heart that is important to God.
In no way was this a “redemption of culture,” which in fact is not only a misunderstanding of this “point” but also a misinterpretation of Christ’s mission on earth. Jesus made it very clear that his was not a “kingdom of this world” but that there was a very different reign that he would have at the right hand of God the Father. No matter how often he used the word “hypocrite” it does not illustrate in anyway a redemption of the popular culture of first century Jerusalem.
#5 A Secular King Gets his Words
Proverbs 31 claims to be the words that were given to King Lamuel by his mother. Stevens concludes that this is a man who was not a king of Israel (not being listed in the line of the kings of Israel or Judah) so he must have been king of another nation, thus secular.
This is speculation at best. Much discussion has been had about who this person could have been. It seems fairly common that Solomon would refer to himself in different ways, and so it may very well be him. It may also be construed that the mother of this king could have been Jewish, and therefore one of God’s chosen. No matter how you slice it, this is a feeble point at best, and nothing on which to base a model for church leadership.
#6 Parables Were Cutting Edge
Again Stevens misleads with his numbered list of points. In his discussion of Jesus’ use of parables, he no where says that they were “cutting edge.” In fact he makes the opposite point and, quoting from Catholic author Madeleine Boucher, says that it was a familiar form of discourse. His claim that the form is “decidedly secular” is called into question by a simple word search which turns up Psalm 78 (written nearly 1,000 years before Christ), which prophesies that the Messiah will speak in parables. If the use of parables was known to King David a millenium before Jesus used them, we cannot make a claim that their use is exclusively secular.
In Luke 8:9-10 Jesus explains that he uses parables, not to effectively declare the secrets of the Kingdom, but rather to keep them hidden. If we keep the argument that the use of parables was uniquely secular, then why would Jesus have employed them to keep his message confusing to all except those to whom he was closest?
#7 Topical Teaching Was A Specialty of Jesus
The argument here is that we, as church leaders, should address the felt needs of our congregants. The author defends this position by talking about how Jesus responded to the needs of those with whom he interacted. What Stevens conveniently forgets is that Jesus was the Son of God, and what he fails to notice is that regularly Jesus made it a point to show that forgiveness of sin was the real need. Christ went as far as to address the true need before addressing the need for physical healing. Had Jesus intended to meet the felt needs of the people, then he went about it backwards.
Stevens quotes Richard Leonard who says that the parables did not mention God at all but instead were “lessons about faith, hope, love, justice, fidelity, self-esteem, prudence, mercy, and hospitality.” Again what seems to be misunderstood is that Jesus prefaces many of his parables with their meaning: “the Kingdom of God is like…” Perhaps God himself did not appear in parables, but it was solely and completely about God’s activity and the nature of his rule.
Jesus may not have preached book by book, but he did use the Scripture in its context to challenge false teaching, declare the forgiveness of sin, and to reveal his role in God amazing plan to redeem his people.
#8 Jesus Did Not Avoid the Culture
“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” Stevens takes this statement and runs down the street to conclude that this means that Jesus invited secular culture to join with the sacred. Spending time with “the most dishonest and deceptive people” is the basis that Stevens uses to describe how Jesus did not avoid culture. Here I agree.
Yet it does not logically follow that we need to invite the culture into our sacred halls of worship. In fact, when Christ cleansed the temple he stood against those whose behavior he was gracious toward outside those walls. Christ recognized the need to interact with those outside the community of faith, but he did not tolerate the profane’s infection of the sacred.
Additionally, proximity does not require embracing. The fact that secular elements are chosen, rehearsed, preformed, and displayed means an embrace of what could be potentially misleading or dangerous.
#9 Paul the Chameleon?
For this point Tim Stevens summaries the sentiment of 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 this way:
I’m not going to violate any essentials of the faith or non-negotiable beliefs–but I’ll ditch my preferences and methodologies in a second if it means I might help introduce someone to Christ.
My prayer is that the staff at Granger really takes this to heart. The argument of the book, a defense of their method, has been shown to be faulty, only getting people into the building, but winning them to nothing more than the entertainment that got them there. I do not mean to defend another tradition, but when it is clear that the method is not effective and the reaction to that information is to defend the method and add a Wednesday night Bible study, something is dreadfully wrong.
#10 Your Everyday Life
For the final point, Stevens actually reworks Romans 12:1-2. The author reads into the passage and makes it say that we should keep our heads down and look for God within our culture. Not only does this interpretation misrepresent the passage but makes it say nearly the opposite. The passage is about being a part of the world and yet rising above it to put full attention on God and molding our lives to be more holy.
Paul challenges us to not fall into the trappings of this life, times and culture, but to seek our live and our meaning in Christ. Jesus reminds us of this himself when he told us not to have our treasure here on earth, but to “store up treasures in heaven” because where we place our value is where we actually are. To follow the advice of Stevens, we would find ourselves lost in the incessant world of popular culture and not have our eyes turned to things above.
Even though, at least from Stevens feeble argument, Scripture may not teach us to be “relevant” to our culture, it does not teach us to avoid it. Indeed we are a part of our world and we are allowed to appreciate what it has to offer. Yet we must have the understanding and realization that Christ nor his kingdom are of this world. When we seek to find God in the trappings and toys that this life offers then we come dangerously close to losing our own souls.
Are we allowed to mention popular culture in our services, absolutely. What Stevens has right is that Paul really did that. He used things from the culture of the day to speak to the people and engage them with something that was common to them. However, he never did a sermon series on the latest popular Greek tragedy, nor were song services filled with popular songs that he later used to talk about how God speaks to each of us.
Salvation is completely alien to the human race. It means that there is nothing in us as humans that can present the good news of Christ’s salvation except what he put there himself. We must look up for our solution. We must do everything we can to point up. If we fail to do that in our Bible studies, in our church services, or in our conversations then we can hardly call our ministry Christian.