By Jonathan Foster
In the Colorado Rockies a couple of years ago while hiking with my then seven year-old son, we found ourselves in the middle of a stream trying to navigate our way back to our family. At one point our trail divided with one way being noticeably more difficult to hike than the other. I asked my boy which way we should go. Not hesitating, his eyes lit up as he pointed toward the more demanding path and said with confidence, “This way, ‘cuz it’s harder!”
I’ve been on a different kind of hiking trip the past couple of years. After a long stint in church-planting I arrived at a point where the path was divided.
Though I’m still unsure of whether I chose the harder or easier way, the path I chose was in a direction away from an intense local church ministry and more in a direction where I’ve spent time (not like as in “did time”) in lots of different churches preaching or leading worship. These churches range in size from the modest to the mega. All of them have good, well-intentioned people. All of them are effective in one way or another. Many of them are very similar to the kinds of churches that I have planted in that they are very contemporary. As I’m beginning to notice some common denominators I thought I would mention one. I will simply tell you what I see and hear. Believe me, this is not directed at any one church or denomination. I hope this isn’t judgmental. I hope it is making a judgment. (There is a difference. Not to suggest that I’ve never been judgmental!)
Bottom line: The more churches I visit the more I realize we are less and less wrestling with heart-formation and more and more obsessing over how to market ourselves.
The Medium is the Message
In his prescient observation of media and culture over 40 years ago, Marshal McLuhan appropriately coined the phrase, “the medium is the message”. In other words, the way in which something is communicated says as much or more than what is being communicated. The way many growing, contemporary churches are communicating (i.e. stunning graphics, upbeat bands, hip clothes, awesome productions, etc…) says that church should be relevant, that the gospel should be contemporary and contextualized.
I’m a proponent of being a student of the culture. I think great effort should be made to come up with a medium that contextualizes. I get that. I’m on board. But the scales are in danger of being tipped. Over-contextualizing leads to positioning, posturing and marketing. I don’t think that’s the business we’re in. I’m left in some cases to wonder whether we have decided that the strategy to reach our media-savvy generation revolves around packaging a cool, hip religious experience rather than life transformation through Jesus Christ.
Why Market a Cool, Hip Religious Experience?
Possible answer one: So, we can emulate the cool, hip, and successful churches… which, of course, is nauseating. (Both the emulating and the jagged pill-of-a-word, “successful”.) Success seduces. Caught up in accomplishment it becomes nearly as difficult for us to discern our errors as it is for a bird to discover impurities in the air that it flies in. We fly faster and faster while we slowly choke on the pollution of our hearts… our motives… our agendas.
Possible answer two: So, that the world thinks we’re normal. We seem to have the perspective that if we’re cool, trendy and ultra-relevant then the world might want to be like us. This is, of course, seriously misguided.
Possible answer three: We’re unsure how to communicate about deep issues such as holiness. The simple introduction of the word evokes all kinds of different responses. (i.e. You mean sanctification? Rules? Perfection? A continual growth toward God or your one timer? American Holiness or Wesleyan? Etc, etc…) And so we’re skittish to even discuss it.
Possible answer four, closely related to number three: It’s easier to package some microwavable, anecdotal information than it is to wade into the mystery of heart-formation . And that’s what this pursuit of Jesus often is, a mystery. It doesn’t happen overnight, which doesn’t make it particularly easy to package. It’s really not systematic, despite lots of classes with the word systematic attached to the description. The truth is, at times it feels less like aiming at an actual clear target and more like swinging at something under water. How do you market that?
The Long Apprenticeship of Holiness
Here’s what Eugene Peterson says, “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”
The long apprenticeship of holiness is the cure to our self-aggrandizement. The long apprenticeship of holiness collides with us at the corner of image-management and who we really are. It redirects our attention away from the external, peripheral, marketing issues deeper into the “inclination of the soul” issue. This apprenticeship, or more accurately, finding Jesus in the apprenticeship, is not easily quantified by Powerpoint on a 3-point, fill-in-the-blank sermon, or a 3 part series. If it were, we probably wouldn’t be referring to it as the “long apprenticeship”.
The “long” part should give us a clue as to what we’re dealing with, namely our impatience and reluctance to struggle with the classic disciplines and concepts of the faith. Concepts such as Humility, Doing the inconspicuous with conspicuous passion, Serving, Obedience, Depth, Sustained suffering, Truth, Intentionality, the Spirit-filled life, Delayed gratification, Submission and others. Most importantly, the reality is that as the Holy Spirit helps us deal with these issues, authentic interior heart change is possible!
A New (Old) Approach
So, where does that leave us? Can a relevant medium and holiness co-exist? Yes, I believe so but only when the former is subordinated to the latter. The relevant medium, the way we communicate (i.e. marketing, stunning websites, graphics, cool environments, etc…) must be the servant and not the master.
So, while I’m disappointed in how easily we get caught up with peripheral issues, after time, I realize this disappointment is the hunger that drives a leader to go deeper and forge territory with a new (actually 2,000 year old) perspective; a perspective that reminds us that putting the emphasis on the exterior might manage an image but it will not transform a soul.
This is a great day to be a fresh, authentic, revolutionary leader reminding our people it’s not what’s on the outside that makes us clean; it’s what’s on the inside. (Seems like that should be in the Bible somewhere.)
Jonathan is a songwriter/poet/pastor from Phoenix, AZ. He is married and has three children, and he blogs at www.theproblemwithreligion.com .