If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn. For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:
In yesterday’s post, I expressed caution regarding Dawn’s rather acerbic take on the idolatries within the walls of the church. Chapter 4 is titled “Upside-Down: Worship as a Subversive Act,” in which Dawn offers a very thoughtful and helpful analysis of the struggle between faithfulness to God’s character and appealing to current cultural trends. It is this attitude that allays any fears we may have had that we might be sliding to pure cynicism, and that Dawn is uninterested in leveling criticism without also offering a solution.
Worship is “subversive” in the sense that true, authentic worship goes against the culture outside the church (the subject of chapter 2) and the idols within the church (the subject of chapter 3).
Echoing Bach, she writes:
“If the Church’s worship is faithful, it will eventually be subversive to the culture surrounding it, for God’s truth transforms the lives of those nurtured by it. Worship will turn our values, habits, and ideas upside-down as it forms our character; only then will we be genuinely right-side up eternally. Only then will we know a Joy worthy of our destiny.” (p. 57-8)
WORSHIP IN THE WORLD OR WORSHIP OF THE WORLD?
The various technological and cultural trends that Dawn analyzed in chapter 2 have lead many churches to try and adapt to the needs of the culture. The result, she argues, is that tradition has been supplanted by subjectism.
Tradition has always been counter-cultural. When faced with tradition, Dawn observes that faith communities are usually split between two equal and opposite reactions:
(1) Holding fast to tradition to the point of alienating the culture the church tries to reach.
(2) The revitalization of tradition in order to attract those outside it.
“To accent either [of these two extremes] without the other is to lose them both.” (p. 60)
The Church holds truth and love as two similar extremes:
“The pole of truth is essential to keep the Church alive with theological content and depth. The pole of love is necessary to minister to those who need that truth. To cling tenaciously to truth in a way that excludes the uninitiated is to lose love in a gnostic superiority. On the other hand, to be driven only by a marketing analysis of what people ‘need’ is to lose the uniqueness of the Church’s truth in a false attempt at love.” (p. 60)
Nothing has changed in the years since Dawn’s book was first published. When looking at these two extremes, I am reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s observation that Christianity stands as if on the edge of a knife – stray only a little to one side or the other, and we risk losing both theological truth and cultural relevance.
Tim Keller writes:
“to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there’s no avoiding it.”
MARKET SHARE AND THE WORSHIPPING COMMUNITY
Even recent emphases on church growth has hardly been concerned with “avoiding” such extremes. Dawn cites Douglas D. Webster, who recognizes the significant challenge of “being church” in a world like ours:
“How do we present Christ to a consumer-oriented, sex-crazed, self-preoccupied, success-focused, technologically sophisticated, light-hearted, entertainment-centered culture? How do we strategize, as Jesus did with the disciples, to distinguish between popular opinion and Spirit-led confession? And how does the confessional church…engage the world?
Many respected church consultants are offering straightforward, unambiguous answers. They are promoting strategies that encourage churches to establish a market niche, focus on a target audience, meet a wide range of felt needs, pursue corporate excellence, select a dynamic and personable leader and create a positive, upbeat, exciting atmosphere.” (Douglas D. Webster, Selling Jesus: What’s Wrong With Marketing the Church, p. 20-21)
As we’ve already explored, the attractional church has become dominated by marketing strategies and promotional tools. But Dawn cites Chistopher Lasch in analyzing the deeply rooted problems of consumerism:
“[Consumers are] perpetually unsatisfied, restless, anxious and bored.”
“[Consumers have] an unappeasable appetite not only for goods but for new experiences and personal fulfillment.”
“[Consumerism is an effort to answer] the age-old discontents of loneliness, sickness, weariness, lack of sexual satisfaction” and “feelings of futility and fatigue”
“[Consumerism] creates new forms of discontent peculiar to the modern age.” (Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, p. 72)
In light of this, Webster (cited above), expresses four concerns: (1) Churches who rely on marketing often underestimate the radical nature of the consumerist demand, resulting in a perpetual uphill struggle to fulfill the evolving felt needs of the culture, (2) if churches are appealing to consumers, how much can we hope to rely on strung-out, overworked, burnt-out people to form a dynamic Christian community? (3) the gospel message is reduced to (if not equated with) what is attractive, and (4) the Church is held prisoner to the felt needs of consumers.
Can I add two more?
(5) Church-shopping. When we cultivate a climate of consumerism, is there any wonder why people are quick to migrate from church to church to satisfy a sense of spiritual boredom? Obviously, people leave churches for a variety of reasons – sometimes perfectly good ones – but it is lamentable that so many are quick to abandon lifetimes of relationships for the next big thing. “The music is more upbeat.” “They have more young people participating.” [Regarding the sermon]: “I cry every time I come here.” And what’s truly, remarkably sad is that such excuses are presumed to not only be valid, but in some way Godly – such is the result of a religious faith that has been built on the shifting sands of consumerist demand and personal choice rather than on the solid rock of scripture and deep relationships.
(6) One-generation wonders. Marketing teaches that you can only target one demographic group. Stop and think: when was the last time you saw a product marketed towards the entire family? Churches therefore often fragment and focus on one generation or one life-stage. The result is that multi-generational churches struggle to meet the competing, consumerist demands of various life stages within the church.
To be fair, the marketing strategies of current church growth trends are motivated by a profound, undeniable love for unbelievers. But when church health is reduced to market shares and felt needs, what room is there for the vital truths of the gospel that shape our community?
COUNTER-CULTURAL, NOT JUST “RELEVANT”
Dawn writes that there will always be some truths that will not appeal to cultural tastes, yet are vital to our understanding of ourselves as humans and who we are in God’s grand story:
“Talking of sin and forgiveness certainly runs counter to the present culture, but the recognition of each and both together is the great gift of the Church’s worship to our world’s self-understanding. Recognizing the potency of sin and evil but also knowing profoundly the greater power of God’s love and mercy frees believers to work for social change without flagging in zeal.” (p. 69)
It is often assumed that the message of the gospel is to be delivered in a way that is “relevant.” Such language is especially attractive to young people – often for the commendable desires to take ownership of their faith independently of their parents, as well as to have an impact on the world around them.
The problem, of course, is that the church has been pursuing “relevance” for quite some time now, and often the results are precisely as Dawn and others describe. Churches have done well at competing with one another, but done little to actually reach the culture it seeks to be relevant to. In 2006 Outreach Magazine released a report that church attendance has remained nearly constant between 1990 and 2004, despite a nearly 18% growth in the total U.S. population.
Dallas Willard writes:
“A leading American pastor laments, ‘Why is today’s church so weak? Why are we able to claim many conversions and enroll many church members but have less and less impact on our culture? Why are Christians indistinguishable from the world?’ Should we not at least consider the possibility that this poor result is not in spite of what we teach and how we teach, but precisely because of it? Might than not lead to our discerning why the power of Jesus and his gospel has been cut off from ordinary human existence, leaving it adrift from the flow of his eternal kind of life?” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy)
When our church health is measured in terms of market share and consumer trends, is it any wonder than the Church has taught people to become consumers? When we place high value on technological superiority, is it any wonder that members migrate to the church down the block that’s doing it even bigger and better?
But what if our values flow instead from the character of Jesus and the Great Commission? Tim Keller writes:
“The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones….That can mean only one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message as Jesus.” (Tim Keller, The Prodigal God, p.15-16)
The solution cannot be an attempt at cultural relevance, for the gospel message will never truly be culturally relevant. For the Church to be the Church, she must embrace a message that is decidedly counter-cultural:
“By offering music that educates instead of entertains, that uplifts and transforms through the renewing of the mind (Rom 12:2), the Church exposes the meaninglessness of our present culture….By maintaining a vital, balanced dialectic of thought and feelings, the Church displays the shallowness or emptiness of our culture’s laughter and trains people in habits for thinking.” (Dawn, p. 72)
Blind traditionalism leads to worship that is stale and stagnant. But consumer marketing has led to worship that while exciting, is anemic and impoverished. In the next chapter, Dawn examines the character of God in the worship of the Church as she works to offer a new paradigm for the Church’s worship.