Churches of Christ and the Emerging Culture

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As I read Dan Kimball’s book on the Emerging Church a few things stand out to me that I thought I would mention here:

1 – There is a cultural shift that is taking place and more people are unchurched in America. We are one of the largest mission fields in the world. Missionaries will tell you that if you are going to reach people in another culture you have to contextualize yourself to that culture. You cannot expect to take our models of ministry and map them onto other cultures. So what do we do when the models for ministry and worship we have are based on a modern culture while the culture in America that is rapidly growing all around us is post-modern? Wouldn’t it make sense that our ministry models would reflect the growing culture around us? You see this lack of understanding of cultural transitions and the opportunities they open up when predominantly white churches are located in a neighborhood that is undergoing what some people have termed “white flight.” Those churches that turn themselves into a fortress and protect against their neighborhoods die while those who make the transition and continue to reach out to the changing culture around them can thrive. We have to taking the surrounding culture seriously in how we reach out to them. It is a lot more obvious when it is black/white/asian, etc but a lot more subtle when people of our own race live with a dramatically different worldview and culture that we do. This is clear on the mission field but is often unclear in our safe haven worship environments where we have tended to do things the same way for a couple hundred years.

2 – People want authenticity. Many Christians have mistakenly thought that the world needs to see faultless Christians. Because that is impossible and presenting yourself that way a fraud, people have labeled Christians hypocrites. People don’t need to see flawless Christians. People need to see that we mess up in a lot of the same ways they do but the important thing is how we feel about that (remorse) and how we let God deal with it through repentance and forgiveness. This allows us to be genuine about our sin and about a God who is able to deal with sin and forgive us. This shows people God can forgive them too. This also breaks down the old stereotype that Christians think they are better than everyone else and are “holier than thou.” At the same time, preachers who seem to flaunt their sin to show they are like everyone else just won’t cut it either.

3 – Churches of Christ have a lot going for them in reaching the emerging post-modern culture. Kimball makes the point that seekers don’t want seeker sensitive services (removing religious imagery, taking down the crosses, etc). They want an authentic and ancient forms to bring in an experience with God. They want something with roots that go back to the beginning. They want people who take Jesus and his teachings seriously. They want people who are kind and compassionate. The Church of Christ has been like that for years. I think we have a lot going for us in reaching the lost. Kimball writes, “How ironic that returning to a raw and ancient form of worship is now seen as new and even cutting edge. We are simply going back to a vintage form of worship which has been around for as long as the church has been in existence.” (Emerging Church, 169). He says earlier in the book that “post-seeker sensitive” worship and ministry will be more of a back to the basics and earlier forms…”This approach is really nothing new at all; in fact, it is simply going back to more of a raw and basic form of ‘vintage Christianity.'” (26).

4 – Churches of Christ have a transition to make in order to reach emerging generations that relates to point one. We have to realize that worship as we currently has components that are a product of the modern culture that the church of Christ came about. Singing is still singing and praying is still praying and preaching is still preaching, etc. Those things will always and should always be. But the linear format of 2 songs and a prayer does not speak the language of the culture we are immersed in. The order of worship (2 songs and a prayer, 2 songs and a scripture, Lord’s supper, 2 songs, a sermon, invitation, closing song, and closing prayer) is a product of our modern culture and also a product of needing order in the assembly. When the tradition becomes law we have a problem and turn ourselves into Pharisees if we are not careful. We have done this for so long that some people think it is the only way to do it. Some people get upset if the invitation isn’t offered even though the vast majority of people who are reached don’t happen at the invitation time.

This leaves us with a couple of questions:

1) How do we get people to understand which parts of our worship are scriptural and which are based on tradition?

2) What would missionaries coming to America from another culture do to contextualize themselves to our culture? How would they combine that information with biblical forms of worship to reach people in America today? What would keep us from doing the same thing?

3) How important is the worshiper or the seeker’s opinion of the worship? If God said we had to worship standing on our heads and humming would we do it or would we say that is just silly…we want to do it sitting in pews?

4) What ancient forms of worship are still appropriate for today? What would make an ancient practice no longer appropriate for worship today?

0 Responses

  1. I think that a fruitful way to spend the Bible class hour is a series on how we interpret Scripture — a class on interpretation, hermeneutics, and theology without using all the bombastic language of the ivory tower. Especially with those who are the decision-makers of the church. I think a study like that goes a long way toward helping churches with your first question because most folks are just ignorant to the issues of “Scripture vs. Tradition.”

    I’ve been wondering about issue #3 lately myself. And I’m really not sure even where to begin when thinking about that, which is not a good thing.

  2. But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” – 1 Corinthians 14:24-25

    The seeker’s opinion – or at least his/her perception – IS important. But the context of the chapter is that what both believer and unbeliever encounters in worship is important (see v. 15-17, 22-23 especially).

    When I’m sharing thoughts at the Lord’s table, I make it a point to say this is something Jesus asked us to do. I think our children need to know that. I think visitors who are unfamiliar with Christianity need to know that. (I picked up the habit from a brother at my church who, in greeting the assembly, would always – very concisely – explain to visitors what would be going on, and request that if they had questions later, ask any member and they’d be directed to a church leader for any in-depth answers.)

    I think it would help a lot just to be AWARE that there are folks among us in our worship, and to introduce them to what we’re doing and make them feel welcome rather than baffled or intimidated or put off.

    We’ve recently ditched announcements. We’ve had an on-off love affair with them forever, but it’s gotten to the point that events are on a powerpoint before and after worship and in the bulletin/order of worship in the pews. Are announcements an item of worship? They can be, if handled well – and they can be a big time-waster if not.

  3. Keith,

    So practical and to the point. We tend to think everyone there is just like me and that is just not so. How appropriate to continue doing what we are doing but with a sensitivity to those among us who don’t have a clue what is going on.


    Thanks for the suggestion. I will get around to it eventually.

  4. Related to Q4, how much data do we have about “ancient forms of worship”? I’ve not made the time myself to research…

    I once tested a church that FIRMLY believed that rotating lay ministers were the way to go, and that “professionals” were not true to the early church pattern. They also believed there was a biblical imperative to have a pot luck-communion every month. They were hands-down the most friendly and loving church I tested; out of a set of 60. Only two others were even near the order of magnitude. I couldn’t say that they were wrong about their perspectives, but the consequences of the “no pro” policy were hard to difficult for me to accept. Quality was… erratic.

    It made me think about the authority of early practices though. Did the early church have the closest understanding of what Jesus had said? Almost certainly. Were some parts of their understanding related to their culture? I can’t think otherwise. Are there aspects of our modern tools, environment, lifestyles, etc that Jesus intended us to use to worship Him, that the disciples couldn’t practice back then? hmmm. could be. Video feed to a sanctuary overflow room? I think I experienced that the first time at Christmas in Beijing some years back… That was a special experience that helped me understand the phrase “standing room only”.

    Anyway, back to the point. Sola Scriptura. We have enough trouble wrangling over interpretations of what the Authoritative Word *means* without adding our own words via Traditions.

    So try not to flinch when I greet you with a holy kiss

  5. 4) What ancient forms of worship are still appropriate for today? What would make an ancient practice no longer appropriate for worship today?

    Thanks for a good post, I have been visiting your blog from time to time and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    You ask some good questions at the end here. The question you ask is not an easy one. Just take the word worship for instance. What is worship? And when was worship practiced? Do you mean worship within a church building? Songs? Music, a sermon? And what are ancient? Do you mean those found in the bible? Irenaeus a old Church father I wrote a piece about ( ) would say that worship is found in our relationships to each other… So spurred on from your questions I got a whole new set of Questions I will ask myself and you.

    Thanks for a good blog.

  6. Matt,

    Rachel and I are in the US for our furlough. We’ll go back to Mozambique in a couple of weeks. It has been fun to find our HU friends’ blogs and websites. I hope you and Missy are doing well.

    I appreciate your discussion here. I think you are keying in on some important issues. I’m glad to see that our fellowship is engaging the emergent discussion. I wanted to comment about contextualization. I believe an important thing to remember is that contextualization should happen down to the local level. So, when we talk about the changing culture – I believe it is approriate to see some churches continuing to look very modern (there are still a lot of moderns out there). Also postmoderns of different ages (who have children or do not) have different needs. I believe that our churches will need to have a local contextualization. The driving question should be: “How can we help our community (those we are reaching) follow Jesus more closely?” I believe that when this is our key question it frames the issues of worship and contextualization better.

    We love you guys. God bless you in your ministry.

    Grace and Peace,
    Alan Howell

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