By Joe Boyd
I am asked often to speak or write about church and culture. So much now that those two words seem to go together in a very natural way when I say them. I wonder what we really mean, though, when we talk about the church relating to culture.
Many of us who have worked to figure this out over the last two or three decades have moved beyond those early discussions about worship style and seeker sensitivity. I am blessed to be able to speak at a variety of churches in America and there is, without a doubt, a new normal—at least in the churches of the subset of Christianity I tend to frequent.
I’ve learned always to wear jeans. I don’t even ask anymore. There is most always a musical style that includes guitars and drums and close-to-popular-but-not-quite soft rock arrangements of spiritual love songs. Everything is branded, often on par with Madison Avenue. (This is genuinely remarkable since the church marketers are branding new ideas every single week.) There are HD video screens displaying timely announcements, professional graphic art, and occasionally some legitimately funny comedy bits.
And then I’m asked to talk—usually filling in for a friend who normally has the week-to-week gig.
I know how to do the talking thing. I tell some stories, make some analogies, and give some practical advice. People tend to listen and laugh and learn. I make them feel a bit uncomfortable, but give them hope in the end. Then we pray or sing ourselves out the door. In the best churches, these weekend events propel us onto genuine community and service.
I am not minimizing this model, though it may seem so. This wasn’t normal 25 years ago. Many church services in the late 1980s and early ’90s were culturally out of touch. The result was that most everyone not regularly attending a church assumed that God and the Bible were also boring, irrelevant, and antiquated. For better or worse, I am one of the ones who helped make the modern church the way it is today.
This “new normal” kind of church meeting fills a great need for a great many people. In general, the church is now culturally compatible with postmodern America, if that means that when you walk into a church service you feel like you are still living in the same culture and same decade. We brought the culture in, sanitized it to our liking, and used it for our purposes.
So what now?
I’d like to propose two questions. This is less of a passive-aggressive way to prove some point (though don’t put that past me) than a genuine admission that I don’t have the answers, just some hunches. I do believe, in general, as a church we can tend to ask the wrong questions and fixate on secondary issues.
Here are the big two questions I think deserve our time and energy today:
Have we overcorrected within the church?
As a young pastor in my 20s, I aggressively fought for radical change in our methodology under the banner of mission. (Early on this was simply trying to get drums on the stage and loosen the informal dress code.) Many older Christian leaders mounted a fight to keep some traditions alive, but in the end it appears their arguments did not hold up. We cried “mission” with evangelistic, youthful fervor. Many of the older generation cried “tradition” for the sake of sentimentality.
Mission tends to trump sentimentality. We forced old ladies to wear earplugs and listen to, upon reflection, some pretty bad music. By and large, we didn’t admirably win the war. I’d do that whole thing differently if I had the chance.
I still believe mission should trump sentimentality, but now I find myself with two new problems. The first is we (the change agents) are getting older. I’m 41 now. If you’re older than me, that sounds young. But it’s officially “old” to anyone younger than me—trust me. There are times I sit through a modern worship service and would give my kingdom for a hymn, or at least something written before I was born. But that is my own sentimentality catching up to me. I am still willing to sacrifice personal preference so long as the larger mission is accomplished.
The real problem is that I’m not sure our mission is being accomplished this way anymore. Our churches are losing people younger than me at an alarming rate. I have a theory based upon dozens of conversations with younger people who no longer attend church that we may have culturally overcorrected within our church services.
I’ve had people in their 20s tell me they don’t go to church because it is “cheesy,” “overproduced” and—the real kicker—“no different than the rest of the culture.” (These young people are talking about church experiences most of us think are cool and relevant, by the way.) They tell me they want something rooted in history with more mystery and less hype. I’ve been told that our slick branding and marketing are major turnoffs. They want to experience church in a way that helps them escape media and connect with God. (Their words, not mine.)
I am not a professional pastor anymore, but if I were this would be first on my list to address. I worry we’ve made the classic historical error of overcorrecting. I’m not sure what to do about it, but the first step is realizing there is a problem.
What are we really doing outside of the church to affect culture?
According to Klout, a company that tracks actual influence on the web, here are the most influential people in America: Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Oprah Winfrey, Ryan Seacrest, Stephen Colbert, Ellen Degeneres, and Perez Hilton.
Typically, as Christians, we would look at the above list and bemoan the downfall of society. If you need a few moments to do that, go ahead. Let me know when you’re finished . . . I will wait for you.
OK, let’s be honest. This shouldn’t surprise us. Had this list existed in decades past it would have included names like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon. In America, pop culture is culture. Nine of the top 10 on this list are performers and hosts. One (Perez Hilton) is a celebrity blogger who generally writes about the other nine. (Reality TV stars and socialites Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian are numbers 11 and 12, by the way.)
Here’s the pill you need to swallow: whatever these 10 people can agree on will be what the vast majority of America believes 10 years from now.
The church must accept the fact that entertainment creates American culture. Take the list of influencers to the top 100 or top 1,000 and you will see a handful of politicians, CEOs, academicians, and clergy—but the overwhelming reality is our culture is created by our entertainment professionals. Therefore, we as Christians must be in the entertainment business.
This is why I left a successful job as a pastor in an influential church to create entertainment. Again, the mission compelled me. I spend my days now creating feature films, television programs, stage shows, web videos, blogging sites, and commercial videos. It may be the most competitive, backbiting, and godless industry in America.
Some people who don’t know any better think it’s glamorous. It can be a lot of fun, but it’s a daily grind to claim even the smallest corner of pop culture real estate. I do it because it is my calling.
Not every pastor should quit vocational ministry to do entertainment. (Though a few more probably should.) I would say that once and for all we should clearly tell the next generation that desiring to work in entertainment is a noble thing. Sure, it feeds on your ego and pride, but from my experience not nearly as much as being a pastor.
I’d love to do an altar call at a youth conference sometime for kids to devote their lives to “full-time nonvocational ministry.” And I’d be thrilled if half of them wanted to be rock stars, actors, and reality TV producers. (This is probably why my speaking engagements to teenagers are limited.)
The culture changes over time by telling an alternative story. That’s the only way culture changes. If we want a voice in the future of America, we must tell better stories in the places where people already go to get their stories.
These two questions are foundational and deserve more time to process. They also deserve more voices than my own. I hope you wrestle with them in your local context. If and when you find the answers, I’m ready to follow you.
Until then, I will be doing the holy work of fighting for the right to entertain America.
Joe Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is executive producer of feature films, A Strange Brand of Happy (2013) and Hope Bridge (Fall 2014). He is also founder and contributor of rebelstorytellers.com.
Hear Joe Boyd talk about culture change in the next Beyond the Standard BlogTalkRadio interview, Thursday, October 23, 11 a.m. Eastern. Info here: http://bit.ly/1vUfLqW.