The Church in the Culture

When the team was planting The Grove Church started we were considering how we could become a part of the city and how we could build a reputation. In those days we thought mostly about how we could get into the local newspaper. We heard of a church in our denomination, a couple states over, that rented a helicopter and dumped tens of thousands of Easter eggs from it, providing a rush experience for young families and getting in the local paper, because no one had ever done this!

We were literally sad that we were launching our church in a non-Easter month. We thought, what could we drop from a helicopter when we launch in the fall? Could we drop people with jobs for Labor Day? Could we drop live turkeys for Thanksgiving? Can turkeys fly? Do we need to ask PETA if this is OK?

Thankfully, we did not drop anything and we found our better way to define ourselves in our city through service and loving outreach. And in our town getting in the local paper is as easy as calling them and telling them you will do an interview. We scored the cover. Of the B section.

This week I have been seeing loads of churches doing egg hunts for part of their Easter services. There is even a church in our town that is renting a helicopter to drop eggs on a football field. A few years ago when we started The Grove, this wasn’t happening anywhere. An Easter egg hunt was a radical idea because Christians of all kinds would already do Easter egg hunts with family and friends, but it was an unspoken rule that you didn’t talk about that with your church leaders, because you wanted to maintain the idea that Easter was all about Jesus. It was about taking the cover off and letting the Christians all relax and even enjoy the lives that they were living, but felt like they had to hide.

Today the church that I drive by on my way to town every day is advertising an egg hunt immediately after their service on Easter and it’s not considered radical at all. Even though this automatically means there will be people who are not a part of the most amazing service of the year because they are out in the field placing brightly colored plastic eggs in the grass and ignoring the awkwardness of teaching children that a bunny laid these eggs. A bunny. It’s not controversial. Even the local paper is ignoring this story.

And before you think this is going to be a rant about Easter egg hunts and churches, it’s not. If I condemn, then I automatically condemn myself because our church runs a “Trick my Truck” event every year on the Sunday before Halloween and we encourage kids to dress up in their costumes for church. I can only imagine my friends who are ancient-but-cranky-church-loving-saints showing up to visit that week. That would create an awesome conversation.

What I do hope to talk about in this ranty blog post is the way that the church accommodates to culture, and that this is both good and bad. The only thing I would hope to condemn is an unthinking, whatever it takes to reach people, approach to Christianity and expressions of the church. I love reaching people for Jesus and love novel approaches to this end.

This is not about a step forward, or even a step backwards. This is actually a marketing strategy by churches to make the church more appealing to people. It is, frankly, making the church more marketable to people who would already call themselves Christians – people who would not be able to make the distinction between cultural and biblical Christianity.

This strategy is not new. A couple generations ago Christianity in the west attached itself to patriotism. You can look back at the youth rallies of the 40’s-60’s (and even beyond those decades) and see numerous examples of youth ministry events designed to worship God and encourage people to be more patriotic – so being a Christian was also to be patriotic (I am not saying this is good or bad, it just was true). Fast forward a couple generations and we see young church leaders having conversations involving debate about America’s role in the world, or even doing simple things like removing the American flag from the stage in the church building. (As a side note, because The Grove meets in a middle school cafeteria, we have a permanent, and very large, American flag at the front of our space. I would wager it is the largest worship space American flag in our city. We also are the only evangelical church with a Ghandi quote on the wall and have the largest Reggie Bush drinking milk poster.) What is happening in these conversations isn’t what we can automatically call progress – it is deconstruction of previous culturally held gospel-culture connections and a reconstruction of new connections.

So it isn’t new, it’s different. It isn’t good or bad, it’s different.

This leaves us with a knowledge that in a couple generations, perhaps faster because new communications technologies are speeding movements up, church leaders will make the call that having secular religious holidays within the church is a cultural accommodation and they will put a swift, yet controversial, end to these practices. They will find what the culture around their church is like and attracted to, find connection points to the gospel and reach their friends.

It will be awesome, and the current radical generation, who I call radical with full sarcasm, will hold onto their egg hunts and harvest parties and every other secular holiday practice they can get their hands on, and will hate every moment of it… as the older generations mutter in the background, ‘See, I told you this would happen when they got rid of the flags in the sanctuary!’

So what are we to do with this? The correct response would be for the leaders and people of God, the church, to humbly recognize that we naturally (for good and bad) connect our gospel to the culture and acknowledge that we are not God’s gift to church history, but we are God’s tools to reach the world as it stands today. We should consider our practices thoughtfully and move towards those practices that reach people and be more than ready to give up cultural-gospel practices which are not mandatory according to the Scripture. We should embrace a diverse approach to gospel-culture connections and encourage other expressions of evangelism to flourish for the glorification of Jesus (and not of our practices).

Sadly, this may be a pipe dream. Christianity in our culture is not always known for being thoughtful, humble, cooperative and considerate. Often church leaders are reactive and plagaristic so that our local church can gain an effective market share of the already-christian who live within driving distance of our buildings, or can access our online campus. Reaching and showing unbelievers the love and hope of Jesus is significantly more risky, dangerous and difficult – so most churches choose to reach the already-christians. It’s the safe alternative to evangelism.

So, if we are going to be reactive and market-share driven, I would encourage church leaders towards rapid adoption of any and all secular-religious holiday practices. Avoid all thought – think only of attracting a larger market share of already-christians!

Next Halloween cancel the whole Sunday program and do a fun haunted house. Get Santa Claus to preach at the Christmas eve service. Give away awesome presents – Xboxes for all! Do an egg hunt during Easter service, not immediately after. Heck, cancel your Easter services and get the people to do a Disney musical, because who needs Jesus when you have Mickey!

The quicker and more obviously we conjoin our practices to secular-religious institutions, the easier it will be for the deconstructionists that come after us. And, hopefully, the less attachment we will have to them, making gospel movements easier to adopt and reach new generations.