Church & Culture
I’ve found myself in an ongoing podcast series called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, centered on pastor Mark Driscoll and the Seattle based, now defunct megachurch called Mars Hill. This is the second post, but I recommend reading the first before you go on.
Should followers of Jesus be influenced by culture? What about the church as a whole?
What even is culture? There are a dozen definitions but as a lifelong church kid, the one I’m reflecting on today is one that was never spoken, but always implied: “Anything outside the church.” We were warned against culture and the insidious influence it could have on our morality and beliefs. We were to protect ourselves from cultural influences and stick to the Bible. We didn’t need to understand the intermediate 2000 years of church history or the world around us because we were (as non-denominational independents), uninfluenced by it.
Oh, and one more thing we didn’t speak about: the notion that we ourselves were a culture.
More on that from Mars Hill:
Episode 2 fits the founding of Mars Hill into a cascading history of white suburban culture and churches:
- 1950’s Robert Schuller preaches at a drive-in theater to people in their cars, eventually putting his Crystal Cathedral on the new streaming media of the time: television.
- 1960’s The “Jesus Movement,” along with books like, The Late, Great Planet Earth, combines the tumultuous decade with biblical prophecies to scare “the hell out of” everyone. Out of this comes something called Christian Contemporary Music which would fill my cassette collection years later.
- 1965 Calvary Chapel, Vineyard and others redeem SoCal hippy culture with Bible teaching, flowery surfer shirts, and guitar-based music.
- 1970s Jerry Falwell Sr. establishes, on either end of the seventies, Liberty University and the Moral Majority, both of which would become much more successful at influencing politics than the Jesus Movement did with music. Endorsing Reagan over Carter, Trump over Cruz, Liberty often hosts political candidates to speak at its evangelical college. 1
- 1980s Bill Hybels applies principles of business to found Willow Creek, a megachurch in Chicago. Rick Warren does market research and drops a map pin on Orange County, moves there, and launches a church catering to yuppies called Saddleback, based on a target model called “Saddleback Sam”:
At the time, each of these biblically based churches were thought of as, “counter-cultural.” In hindsight, the culture they were countering was church culture. These new movements were interacting with secular culture in a way most churches of their time were unwilling to.
Like those before him, Mark Driscoll is responding to a 1990’s moment in time by starting Mars Hill, appealing to GenX’ers disaffected by the expansive optimism of the 1980’s. His message is tuned to men, reacting to what he sees as the increasingly feminized church and country – something I’ll look at further in the next post about gender roles. One of Driscoll’s notable quotes was, “Sixty percent of Christians are chicks and the forty percent that are dudes, are still chicks.”2 Inline with other reactionaries before him, Driscoll wins back some church dropouts by making fun of other churches and movements before him.
The podcast lays most of this out, but another summary of these years comes from Brian McLaren in his fantastic book Faith After Doubt, “[from] the Jesus Movement, which overflowed and intermingled with the Charismatic movement, which in turn was absorbed by the larger Evangelical movement, which eventually was captured and co-opted by the Religious Right. And that’s where [this stage] stopped working for me.”
And that’s only the past 65 years.
And of course, there were many other, non-megachurch roads leading to the current moment in American evangelicalism, and many other highways altogether, including Protestant mainline churches, Catholicism and more. Given my background, what I’m writing today focuses specifically on Evangelicalism, which can be defined by its theological distinctives (1 or 2 or ….) but has also become increasingly associated with what might be called a political or cultural movement.
My particular thoroughfare came from an 1830’s UK movement called the Plymouth Brethren, which some credit with the common conception of “the rapture”. It was an unassuming place, focused on the Bible and may have, at an earlier time, seemed more alive. I later joined an independent church, which itself later officially (but quietly) joined the Baptist General Conference, and unofficially endorsed Reformed Theology.
Given that last point, it caught my ears when episode 6 described Reformed Theology, championed by John Piper and others, as “hitting the mainstream” around the early 2000’s. Apparently there was a widespread Young, Restless, Reformed movement that Driscoll capitalized on.3 During this same time, my church leaders went all in on Piper’s teaching and theology – his church’s vision statement heavily influencing our own. I never remember a declaration about reformed theology being “a thing;” it was more the sudden implication that we were and always had been connected to it. We were a decidedly trend-ignoring church – it was part of what made us special, almost looking down on Christian trends and books that were not at least as old as C.S. Lewis or Elton Trueblood. Were we really part of the mainstream, influenced by culture?
How did “Reformed Theology” become a fixture – a connection to the early 1500’s – at churches across America within the same decade? Why did so many pastors find biblical support for muscle-flexing masculinity a few years after movements that encouraged men to be in touch with their emotions? How do evangelicals, whose hope is in God, not human politics, suddenly all vote together on issues far outside the bible?
I find this push-pull relationship of church-culture confusing. Sometimes the church is withdrawing from culture, sometimes reacting, sometimes going all out to influence it. But in my experience the church as consistently warned against culture. Some of our churches – and certainly the “Religious Right,” seem to consider every outside entity as having an agenda (the liberal agenda, the gay agenda) and treat outside fields with distrust (science, psychology, academics). We even distrust other versions of our same faith (“Do they even read the bible at those mainline denominations?”) And culture makes a handy scapegoat for someone rethinking or leaving our churches: “It’s so sad, they’ve just given into culture and don’t even believe the Bible anymore.” (rarely considering that the doubters might have valid complaints, or that we may need to change).
Often the church “engages” culture – those people with the agenda – for the purpose of “reaching people”, like so many of the church movements mentioned above. It seems manipulative to employ culture only to give something to others, without being willing to learn from the cultures outside our own group.
So American Evangelicals build their own ostensibly better culture so that one never need leave the Christian bubble each week: Christian school, Christian books, Christian music, Christian coffee houses, Christian radio and TV, and even Christian banks (“Pray, Play, and Stay Together: Low-rate Home Loans).
In the end, and likely since the beginning, the church itself is a culture, even if it’s a culture based on disparaging culture.
And since culture changes, the next generation’s church planters will come along and react to us, denouncing culture, and starting new and different (but presumably timeless and agenda-free) organizations. And the gospel sailboat tic-tac’s along its course. (Today’s children’s read-along: top ten boats in the bible)
I’ve wondered why all this interplay between church and culture has me animatedly waving an oversized foam finger at it. Maybe I’m still recovering from what feels like a parental, “Do as I say, not as I do”. This constant warning from the church against giving in to culture, reminds me of a lyric from another culture – the Beastie Boys: “Your pop caught you smoking and he says ‘No way!’ | that hypocrite smokes two packs a day.”
Our hand was in the cultural cookie jar the entire time. Now we even have our own cookie jar filled with better-for-you Christian cookies. But as the years pass, it’s starting to feel like the sugar substitutes might be as bad as the sugar itself.
Notice though that saying, “as bad” is also saying, “as good”. The point is we are all people. Why did we think we were above the instincts and influences of others? It’s human to think of our tribe in a certain way and “others” in a different way. I wish I had figured out sooner that all the talk of “God’s chosen people” and “set apart” can still have meaning in its own spiritual way, but would never stop us from being human.
Everyone is human. Everyone cries, laughs, eats, poops, gets jealous, is proud of something and ashamed of something else. Can you laugh with someone who doesn’t share your faith?
Everyone grieves: just because we sing, “Our hope is built on nothing less” does not mean our shoulders don’t shake with heavy sobs when our loved one dies, same as you, same as anyone. Can you grieve with someone who doesn’t share your faith?
Everyone has regrets; I wish I had spent fewer years being afraid of the “world” outside the church and more time saying to supposed outsiders, “Yeah, me too.”
I’ve heard from my tribe that perfect love casts out fear, so I’m working to go in that direction.
One thing that really helped move me forward in that pursuit was hitting some stumbling blocks in life where the church’s help proved incomplete, pushing me out past my fears: looking for help, airing my doubts, wondering if I was alone. The result of this scary adventure was a gift: of finding patience, kindness, and goodness outside my specific church, where from the very culture I was meant to fear, I met others who were faithful, gentle, and self-controlled, discovering that no one group has a patent on love, joy, and peace.
The fruit of the Spirit, it seems, grows on many branches. And as we watch American evangelical christian culture wind its way through history, it’s increasingly being revealed, as Sarah Bessey says at the end of episode 5, that, “it doesn’t matter how right you are, or how right you think you are, if you aren’t embodying the fruit of the Spirit.”
Reflecting and writing on this has convicted me again of the joy of finding fruit in unexpected places, and my desire to be that fruit for others.
Thank you for journeying along with me. I have not stopped reacting to churches of my youth, and I’m increasingly aware of its influence on my view of God, and the way I hear stories like the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Lately I’ve found myself asking about the historical context and influence of culture on my protestant forebears. It turns out that everyone in this timeless story – Driscoll, Luther, Calvin, Schuller, Hybels, Warren, the churches that I was born into, the churches I adulted in, and me myself and I, were all changing through history, reacting to and influenced by the surrounding culture.
And if we look at the stopover points in history honestly enough, we may find ourselves thankful for that. Raise your hand if you want the American church to stop right where it is and never change again.
Yeah, didn’t think so.
Then why are we so afraid of change? Why are we so afraid of learning from those “outside” of us? The Gospel is bigger than that, and its news will continue to be good.
Next week I’ll dare to dig deeper into the gender roles at Mars Hill.
♦ weekendswell ♦
Featured Image is a Seattle photo by WeekendSwell
1Falwell Sr and Jr’s journey, including political influence, is detailed in a different podcast series that’s less thoughtful and more salacious but equally hard to stop listening to called, “In God We Lust”
2 A 2020 Christianity Today article titled, “Making Your Church Manlier Won’t Make It Bigger, provides some counterpoints to Driscoll’s claims and approach.
3 Never mind that Driscoll, after leaving Mars Hill, would reportedly dismiss Reformed Theology altogether as, “garbage” and blast its followers as “little boys with father wounds.”