The Search For Religious Relevance (Or How I Missed My First Anniversary)

In May of 1990, I was away from my wife on the first anniversary of our marriage. I had, or so it seemed at the time, more important things to do. A group of “leading men” from our little country church were traveling to Barrington, Illinois for a church growth conference at Willow Creek Community Church, which had been founded 15 years earlier by Bill Hybels. La Wik hints at the psychological roots of Willow Creek’s founding:

After 300 youth waited in line to be led to Christ in a service in May 1974, Hybels and other leaders began dreaming of forming a new church. They surveyed the community to find out why people weren’t coming to church. Common answers included: “church is boring”, “they’re always asking for money”, or “I don’t like being preached down to.” These answers shaped the group’s approach to the new church.

If you want to sell more product, then giving your customers what they want is bound to be a successful strategy. And if you’re selling Jesus, why let accidental aspects of Christianity get in the way of his essence? Our small, introverted, and pietistic Bible Fellowship church was about to undergo a massive transformation in the direction of seeker sensitivity. Twenty-four years later, the results of this transformation live on in one of the most hip and relevant churches Lynchburg, Virginia has to offer. And in the evangelical Mecca of Lynchburg, home of Liberty University, becoming that is no small achievement.

The search for relevance did not begin in 1974 with Bill Hybels and his fellow “youth group” leaders. Evangelical Christianity has never not been a search for relevance—a way of taking the Gospel message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, uncluttered by cultural baggage, directly to the people—often anti-intellectual, embarrassing, and decidedly unprogressive cultural baggage. There is a reason that the 95-year-old Billy Graham, confidant of many Presidents, remains one of most admired, well-respected figures down to this day, whereas the name “Bob Jones” is an epithet: He never let political controversy get in the way of the message of Jesus. Graham was an anti-communist when it was popular to be one, and he was a social justice warrior when it was popular to be one.

Another way to put that would be: Billy Graham never let the message of Jesus get in the way of political controversy. And if getting folks to “accept Jesus into their heart as personal Lord and Savior” really is tantamount to the Great Commission—Jesus final command to his disciples to go and teach all nations—then there’s not a thing in the world wrong with it: Jesus… with no strings, no Church, no culture, no normative practice attached.

Religion has been historically a cultural anchor. Yet the Evangelical form of Christianity denies this. Not really so much denies it, as it deems cultural anchorage as unimportant relative to the weight of carrying out the Great Commission. In simplifying the Gospel Message down to a core of propositions to believe, in making the process of conversion as simple as responding to an altar call and praying the Sinner’s Prayer “Just give me Jesus” is a profoundly invigorating principle for church growth. It is immediately and almost infinitely adaptable. If “Christian Rap” is going to fill the pews, so you can give them Jesus, why should some old fuddy-duddies stand in the way? If pews are too old-school, why not “do church” in a comfy movie theater instead?

The formula works. America is among the most “church-going” first world nations, and it leads the first world in moral and cultural bankruptcy.

About that cultural anchor…

As Mark Knoll noted almost 20 years ago, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Knoll was wondering why Evangelicals contribute so little to intellectual scholarship and high culture and how his Evangelical brethren might turn that trend around.

I think the problem goes deeper than Mark Knoll wished to probe: There really isn’t much of a single, univocal Evangelical Mind. It isn’t that Evangelicals are stupid. It is that their system of religious thought doesn’t lead to many broader cultural implications. What clear implications does “leading people to accept Jesus into their heart and pray the sinners prayer” have upon the role of women in society? Upon traditional family structure? Upon free trade? College education? Suburban sprawl? Media Influence? Foreign Aid? Immigration? Support for Israel? Revolution in the Ukraine? The Role of Religion in Public Life?

“Just give me Jesus” is quite indifferent to all of those… “Just give me Jesus” doesn’t even very much care about what type of church you go to… so long as you go… to one that feels right… to you.

So the endless search for religious relevance in America has led to a prevailing religious expression described in 2005 by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—a form of Christianity so devoid of normative content as to be indistinguishable from baptized narcissism.

Oprah Winfrey didn’t become a billionaire by building railroads or cornering the market on crude oil. And Bill Hybels and the host of mega-church pastors like him didn’t build their massive ministries by anchoring the Christian faith in traditional culture.

America is “deeply religious,” yet on-demand abortion and gay “marriage” are the (presumptively settled) Law of the Land. America fills her pews like no other nation on earth, yet the Overton Window glides ever leftward. And lest anyone think I’m picking only on Evangelicals, please understand that this tendency to strip the gospel message down to make it palatable for the broader culture has thoroughly infected the entire social order. Even non-religions like my local public radio station are getting in on the act. Making a message culturally relevant—whether that message be about Jesus or democracy or condom-use or toleration of sexual minorities—has become indistinguishable from plain old American cultural hegemony.

In spite of Evangelicalism’s low-brow status, we’re all Evangelicals now.

So how about that cultural anchor?

Let’s unwind this. That seeker-sensitive church growth ideas work is undeniable… for some values of “work”. But is that the work that Jesus intended the Church “Christian Community” to do when he gave the great commission? Or does “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” mean more than kneeling to pray the Sinners’ Prayer under the maudlin strains of Just As I Am? What is it exactly that we are to “teach all nations”: Be nice and feel good about ourselves?

The 800 pound (363 kg) gorilla in the room is that Christianity is supposed to affect the culture. Christianity admixes with genetics and environment and other memetic residues to produce certain kinds of culture. Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism produce different kinds. Everyone expects this. And what kind of culture is American Christianity producing today? One in which “Gay Marriage” can go from a funny joke to a self-evident sacred right in less than a generation. An entire generation of “Youth Pastors” is quite busy making Jesus look incredibly cool and could not be reached for comment.

Forgive me, but I don’t think that’s how Christianity is supposed to work for meaningful definitions of “work”. Well, why the hell not? The first reason is theological: Go ye therefore and teach all nations presumes a position of cultural superiority. Christianity is not just a propositional gloss that can be painted over an extant, formerly pagan culture, leaving it unchanged (except that now they’ll get to go to Heaven when they die). Certainly Christianity can add local customs to its own nature (cf. pagan winter solstice and spring equinox customs), but it cannot water down its universal call to repentance and holiness and kinship within the Church.

When it does, it ceases to be authentic Christianity. The relevance-minded Christians who imagine Jesus’ Great Commission as being about just getting people to pray certain prayers therefore sell the real gospel short. Conversion is a lifelong result of a lifelong commitment to a lifelong process. The signs of true spiritual conversion may be seen far more clearly in the reduction of various social pathologies than in the number of hands raised “with every head bowed and every eye closed”. Faith without works is dead.

The second reason I believe that Christianity drives culture is historical. Christianity came and changed the course of empires. Kings and princes and emperors once depended upon the Christian Church for their legitimacy. In return for the favor, secular rulers enforced Christian norms in their domains. For example, when the faith spread to England, cousin marriage soon died out and that nation experienced dramatic growth in well-being and collective power. Christianity played a crucial role in establishing science, the university system, modern economic and legal practices—virtually everything we associate with Christendom.

Whenever Christians try to make their religion hip and relevant to the wider culture, it reveals instantly a wider culture that wears the pants in the relationship. Christianity adopts the role of the supplicating special pleader. It is not a masculine Christianity. It reduces religious practice to a source of entertainment or therapy–at most a curiosity to place alongside all the accouterments of a life otherwise untouched by its life-giving, culture-bestowing essence. You might get attendance figures or increased donations, but you’ll never get a transformed culture. You’ve already given that up as unnecessary cultural baggage.

So the question really never was how to make religion relevant to culture, but how to make culture relevant to religion. If people cannot make themselves relevant to religion, then the problem lies with them… and, by the way, they know it. Whosoever is the coolest doesn’t need to qualify himself to others. If you are tempted to attend a church growth conference that conflicts with your first wedding anniversary, just say “No”. Please stay home and cherish the company of your wife instead.

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8 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Mr. Steves. I shall be sharing these wise words with Evangelicals in my family.

  2. Thank you very much. I have been knowing that the adapt to the culture process is not a good thing. Your commentary has provided me with a thorough and well explained reason. I prayerfully expect that your words will improve my aptness at standing for Christ and what it means to follow Him. Thank you again for the blessing.

  3. The answer is called…………. One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church.

  4. A solid take on the unintended effect that secularizing the church has had on the faith. A decay of sacrament is the best way I can describe it. A sacrament of course comes from the Latin root sacrare, or to set apart. The church cannot be sustained by attempting to become part of the secular culture, but by standing out from it. I’m pleased to see that you included the benefits of appropriating certain elements of the host culture that do not contradict the faith. This is what makes Christianity highly compatible with all nations with its universalism without compromising nationalism. With any luck, the traditionalist churches will be growing and establishing itself as the only legitimate and noteworthy alternative to unbelief.

  5. […] Against relevance in church. […]

  6. […] Over at Social Matters, Nick B. Stevens has written: The Search for Religious Relevance (or How I Missed my First Anniversary) […]

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