Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We're Getting our Comeuppance for the Church's Compromise in the Culture Wars pt. 2

Evangelical leaders know something is terribly wrong today. They know it relates to the culture. You just have to read them to understand. David Wells has become well known for his four book series that exposes the problem (No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, Above All Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World). Wells manages to take big bites out of the issue without actually sinking his teeth into the culprits of evangelicalism. He describes the damage done in his first book as the disappearance of evangelical theology. The late Francis Schaeffer hit some of the same topics in The Great Evangelical Disaster and D. A. Carson in the more recent The Gagging of God. They all know something's wrong.

You can see a little panic over some of the comeuppance from other evangelical writers. John MacArthur regularly addresses the fruits of evangelical compromise (The Truth War, Ashamed of the Gospel, Hard to Believe, Reckless Faith, Fools Gold: Discerning Truth in an Age of Error, The Vanishing Conscience). I don't think his books about this have worked. I have read four of them and liked them, but I found that in the end they rang hollow in light of what scripture says to do. I'll deal with that later. His counterpart, Phil Johnson, executive director of Grace to You, says something about this almost every week at his blog, Pyromaniacs. MacArthur sees what's happening all over and sounds the alarm as has Schaeffer, Wells, and Carson. Recently he wrote:
[M]any evangelicals now seem to think unstylishness is just about the worst imaginable threat to the expansion of the gospel and the influence of the church. They don’t really care if they are worldly. They just don’t want to be thought uncool.

That way of thinking has been around at least since modernism began its aggressive assault on biblical Christianity in the Victorian era. For half a century or more, most evangelicals resisted the pragmatic thrust of the modernist argument, believing it was a fundamentally worldly philosophy. They had enough biblical understanding to realize that “friendship with the world is enmity with God. Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

But the mainstream evangelical movement gave up the battle against worldliness half a century ago, and then completely capitulated to pragmatism just a couple of decades ago. After all, most of the best-known megachurches that rose to prominence after 1985 were built on a pragmatic philosophy of giving “unchurched” people whatever it takes to make them feel comfortable. Why would anyone criticize what “works”?"

The evangelicals see the effects of cultural compromise and write about it. Sometimes, although seldom, they're even specific about what it is. Their timidness about marking the offenders among their own fellowship, however, make them complicit in the comeuppance they're now witnessing and bemoaning.

The church is most responsible for preserving a culture. If we won't stand for a Christian culture, even in our own church, how can we expect the world to do that? Each church must build up the walls and keep a culture separate from the world. Sure, we're in the world, but we're not of the world. The church is different, separate, yes, holy, like God is holy. Of course, Satan is working against this. He knows that the church's compromise will make his job easier and more successful.

The church gave up science to a detrimental impact. But men stood up against that compromise---Henry Morris and others. Today creationism abounds in churches because Christians took back scriptural science. The same is needed for cultural issues, to see what they are and respond in a biblical way.

We've allowed the decline of meaning through several factors. The recipient of text has become sovereign. Without objective meaning, words lose their authority and impact. Truth is lost. Without truth or authority, people choose what is acceptable behavior and often do what's convenient. But that's not all.

The Undoing of Understanding

Many have preceded me in a concern over understanding. When I say "understanding," I'm talking about something different than meaning. "Meaning" relates to the words. "Understanding" relates to the hearers. We're in trouble if words can mean anything we want them to mean, but we're also in trouble if we can't understand a linear thought. Neil Postman warned about this cultural phenomena in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Wikipedia sums up his book well:
[H]e argues that media of communication inherently influence the conversations carried out over them. Postman posits that television is the primary means of communication for our culture and it has the property of converting a culture's conversations with itself into entertainment, so much so that public discourse on important issues has disappeared. Since the treatment of serious issues as entertainment inherently prevents them from being treated as serious issues and indeed since serious issues have been treated as entertainment for so many decades now, the public is no longer aware of these issues in their original sense, but only as entertainment.
The Bible is a book. It has words, sentences, and paragraphs. It isn't a video or a show. When we read a book without pictures, we think linear. If men arrive at a point where they can no longer grasp sentences at the level that God gave them in His Word, they'll have moved beyond a grasp of salvation. Faith comes from the Word of God, not from a video about the Bible or a comic that communicates pictorially not linearly.

This relates to modernity. The way of modernity has restructured society around man's comforts and conveniences. It hasn't taken into consideration what will be necessary to believe in and obey God. In so many ways, modern society and its technological advances frame man's thinking and not God's Word. The saturation of television, movies, and other forms of visual media has had an adverse effect on the ability to listen, think, and reason, causing an entire society to suffer from attention deficit disorder.

Jonathan Edwards read his sermons in a monotone because he was afraid that someone might respond to his technique rather than to truth. During the Great Awakening, halfway through his messages, people were crying for mercy from God. They lived in a cognitive age, one in which they responded to thought.

During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, two senatorial contenders stood eye-to-eye for seven hours before a huge crowd and debated politics and socio-economics. Men in their professions didn't better themselves by reducing their thoughts to thirty-second sound bytes, but by stringing together whole paragraphs of complex sentences, filled with beliefs and applications. With its shriveled attention span, today's generation couldn't function in that setting.

God's Word is powerful, but not like a divining rod or voodoo doll. The Words take on their authority with their proper meaning. People who can't endure two or three long sentences without losing attention won't be able to catch on. It is not a book meant to amuse, but to cogitate and meditate. It uses figures of speech that connected require careful judgment to deduce. Everything God said can be understood but a person must desire to know and then strive. If a society or even a church will understand God's Word in a saving and life-changing way, it must maintain an ability to apprehend the meaning and application of Scripture.

If any people or institution should concern itself with what will lend itself toward God's will, it is the church. The church shouldn't start with what men want, feel, or even need, but what God says. Churches, however, have, albeit a slower pace, followed the flow of the culture in the means by which they receive their information. Television centers on entertainment and churches have taken this cue by prioritizing showmanship in the communication of God's Word.

Instead of going to Scripture to find out what a church should do, churches have conformed the interpretation of Scripture to the kind of church people will like. By doing so, churches can still grow numerically in a media dominated culture. The serious byproduct, however, is that they have dumbed down the message of God's Word to something less than the meaning that God intended. There is no wonder that when a political candidate wants to sway people, he'll best get that accomplished with a short television commercial. If churches have followed this movement of the world, then the world itself has little to keep it from sliding further.

How is it that we have reached the state where people in the United States are almost incapable of the cognition sufficient to understand the Word of God? More to point, how have churches contributed to this? First, there is little preaching against television and movies. Churches will not be healthy where the preaching centers on issues. However, people need to know what their means of accessing information will do to them. People oriented toward pictographic access to knowledge will struggle with reading anything not meant to entertain.

The ability to understand plummets from television watching, but that's not all that happens. Men also lose perspective and the capacity to nuance information. Neal Postman points out that even the news is a performance. The talking hair-dos coolly present brief segments about war, murder, crime, and natural disaster that are punctuated by commercials trivializing the stories and isolating them from any context. Postman recounts a news broadcast in which a Marine Corps general declared that global nuclear war is inevitable immediately followed by a commercial for McDonalds in which an orange-wigged Ronald came hopping across the screen. People are not expected to respond rationally. In Postman’s words:
The viewers will not be caught contaminating their responses with a sense of reality, any more than an audience at a play would go scurrying to call home because a character on stage has said that a murderer is loose in the neighborhood.
Second, the preaching itself has been altered to fit the pictographic mindset. In fitting with the changing culture, many preachers decided to make major accommodations to the appetites of a generation weaned on media and entertainment by leaving biblical preaching behind. Preaching in most conservative evangelical churches has more amusement than teaching. Most churches feature a half-hour sermon with lots of anecdotes and little doctrine. This type of presentation has served to condition the people for even less understanding of God's Word. Crowds have rewarded the abusive with their attendance.

Third, churches have replaced psalm-type hymn content with short, simple ditties with refrains that have mirrored the popular music style of the day. Hymn writing once reflected the model God gave by inspiration in the book of Psalms. They defined the beauty of God's attributes, work, and creation with a deliberate, didactic purpose. They proclaimed the truth in a way that enhanced the singer's comprehension of doctrines about God. After all, almost all of them were written to give praise to God, centering on Him in His majesty and magnificence.

People have been weaned off of songs modeled after scripture. Church leaders are afraid that they'll lose their crowd out of boredom, knowing people can't wrap their brains around that depth of truth. This started in the early twentieth century with the gospel song that led to today's praise choruses, often with identical stanzas of words liberally repeated. Churches have elevated people's feelings about the music above what God has shown that He wants to hear. A continuation of these worship practices serves further to weaken people's ability to understand and discern.

Fourth, churches have kowtowed to the youth culture with their types of children and teen programs. Young people now for generations have grown up with the wrong image of church, and by extension a fraudulent view of God. Children are sent off to Sunday Schools and junior churches where the little ones are pampered with a presentation configured for short attention spans, guaranteeing that they'll continue down that path. They cannot risk boredom by spending too much time teaching. The children are kept occupied with forms of communication to which they have become accustomed at home with their television and videos.

"Teen evangelist" means lots of stories with a popular vocabulary and little to no exegesis. The youth pastor is a master game man with expertise in filling a calendar with activities. By the time they graduate, they're prepared for a singles group with relevant social events. None of these strategies came about until the world at large grew away from thoughtful contemplation upon spiritual truths or even upon anything. Their further practice has not done anything to break their adherents away from what brings a devastating numbness to their understanding.

Fifth, the churches who do see the debilitating effect caused by the practices that undo understanding and so don't participate in them, however, continue in fellowship with the churches that either do or don't see this same effect, but either way, they keep operating in the same fashion. If we don't separate from those who won't stop, are we taking seriously the effect of these contributing practices?

People are comfortable making words mean whatever they want them to mean. Even if they were willing to accept their meaning, they can't understand them because of a loss of comprehension, deadened by a popular medium of communication. Their minds have been conditioned by the means by which they have attained their information. Now they can't grasp enough spiritual truth to become a Christian. Satan and his world system with a modern church as an accomplice have succeeded at ruining the soil into which God desires the seed of His gospel to take root.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bro Brandenburg!!

The veil has been lifted.

It would appear as though Churches are getting dumber in the pews and lazier in the pulpits.

Lets hope this trend will see a quick reversal. Could it be that its too late and the damage has been done? That the proverbial snowball has gotten too big (see Willow Creek, Saddleback, Osteen)??

R/S

Bro Steve
Gal. 2.20

reglerjoe said...

Two questions:

1. What Sunday school curriculum do you use?

2. What songbook do you use?

Kent Brandenburg said...

Thanks Steve. Let's do something about it.

Reglerjoe,

We do two things with Sunday School. We have four classes. We have a teen class for young men that exegetes Scripture on teen subjects. We have a young ladies class with fifth graders to single adults that exegetes Scripture on women's subjects, fulfilling Titus 2. We have a small children's class that teaches foundational doctrine. We have an adult class that exposits Scripture with interaction, question and participation.

I make a four page study every week for families to read to their own children and I put together a self-study for the family members to use in addition to that. I call it a non-age segregated Sunday School taught by the head of household.

We use the Trinity Hymnal, Baptist edition. We also sing every service from a Psalter. We've sung through the entire book of Psalms.

Thanks for asking!! I hope more people are interested.

Joe said...

Thanks, Kent. Your answers lead to more questions:

So...basically you write your own SS curriculum?

How far in advance to you determine the subject matter of the take-home studies?

Does the take-home studies differ in subject matter from the SS classes?

Do you ever repeat lessons? e.g., do your teachers have 100 or 150 different lessons to cycle through?

Do you write the lessons for all classes or do the teachers write them?

Do you like the Trinity Hymnal or would you use something else if it was feasible? How does a Psalter differ from a Hymnal?

Where do you find the music for the Psalms?

Sorry for the interrogation. I like gleaning ideas from my web-buddies.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Steve,

I didn't answer your questions:

Could it be that its too late and the damage has been done? That the proverbial snowball has gotten too big (see Willow Creek, Saddleback, Osteen)??

It might be too late for the United States, but we've got to start with our churches. If we can't convince our own churches, then we don't have much hope for the world.

So...basically you write your own SS curriculum?

I write the self-study portion, but I cut and paste some of it from good, free online stuff. There is a site that has all the Bible stories of the Bible. We went through the Bible stories over a year, then back to salvation. For salvation, I will use something written by the Puritans. We read a page at a time, one night a week and explain it. For awhile, we've been reading Thomas Boston, The Sinfulness of Man's Nature.

How far in advance to you determine the subject matter of the take-home studies?

I can tell when we're coming to an end of material on something a few weeks in advance and I determine what would be good to talk about next. Usually we are hitting the gospel when we aren't teaching those Bible stories.

Does the take-home studies differ in subject matter from the SS classes?

Yes.

Do you ever repeat lessons? e.g., do your teachers have 100 or 150 different lessons to cycle through?

We will do that. We will go back over the responsibilities at home. We have used "Of Domestical Duties" by Gorge.

Do you write the lessons for all classes or do the teachers write them?

The teachers are teaching their own. I know what they're doing, but they have the same approach as me on these things.

Do you like the Trinity Hymnal or would you use something else if it was feasible? How does a Psalter differ from a Hymnal?

I love the Trinity Hymnal. You could probably use that alone because it has a psalter inside of it essentially. A Psalter isn't much different than a hymnal. In our case, we got our Psalter before we got the Trinity Hymnal. It is the Psalms versified into English and then put to music. It isn't easy singing the Psalms at first if you're not accustomed to it, but once you are, it is normal. To our people, singing the Psalms is normal.

Where do you find the music for the Psalms?

The music is right in the Psalter. There are several different Psalters, Our is The Comprehensive Psalter. If you do a search on my blog and put The Comprehensive Psalter, I'll have information about it somewhere, because I've blogged this before.

Joe,

What do you think of the evaluation so far in this two part series?

reglerjoe said...

Kent: What do you think of the evaluation so far in this two part series?

Very good. Indeed the church has become infused with the world instead of influencing he world. I agree that TV and the general dumbing-down of society has exacerbated the situation.

What makes this whole topic slippery, though, is that many people are unable(unwilling?)to give definite, tangible definitions and examples of what worldliness in our present culture looks like. Worldliness is often considered an "inside" sin: lust, jealousy, covetousness, etc. What do you say to the Neo that insists his lip piercing is a personal expression of fashion and not conformity to the world?

One telltale sign of obedience to the world's standard is churchianity's johnny-come-lately approach to all things popular: nsync became insanely popular and then the CCM crowd gave us the Christian knock-off; same with Spice Girls and Zoe Girl, ad nauseum. Now to keep up with the popular Guitar Hero video game, church kids can play "Praise Guitar", or whatever it's called.

What fads or trends (if I could use the expression) has the Christian culture started recently that has changed American culture for the better. (WWJD key chains don't count.)

Kent Brandenburg said...

Joe,

I laughed hard and out loud on "WWJD key chains don't count."