Satanism, Starbucks, and Other Gospel Challengers


9M: Apostles of church growth tell us that pop culture is our friend and the best vehicle for advancing the gospel. Why do you think that pop culture poses a threat to the church’s ability to hold onto and articulate the gospel?

DW: Let me start by saying there isn’t a lot of difference between popular and elite culture at some points. The main difference is in the number who participate. So the real question, I think, is what does our culture, in its different layers, have in its life that is contrary to the truth of God and the gospel? That’s the question we’ve got to be asking. The people that you mentioned are asking the question, “What is it in our culture”—and the more popular the better—”that we can utilize for our own success?” These are the folks who get their surfboards out and wait for any wave that they can ride to the shore. They look at the culture as a means to their own success.

What we should be doing, however, is looking at the culture—whether high or low—and asking the question, “At what points is this antithetical to the Word of God?” Now that’s a question not often asked—I don’t really see it.

What’s been lost in all of this is a serious working doctrine of sin. If Barna’s numbers are correct, the majority—54 percent—of those who claim to be born again in America do not believe that we are born with a bent human nature. In theological terms, these are Pelagians. If you start with this sort of naïve, innocent view of human life, you will have a naïve and innocent view of human culture. The one carries over into the other. We today in the evangelical church don’t preach as if—and we don’t think as if—we had enemies. And that is a huge mistake.

9M: Then what specific elements of culture today, whether pop or elite, does the church wrongly treat as “neutral” and take for granted? Are there certain things that we should be more careful about?

DW: In every culture, you’ve always got to ask what any given practice, fad, fashion, or way of thinking does to Christian faith. That’s your fundamental question. Some things may be neutral. How long men grow their hair, I don’t think, is particularly important. Nor is what musical instruments contribute to the popularity of music styles. But those are not really the things that the church marketers have their eye on. They’re trying to find ways of being hip. That’s the bottom line.

9M: Many churches and ministries today boast of using new methods, while proclaiming the same message. Is this the right way to go about it, or not? Isn’t there at least some truth in the phrase “the medium is the message”?

DW: I think there is a lot of truth in that phrase [“the medium is the message”]. This argument that the message is preserved while the means of delivery is changed is a misleading proposition, because the message being delivered almost invariably is stripped of its theological content. That is the whole point about it. In many of these churches, they disguise their identity. You see it visually because they don’t want to be thought of as a church. So religious symbols go. Pews go. The pulpit is replaced by a Plexiglas stand. And then the Plexiglas stand disappears and you have people on barstools.

Now you could say that perhaps nothing has changed—and I certainly wouldn’t die on a hill for a pulpit. But subtle messages are being sent by all of this. In an earlier generation, the pulpit was at the center of the church. It was visually central. You saw it. Oftentimes it was elevated. And this was a way of saying to the congregation, “The Word of God that we are about to hear is above normal human discussions. We’ve got to pay attention to it, because it is authoritative.”

Now we have replaced the pulpit not even by a barstool, but by a cup of Starbucks coffee, which speaks of “human connecting.” And human connecting has become more important to us than our hearing from God. Now when we make these kinds of changes to our method, we are really making changes in the message that is delivered.

9M: So would you encourage pastors to put down the Starbucks cup and to stand behind a pulpit?

DW: I absolutely would. I’m not saying that the Word of God absolutely cannot be preached from a barstool or with a cup of coffee in hand. But as a former architect, I think I understand how environments—that is, architectural environments—affect people. There are ways of confirming what is being said by what you see. Now what you see is not a substitute for what is said. So some of the beautiful gothic cathedrals are lifeless and dead spiritually, and all the beauty of those cathedrals can never substitute for the truth of God. But the other side of that also plays out. If we have nothing but Starbucks and light conversation around the Word of God, we will find that the Word of God disappears.

9M: How do we cultivate a culture in a church that is able to maintain the idea of the gospel as a truth proposition? In your previous answer, you referred to the significance of architecture for where the church gathers. Are there other things on a practical level that help us to cultivate a culture where we believe in truth and the gospel as truth?

DW: Well, one of the really interesting things about so much “outreach”—and I want to acknowledge the genuineness of many of the motives in evangelism; I’m not questioning those—is based on several very important miscalculations. And one of the miscalculations concerns what people actually want to hear. Many churches assume that people cannot hear the Word of God or a gospel message that has any theological words in it. So they downplay it. But the results of some important research among formerly unchurched people who then came to church are shocking. When these individuals were asked what they liked about the church, ninety-odd percent said that what was preached was important to them. And almost 90 percent said that they wanted to know what the church believed. They wanted to hear its doctrine. Now that is just the reverse of what the common outreach approach assumes. It assumes people don’t want to know. In actual fact, those who want to come into the church do want to know.

So demonstrating and practicing the centrality of God’s truth is important. But also, that has to be discovered and practiced within a context of Christian believing. People sense this when they come into a body of believers. It’s not only having good preaching, but it’s having good people too.

9M: And by that you mean…

DW: By that I mean people around this preached Word who have bowed before Christ, who accept his lordship, who love one another in consequence, who’ve placed his righteousness first, who seek these things above all else, who strengthen each other, who pray for each other, who care for the world, who are concerned about injustices outside the church door. When outsiders walk into a church or have been there for very long, they sense whether all of these things are there or not.

9M: The verse that I hear far and away most often from members of the church growth movement comes from Paul when he says, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law…so as to win those under the law” (1 Cor. 9:20). Is this verse being used rightly?

DW: I would say that this verse is talking about behavioral adaptations and not adaptations in belief and truth content.

9M: So this would mean something like, dressing more like the community that you’re trying to reach?

DW: That I would say you ought to do. Missionaries face this all the time. Missionaries have to make adaptations first of all in their behavior. If you’re living in a part of the world that doesn’t have electricity, you follow the rhythms of day and night in a way that one doesn’t in the West. In the West, we can work long hours at night. But in some places you basically go to bed when the sun goes down and get up when the sun rises. If you’re a missionary, that is an adaptation you make.

You can also make adaptations in dress. Sometimes when I’m in Africa I dress in African dress.

You also adapt as a missionary to the people in terms of empathy. You try to enter into their lives so that you can understand their fears. You may not believe that the source of those fears is real. For example, in parts of the world people are very worried about spirits that lurk in trees, rocks, fields, and so forth. As a missionary, you don’t worry about such spirits. But you can certainly enter into their fears so that you can better understand how they are looking at their world.

But the one place where you absolutely cannot adapt is in terms of the message you are bringing. If you adapt there, your mission is over.

And the same is true in our Western context, which is increasingly a missionary context. By all means, let us make these other adaptations. But we cannot adapt to a postmodern skepticism about the reality of truth, or about our ability to discover the truth. I acknowledge that we must recognize our sinfulness, our biases, and our blind spots; we have to check each other in terms of our understanding of the truth of Scripture. But at the end of the day, we have to say—as we hear many times in Scripture—that we are convinced of this truth that God has given us. And this truth corresponds to what is actually there in reality. Yes, God is always so much greater and more awesome than anything that I can think, yet I’m also confident that when I die he’s not going to be other than what he has revealed himself to be. I know this truth; I have it in Scripture. And that is the thing that cannot be yielded.

9M: You mentioned the idea of being a missionary in a foreign culture where people believe in spirits in rocks and trees, and not entering into that fear or belief, yet addressing people where they are at. How do we do that in a culture in which people are looking for therapy? In your books you have helpfully criticized a therapeutic gospel. But as I recently heard you say, “how people are feeling has become a relentless part of our self-consciousness.” So how do we address people with the gospel as they are looking for therapy?

DW: Let me go back to this matter of spirits, which is a very real and deep fear in other parts of the world. We here in the West don’t have that fear because we don’t believe in those kinds of spirits. But I have found that for those who do, nothing is more liberating than understanding that, at the cross, Christ disarmed the powers of darkness. The conquest motif gives you a doorway, or point of connection, with such people. Then you move on to consider the other biblical metaphors for what Christ’s death accomplished. As you’re explaining the gospel, you then ask, “Why do we need to be liberated from the hold of these powers of darkness? It is because of sin.” Then you go to justification.

I would say that the parallel for us in the West is not our fear of spirits, but the oppressiveness of an empty and meaningless life. That’s probably our point of entry in the West. There is no question that living in Western societies, and not the least in America, is very, very difficult. We tend to think that because we have so many opportunities, consumer goods, and everything else we want that life is easy. And certainly it’s easier in some respects than for people who scratch for their food every day. Our challenge is not so much physical—food, safety, disease—it’s psychological. It’s inward, because of the difficulties of living in this culture.

We live with levels of stress, anxiety, and depression that are unprecedented. All of us struggle with not being connected, whether to our families or to a place because we move around. We may have proximity to people but are oftentimes without good or close relationships. All of these things take their toll upon us. And we cannot say, “This is not real.” It is real. That’s why the relentless question that haunts us all the time is, “How am I feeling?”

So I’m not opposed to therapeutic questions. The problem is, over the last number of decades we have moved from inhabiting a moral world to inhabiting a psychological world. When we encounter difficulties, therefore, we tend to look for a psychological technique that will address them.

Now I’m not saying that there aren’t some techniques that can help us with anxiety and stress. Some people have found, for example, that if they stop every two or three hours, get up, walk outside, and breathe fresh air, it helps a little.

But this doesn’t help them with the most fundamental questions. There is something worse than feeling bad; it is being bad. Our most fundamental questions are the moral ones, because our most fundamental relationship is how we relate to God in his character. So, though there might be remedial help for these pangs that we feel, the basic help that we need does not come from psychologists as psychologists. It should come from preachers who deliver the Word of God to us. It should come from God’s truth, because God’s truth can align the different parts of our life.

9M: So to summarize what you’re saying for the local church preacher, “Show sensitivity to the alienation, the inner angst, the emotional turmoil people feel; yet use all these to segue to the Word of God and the more fundamental measurement of their relationship to him.”

DW: Exactly. We have to learn how to be men and women of God not in a prior age, not in a context that’s easier, but in our own context. This is where we have to live. This is the time that God has given us. It’s the only time that God has given us. So we have to learn how to do it, or it won’t get done at all.

9M: Given today’s particular circumstances and societal challenges, what do you perceive as some of the principal challenges to the church in our time for maintaining a right understanding of the gospel—from within the church and without?

DW: I believe that the evangelical world is in a transitional time. The older evangelical coalition is running out of steam, and new approaches are emerging. The nice thing about habits is that you don’t have to think. If you drive the same route to work, you don’t think about it. But once these things fall apart all kinds of questions open up. Given declining biblical literacy, given the declining place of expository preaching in the church, the evangelical movement will find more and more live questions and less and less biblical capital from which to respond to those questions. This means that the evangelical movement will find itself in more and more trouble. I see that as a major trouble from within.

From without, I can only see an ever greater acceleration of what we experience. Globalization is a reality. As goods, information, people, drugs, and body parts move across national boundaries, it’s as if they don’t exist. What this does is bring to us and everyone else more and more knowledge of other people, other places, other religions, other lifestyles—all of which makes relativism an inevitability. And the church is going to have real trouble sustaining its belief in the uniqueness of Christ.

9M: I agree with where we are and where we’re headed. But isn’t this also exciting? It sounds more like the world of the New Testament. And I have no lack of confidence in the gospel’s power to acquit itself. I realize that this may mean millions of families in the West that thought of themselves as Christian families of the second and third generations never were. But I can imagine that beyond nominalism is a very exciting array of witnesses to the truth of the gospel in the churches that God will raise up.

DW: I think this is right. What happens when a society or significant part of it remains in the habit of going to church, which is still the case today in the American South? Evangelicals get into the habit of thinking in certain ways. So people go to church simply because they’ve always gone to church. And habits of thought are sustained simply because they’ve always been thought.

What a new context does is to call everything into question. So it cuts both ways. I mentioned the negatives because you asked for the problems and challenges. But the other side to it is that we have many opportunities that are opening up—and without this confusing factor of nominal Christians. After all, the evangelical world has produced its own set of nominal Christians.

9M: You have often talked about secularization and secularism—secularization being a cultural process that we’re all a part of; secularism being the relatively rare, post-enlightenment philosophy of “there is only this age.” I believe there’s an analogy to be made for Christianity, particularly when it embraces the majority of people in a culture. In parts of American culture, there has been an “evangelicalization” that has involved many. It may be morally disjointed and not uniform, but it’s real. As this process falls apart, however, it becomes clear that perhaps most of those people who’ve been involved in the light habits and patterns of evangelicalization have not accepted the evangel itself—secularism’s opposite. They’ve simply been part of a sort of cultural movement. But again, that falling apart presents an exciting opportunity for the gospel.

DW: I think that’s right. People will come into the church and really find redemption. The difficult thing is that they will find a false redemption from more and more dark and bad things coming out of society. Our society, from a moral and spiritual point of view, is coming apart at the seams. So we are going to find people coming into the church who have been involved in Satanism and all kinds of bad things. But that also is exciting. It just means that pastors are going to have their work cut out for them.

9M: Thank you for your time.

DW: You’re certainly welcome.

David Wells

David Wells is the Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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