pop goes the church

I just started reading a new book titled Pop Goes the Church. It was written by Tim Stevens who is a pastor at Granger Community Church in Indiana, one of the few churches I’ve heard about lately that I actually get excited about because they seem to be connecting people living in our (constantly-changing) media culture with God’s story of hope, love and forgiveness (things that never change) in meaningful ways by engaging pop culture. I don’t mean this to be a critique of most other churches I hear or know about – well maybe I do, but only a little – but I’d like to focus on what is going on here that I think is good. I find hope in the realization that there is a pastor and a church that are passionate about some of the same things as me. Stevens and Granger Community Church seem to share my vision of a church where the “texts” of pop culture (music, movies, tv shows, etc.) are discussed alongside the biblical text — even on Sunday morning during the sermon — without compromising or watering down the message as a result.

Here’s a sample of how Stevens thinks from the introduction of his book…

If Jesus physically entered twenty-first century America, I believe he would do much as he did in the first century. He would hang out with normal people in the real world, and he would reserve his strongest words for the entrenched religious leaders who love their traditions more than they love their people. He would leverage the culture. He would read our books, go to our movies, watch our TV shows, look at our magazines, and surf the internet so that he could better understand our culture. I believe he would look for themes in our popular culture that would help him make a connection between the topics that had our attention and the kingdom life he was offering. He would be encouraged by the lyrics in some of today’s mainstream music. He would see honest searching in the words, and he would use those lyrics to reach and penetrate hearts.

I think, that just as he did in the first century, Jesus would disciple a small team of leaders while at the same time looking for opportunities to attract and influence large crowds. And when those crowds gathered, he would draw upon what he had learned about our popular culture and would use illustrations, props, and analogies that would connect his love to our hearts.

I believe that is what Jesus did and that is what he would do, and I believe he expects no less from us.

I could not agree more with this or have written it any better. I believe that what Stevens is saying is important and true for not only the church and people of faith, but also for the world (inside the church, outside the church, everywhere), and I want to thank him for expressing this so well. Perhaps others do not agree with Tim Stevens, or with me. Maybe you think that letting the values and behavior expressed in contemporary pop culture will corrupt the church (and Christians) to the point where we will erode into some form of moral relativism (not knowing what is right anymore, because everything seems to be alright). I know for a fact that many people feel this way because I have had conversations and received emails from people who thinks this way. The last thing I want to do is keep anyone out of this conversation or make it sound like I don’t agree with them (I actually think there’s some validity in what they’re saying and their opinions should be heard by people like me and Stevens as a legitimate warning/caution), but before anyone jumps all over this with harsh criticism let me first clarify some things.

This is more than just a conversation about whether or not media should be used in churches. It’s less about churches having video screens and projectors in their sanctuaries and more about how they use them. Yet it’s not even about video screens and movie clips during sermons, it’s about pastors and ministry leaders reimagining their ideas of what it means to be the church in a media world. That’s why I think pastors and churches should use wisdom to discern how to most effectively incorporate pop culture into their ministry. It is not good enough to simply force connections between faith and culture, as if it’s a fool-proof equation (pop culture + church = good). I would have a difficult time convincing anyone that there was a meaningful connection between Jesus saying “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) with the movie Dude Where’s My Car, or that the Apostle Paul’s suggestion to “consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3) was somehow illustrated in The Big Lebowski, but I can see a powerful example of someone loving others as himself in Patch Adams or selflessly considering others better than themself in Good Will Hunting (coincidentally, the characters I’m thinking of from each of those movies are played by Robin Williams).

What I’m trying to make clear is that not any/every thing from pop culture will be appropriate or effective in communicating the Gospel. In fact, there are some topics or themes where using illustrations from pop culture might even insult or take away from the message. For instance, when I preached at Journey a few months ago about Jesus washing his disciples feet – and then calling them (and us) to serve each other in the same way – I did not use any clips from a movie, lyrics from a song or even a touching story from the newspaper (although I considered examples of each). I chose to give an old fashioned “no frills” sermon because none of the pop culture references or examples would have added anything to the message. Any examples I could have used from pop culture would have been merely an imitation of the original; but Jesus washing his disciples feet along with a few verses of laying down his life for us? That’s a powerful witness and example of what it means to be a servant.

Sorry I started asking for your thoughts and then went on for a few more paragraphs. I really would like to hear what people think about all this. Leave a comment if you have something to say.

16 thoughts on “pop goes the church

  1. I know this isn’t going to come out quite right, but I find it a little difficult to picture Jesus needing to surf the Internet or do other similar research to learn about our culture so He could speak to it effectively. Remember, He grew up in His culture. Hard to think He’d do it any different today unless, of course, we’re talking about His second coming which makes the discussion moot.

  2. I think as God’s children we will always be child-like in the sense that if you tell us “don’t” our knee-jerk reaction is “do”. I think if the church continues to say “don’t let pop culture mix with ministry” then people of our generation (and others) are going inevitably to seek out this seemingly forbidden pop-culture, and it will end in a loss for the church. So if the church thinks pop culture will weaken it and thus say, “don’t go there”, it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that God’s ever curious “children” are going to go find out what all the fuss is about. If you tell me don’t do it or it can’t be done, I’m most likely going turn on my heel and holler over my shoulder, “Oh yeah? Watch this!” in delighted defiance.

    For a long time I listened to the church about pop culture or contemporary worship, the ultimate curse words in every uber-traditional minister’s vocabulary, and agreed that it was “not good” and the message was “lost”; therefore pop culture had no place in the church. After a while I began to feel like I had no place in church, either, as my faith and my culture(s) collided. The ensuing crack between the culture I live in and my faith widened into a canyon with me on one side and God on the other. Those feelings of painful separation and emptiness did not begin to mend themselves until I was brought to churches that seemed to minister my faith in harmony with the culture I live in, which is why I cling so dearly to them. I don’t need an organist, a choir and a dry 30 minute regurgitation of Scripture passages to worship God, but I do need to feel that I can come and worship as I am and find new ways to walk with Him every day of my life wherever my life may take me, even if I have to walk on my hands to get there.

    Does that make sense or do I need another cup of coffee?

  3. Sara,

    I can certainly understand how you feel. While many churches don’t even try to make the attempt to speak to today’s culture, there are many that do. However, it can be a delicate balancing act because there are actually many different cultures to speak to. This is a big reason why larger churches tend to have different services to try to appeal to the different audiences. I can also understand your feelings about the value of the messages that you may hear in the churches, but to associate the word ‘regurgitation’ with Scripture goes a little far out there for me. No matter what you’re looking for, if Scripture isn’t a major part of it, then it there is nothing to prevent you from missing Jesus’ message and veering off into some serious error.

  4. I’m certainly not disagreeing that Scripture is essential to ministry. I would be a more than a little nervous if the pastor announced that instead of talking about the Wedding at Canaan, s/he was going to play a 20 minute clip of “The Newlyweds” (it’s fish, Jess, it’s fish). I’ve had one or both parents working in the church my entire life; I’m well aware of how it works. I’ve taken my fair share of Theology courses as well. I simply don’t see an issue with the church embracing more progressive approaches to help bridge the gap between Sunday & the rest of the week when necessary and appropriate. Sometimes a little pop-culture helps tie it all together – sometimes you don’t need it – Andy’s sermon didn’t need any “frills” yet he still managed to bridge that gap.

    There are a lot of churches that attempt different services, which is great, if you live in a metro area and/or know where to find them. However I still know so many people my age who still feel that disconnect to the church and reluctance to reconnect. And I can’t say I blame them – it has taken me nine years to find a church where I feel somewhat comfortable and I’m still not entirely sure I’m in the right place yet. Never fear – I shall not go veering off any cliffs in my search.

    My apologies if any of the words I’ve used crossed any lines. It certainly was not my intention to offend.

  5. It is important to note that if Jesus was in the 21st century, his mindset would not have changed since his theological and moral views were not subjective, but based on a) Natural law and b) Divine Revelation.

    Certain objective beliefs preclude one’s desire to act in certain ways.

    For instance: Jesus would not be getting freaky in the club, trying to get laid with his “new haircut.” Even though this is popular these days among people with a completely different moral interpretation, popularity does not equal righteousness, unless you are a utilitarian. Clearly Jesus was not.

    While Jesus did have a desire to understand the common person, he did not conform their moral interpretations, but instead, brought them to understand and act upon his moral interpretations. Therefore, while you may have found him in the club, you would not have found him there “getting freaky” but persuading people to spend tomorrow with him doing something more in line with his understanding of moral truth.

  6. On a note more related to the article: one of the first things that they teach in Criminal Law is the difference between acts that are Malum In Se (acts that are bad in themselves) or Malum Prohibitum ( acts that are bad because society has deemed them so)

    For instance, driving down the left side of a road is not bad in itself. It is only bad here in the U.S. because society has agreed that we will drive on the right side for the sake of convenience.

    This strongly relates to the evolution of the church… for instance if I were to go back in time and blast rock in roll in a 12th century church, I would be chased out of town. This would be analogous to driving on the left side of the road. It goes the other way though too… A church can continue down the right side of the road, when the rest of the world has switched to the left. A lot of traditional churches take heat for this on a regular basis.

    This goes along with pop culture though, too. A large part of our pop culture is not “malum in se” but is made bad by the actors themselves. For instance, modern music is not bad in itself, but a lot of the attitudes and lyrics that come with it are. Drinking alcohol is not bad in itself, wasting away the mind is. Having children isn’t bad in itself, but bringing children into an inadequate environment is.

    So I think Stevens is right. Why would Jesus drive on the wrong side of traffic? Unless Stevens is suggesting that Jesus would advocate vulgar music lyrics and 6 or 7 shots of communion in church, I can’t see how he is wrong.

  7. I’m almost half way through the book now, and in the chapter I was reading earlier tonight Stevens wrote something that I think might help clear up some confusion. This is from pages 74-75,

    Jesus often communicated that it’s not primarily about what you do or don’t do. It is not about lists. It’s about your heart…

    Many things in the Bible are black and white; they are indisputably wrong, such as having sex with your friends’ wife. However, is an R-rated movie wrong to see? Is it wrong for a Christian to watch Desperate Housewives? Should you listen to a song that contains profanity? I don’t know. Maybe for you it is okay. Maybe for me it is a sin.* What’s in your heart? Where does that activity take your mind?

    * I’m not talking about a Gospel of relativism. The bible is our final authority, but Romans 14 clearly indicates there might be activities that are okay for one Christian and wrong for another.

  8. I would agree with that.

    I would say that a person who listens to a song with profanity with a good heart for the purpose of gaining a greater understanding is better than a person who helps an old lady across the street for the mere purpose of making himself look pious to others.

  9. But just to elaborate my thoughts on your last comment a little:
    Those indisputably wrong acts are based in the natural law, which is a product of creation itself. Stevens’ assertion leaves the realm of the natural law and enters the realm of divine positive law, in this case interpreted through the conscience.

    The law of the conscience is by no means universal but it is there for a reason. If it tells you something you are wrong not to listen.

    On the other hand, if there is nothing naturally wrong with an action, and the conscience remains quiet, there is no point in fretting over whether an act is right or wrong because the decision was made in good faith.

    What do you think? Am I on the right track with this?

  10. Paul teaches us that yes, as Christians we do have a lot of freedom, but that freedom doesn’t mean license. In addition, the admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves should cause us not to flaunt our freedoms in front of our neighbors if it could cause them to stumble. The truth is, freedom brings with it great responsibility.

  11. For anyone reading along, it’s worth noting that there are two Pauls speaking into this conversation. The Apostle Paul (who wrote Romans 14, — among many other sections of the New Testament — and whom christiangadfly is talking about above) and Paul from Minnesota (who has written a few comments above). Surprisingly, they are not the same person.

    In response to Minnesota Paul’s last comment: Martin Luther talks about there being two uses of “the Law.” The first is the Civil/Political use, which includes things like speed limits and obeying stop signs. The law in this sense is a gift from God in that it limits sin and promotes common good. The second use is Theological, and the Law in this sense has the purpose of illuminating our sins so that we are aware of how much we need God’s grace (so it serves the purpose of showing us that we are sinful and not capable of saving ourselves, then pointing us to God, to faith, as the way). Calvin’s understanding of the Law is a bit different (he adds a third use), but you can look that up online if you want to read more.

    In response to christiangadly and the Apostle Paul’s words (especially Romans 14 and also Galatians): Yes, I agree that freedom comes with great responsibility, but I also think freedom is actually free and free-ing. In Galatians 5, Paul talks about it being “for freedom that Christ set us free.” It doesn’t say anything about Christ setting us free to do or not do specific things, but it says that it is for freedom that we have been set free. Living in a way that shows love to our neighbors and points others to Christ’s hope, love and grace (somehow or someway, not necessarily through outward and blatant evangelism) is something we are free to do, but if we do this out of a perceived obligation or requirement, it will never be genuine (it will never be freely-given love).

    But I agree with pretty much everything that’s been commented on here, and I think it’s interesting that a post on whether or not it’s a good idea to engage pop culture in ministry/faith is what brought all of it out. The reality of it is, just having this conversation on a blog answers that question (since a blog is actually part of the new wave in communication and information sharing in pop culture).

    If others are reading along, what do you think?

  12. I’ve been thinking about this for several days and wanted to make sure I knew what I wanted to say before I wrote anything. I’ve been trying to think about how this discussion relates to what I have experienced in the church and here’s what I’ve come up with.

    I think that as long as the central message of the Gospel is present, weaving elements of pop culture into worship and ministry can be a very positive thing. It enables us as Christians and the church as a whole to meet people where they are. Also, just because something is dubbed “popular” doesn’t mean that it can’t have a godly message. (Check out the music of Jon McLaughlin if you want a really great example of this. He’s a mainstream artist who keeps his faith at the heart of his message, even though his songs aren’t overtly “Christian”.) Our culture is part of who we are and influences us and the way we choose to live our lives. Certainly, not all elements of popular culture are ones that need to be or should be embraced by Christians, but even if we do not engage those elements, our culture is still impacting our choices. I think it is important to understand how pop culture can be used to further the Gospel and how we might be able to use it to strengthen our witness for Jesus Christ.

    One thing I think we need to be careful of, however, is not falling into the trap of thinking that our own attitudes and opinions about pop culture in the church (or any issue, really) are the best thing and that anyone else who thinks otherwise is wrong or isn’t as good as us. For example, the church I currently attend has 1 contemporary and 3 traditional services on Sunday mornings. The contemporary service meets in what is essentially the gym at the same time as one of the traditional services. The sermon is simulcast from the sanctuary, where the preacher always is, but all the church members are hearing the exact same message. I attend the contemporary service and really appreciate the community and worship atmosphere that I find there. What is disheartening to me though, is that through interactions with some of the other parishoners I’ve met and even through the words of the senior pastor, I have come to feel like the people who attend the contemporary service are sort of “second class citizens” within our own church! I can give an example from just this past Sunday, actually. I am also a member of the church orchestra and we play in the traditional services once a month. I was listening to our senior pastor talk about some of the service time changes that we are going to make in the next few months and how they will be beneficial in reaching a broader base of people and allow more time for worship so we don’t have to feel like we need to rush through the service, sermon etc., all of which are great things. Then he said this: “…and I’ve even committed to preach live over in the contemporary service once a month,” like this was a huge sacrifice that he was making and that he was going to come down to our level and actually appear in front of us, rather than always having us watch the sermon on the screen. He also called our service “edgy”, a word that I think has negative connotations to a lot of people. Maybe it was his tone of voice more than anything, but I was genuinely hurt by his comments and his implication that traditional worship is best way to go. Just because our service has different styles of songs and a little different format doesn’t mean that it is any less worshipful or that we are any less connected to God! Personally, I appreciate and see the value in both types of worship. (Just to clarify, I really do love my church. The messages are Biblically based, the congregation is missions focused and passionate about spreading the Gospel.) I guess what I am really trying to say is that we need to be careful that discussions about what may or may not strengthen/weaken the church actually weaken the church and damage the unity of the body of Christ. Healthy discussion is definitely good, but we can’t let our own biases and prejudices close us off from actually listening and giving new ideas a chance. We need to always remember that what we find brings us closer to God and helps us understand His will and His word may not be that for everyone. My faith journey is not the same as anyone elses who is reading this, so I can’t expect that what resonates with me is best for everyone else just because it resonates with me. I believe that God can reach down and speak to people using whatever medium He chooses. It’s not up to us to judge the methods He uses to speak to us. Ultimately, He’s drawing us closer to Him and helping us understand the sacrifice He’s made for us by sending us Jesus. Isn’t that the most important thing anyway?

  13. Kelly,

    If I may, although I’m probably the old fogey in this thread, I’ve seen and experienced many of these same kinds of issues throughout my life. As a teenager I was deeply involved in what was then known as the Charismatic Renewal that was taking place in the late 60’s. At any rate, what I want to offer is the possibility that your senior pastor may not have meant any slight? Sometimes we do indeed have communication issues because the speaker doesn’t understand, and sometimes because the hearer doesn’t understand.

    I can’t help but equate this with the ongoing argument between the emerging/emergent church and the more traditional church. While I have serious issues with both groups, I see a lot of the arguments are over what various words mean. I even see many examples where the two sides are basically saying the same thing, but using different words to say it. What I don’t see is a lot of effort from either side to try to agree to common definitions so there can be a true conversation.

    So, my question to you would be, was your pastor being intentionally demeaning, or is that what you expected, so that is what you heard?

  14. Sorry, I didn’t mean to make it sound like my pastor was being intentionally demeaning. He wasn’t. I think what christiangadfly is getting at is that maybe I allowed my own biases to twist what he said to fit my attitudes. I’m going to defend myself on this one by saying that I really WASN’T expecting to hear him say something like that, so that’s why it was hurtful to me. As I wrote above, I appreciate and see the value both in traditional and contemporary worship and in fact, my favorite type of service to attend is one that incorporates elements from both styles. I used that experience as my example because I think it illustrates that we need to watch our words and our actions carefully. If he had simply said something like, “one additional change we’ll be making is that I will be preaching live in the contemporary service at least once a month” it would have been fine and I would have been excited by the announcement, rather than slightly offended. Of course, my pastor is human just like anyone else, so he’s not perfect and I’m delighted that he and other leaders at the church are trying to make changes that will bring God’s message to a greater number of people. I also appreciate that he recognizes that not everyone worships the same way and wants to have our church offer a variety of opportunities for people to further their relationship with Christ. I think this was just a case of his own personal preference coming out when he maybe wasn’t intending it to. In any case, it’s always good to have a reminder every once in awhile that what we say and do DOES have an impact on people and that becomes part of how they see us living the Christian life.

  15. I think this conversation is good because it does point out a very important point, which is that it is very easy to come to wrong conclusions simply through misunderstanding the use of a word or group of words. It is even easier through the written medium since there is no immediate means of providing a deeper explanation. We have, through the years, become very sloppy in our use of language, particularly English. Most other languages are much more specific in the meanings of their words, while English can have contradictory meanings for the same word. It is, I think, very important, as we try to continue open communications, to remember that words are important, and unless we define our words the same, no real communication or conversation can take place. All we’re doing is talking at each other.

  16. I have purposely not posted anything new since last week because I wanted to let people read, write and reflect on the conversation that began in response to the topic of churches engaging pop culture. I finished the book today and wrote a brief book review. If anyone would like to read the review, please email me (andy@anewdoxology.com) and I’ll send it to you.

    [Note: I played around with the numbers and found that the original entry (above) was only just over 1,000 words, while the comments in response to the entry (and in response to other comments) totaled over 3,600 words. I thought that was pretty cool. Thanks to everyone who contributed. If anyone has something they still want to share, please share…that’s the beauty of the internet/blogs, this is going to be here for a long time.]

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