Cultural Engagement by Being Cool

I just read Phil Johnson’s post on Pyromanics about “cultural engagement” and it got me thinking. I agree in total with what Phil has written and want to take the argument a step farther (you should read his post before continuing).

First, there is no such thing as culture in a monolithic sense. Every culture—now and throughout history—is made up of a countless number of subcultures. Just talk to any student in high school. There are cultural norms for athletes, thespians, brainiacs, druggies, gamers, even Trekkies (yes, Star Trek is still alive and well). But the most sweeping categories are simply the cool and the not-so-cool. 

It seems to me that those who are loudest about engaging the culture for the advancement of the gospel are selective about which part of the culture they are trying to engage. If you interpret what they are saying by what they are doing, these hip pastors and their cool churches are targeting cool people who wear cool cloths and have cool haircuts and speak cool language while worshipping to cool music. When have you ever heard a church who is trying to reach the not-so-cool culture? I’m afraid that the proponents of cultural engagement try to reach the segment of the culture with which they most want to personally identify.

Yes, there are some exemplary ministries reaching the not-so-cool culture. I have been deeply impacted by those who minister to the impoverished, those who make great sacrifices to go overseas in missions, even those who minister to our children in Sunday School. But you rarely hear them telling everyone to join them in “cultural engagement.”

As Phil points out, all ministries engage the culture at some level. But engaging the culture is very different than imitating it.

The church of the 19th century wanted to engage the academic culture. Evolutionary propaganda was poking its finger into the chest of Bible believers who had the audacity to believe the supernatural events of Scripture, especially of the Creation account.  So the church tried to become intellectually credible (e.g., theistic evolution). I think the truth is that many simply wanted to avoid the tag that Christians were not intellectual. The end result was a fast slide toward liberalism through accommodation. Today we see something very similar. Whereas the church of the mid-1800s did all it could to avoid being labeled un-intellectual, the church today seems to be doing all it can to avoid being labeled un-cool. That generation wanted intellectually credibility, ours is after the credibility of coolness. I suspect that the undertow toward liberalism is not far behind.

I’m looking for the day when one of these hip churches plants a church that targets the nerd culture with a nerdy pastor who wears nerdy clothes with nerdy music. Until then, I remain suspicious.

14 Comments on “Cultural Engagement by Being Cool

  1. Very good article! I love the last paragraph! God doesn’t look at the outside, but at the heart…culture on the other hand, looks outward and not inward.

    Thanks, Rick!

  2. Thanks for the blog. I agree that there are churches that try too hard to be “cool.”

    However I have recently been involved in an Acts 29 church plant, and I have been amazed at how gospel-centered and missional minded (proclaiming the gospel, serving the community and the poor, and loving minorities/people different from them) they are!

    I admit I am more on the nerd side, so it was uncomfortable at first to hang out with them because they seemed cool. But after getting to know them, I realized that they don’t care at all about being cool!

    All that to say, there is a great movement of “cool” people who don’t really think that they are “cool” and are actually loving Jesus and the uncool crowd.

    I think we should rejoice in that!

  3. i also agree, but i find it discouraging, especially as a TMS student, when GCC people have said condescending words about people at my church not wearing ties. that is an appeal to a different type of “cool” or “correctness” and GCC does appeal to a certain culture, so this concept is not totally free from GCC either, as much as i love it.

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  5. Rick, if we were to move the hip church planters of Washington, Oregon, and California just one step east into the conservative I-15 Corridor (the LDS Corridor), they would then become counter cultural, I’m sure.

    My culture is Boy Scouts, a dominant Republican party, white shirts and ties, the Mormon Tabernacle choir, hymns, the KJV Bible, Sunday Sabbath — evangelicals that engage this culture are usually counter.

  6. To borrow a point made by Jerry Wragg (my pastor) at the recent Ekklesia Conference- when’s the last time you heard of a church plant/missional sub-culture whose ministry was to the “nerdy, pocket-protector-wearing, computer-programming, Simi-Valley” type? Why is it that these “missional-minded” brothers and sisters tend to (at least in America) choose the sub-cultures that fit their preferences and liberties, and not those that would restrict or challenge their liberties and tastes? To emphasize what Rick said at the same conference, Paul’s intent was to “give up” liberties for the sake of the gospel, not to “enjoy” and expand his New Covenant freedoms. That’s why “becoming all things to all men” is sacrificial language, not “leave-me-alone-this-is-my-right” language. Agree or disagree?

    • I’m not sure I would agree that the church plant/missional minded people choose to minister in the sub-cultures that fit their preferences and liberties.

      From what I can tell, missional people target cities and urban areas where there are a lot of people and a lot of diversity – where people are different from them. So in that sense, they are actually giving up their liberties and preferences for the sake of the gospel. I think the motivation is more about being in places where culture is made and where there are a lot of people. I believe Tim Keller’s influence is massive in this area.

      I would agree that we don’t hear as much about church planting among the nerds/suburbs, but I don’t think Pastor Wragg gets it totally right when he says it is because the missional minded people are doing it for selfish reasons or because it is comfortable.

  7. Great article Rick. Very well put. How many people are going to small towns in rural America to plant churches? It seems that most missional church planting starts in the major cities or rich suburbs. Where are the church planters who are willing to sacrifice by entering a small community where several churches are estalished and family runs thicker than blood? Where are the church planters bold enough to take that project on? In my estimation, it would not be that hard to go to Los Angeles, New York, or Dallas and plant a church. There are more people there and generally more money. With a little networking, some regular financial support, and hard work I think it would be fairly easy compared to trying to do the same thing in the rural mountains of North Carolina.

    Much of the missional church planting has a “high school” flavor and feel to it as you indicated. Furthermore, it seems to be overly pragmatic in its approach.

  8. Pingback: Rick Holland and Phil Johnson on Engaging the Culture « Reformed Bibliophile

  9. Pingback: Rick Holland and Phil Johnson on Engaging the Culture | Reformed Bibliophile

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