Church, Relevancy, Race

Last week I read a depressing post my Marc5Solas “Top 10 Reasons our Kids Leave Church.” I made reference to Reason #10 in my sermon this Sunday, namely, “The Church is Too Relevant.”  I encourage you to read the whole post when you have time (especially if you’ve got kids/teens in the church). I think he points to something important, yet difficult. What do we mean by ‘relevant’. If you mean ‘understandable’ or ‘applicable’, then of course I think we should be relevant. We shouldn’t speak in King James speak, or hide our light under the bushel of inaccessible theological jargon. And we shouldn’t leave these wonderful truths unapplied to the real life concerns of people. So ‘relevant’ in that way is fine. But, the word ‘relevant’ is often code speak for ‘cool’ or ‘my style’. That’s a problem.

The author of the post asks us to consider what this ‘posing’ and ‘fawning’ does to our children. If we’re trying to make our faith ‘cool’, but they soon realize it isn’t, will it drive them to leave the church? I agree with the author, trying to interest or re-interest our kids in church by making it cool is a colossal mistake.

There’s another angle to take on this. Consider what our desire to be relevant will mean for the church as America continues to fragment into more and more subgroups like crazy.  Think about music for a minute. How confusing are the genre selections on Slacker Radio (which I love)?  Not just Rock, Pop, Country, R&B, Hip Hop, Blues, etc.  Under Alternative (my genre of choice) you’ve got Alternative, Adult Alternative, Classic Alternative, Alternative Hard Rock, Alternative Chill, Punk and Classic Punk, to name a few). No longer is the youth culture broken down into the jocks, nerds and dirtbags (the taxonomy from my high school days). Now there’s all kinds of subgroups … most I have no idea what they mean (yep, I’m out of touch).

Each time we try to make the church cool, we have to pick a subgroup to be cool for: a genre of worship, a style, a look, an ambiance. Well, what’s cool for a jock who likes hard rock will be a turn off for a John Deere driving bumpkin from the country who likes Travis Tritt. Going emo probably won’t attract all those baby-boomers out there who like their music light and poppy. Etc. etc.

Just being a little Chicken-Littleish? I don’t know, consider what being relevant has done to the church racially (what follows is an edited post I wrote in 2010).

The way we do church in America is bound to continue the strong racial divide in our churches and offers little hope of overcoming it. With few exceptions, the divide is profound and troubling. The authors of Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America cite a study by Lincold and Mamiya:
“Seven major black denominations account for more than 80 percent of black religious affiliation in the United States…Moreover, the remaining 15-20 percent of black Christians are scattered among numerous small black sects, the Roman Catholic Church and the mainline white Protestant denominations. The overwhelming majority of the latter are in predominately black congregations, despite denominational affiliation with white communions.” (16).

Why are we still so racially segregated on Sunday mornings? Certainly the tensions of the past has something to do with that (and that will come up in my second point). However, I think it probably has more to do with the approach to church and ministry that has been adopted in evangelical community. Going back at least to the 19th century and the revivals referred to as the Second Great Awakening, and even more so in the ministries of men like DL Moody, there were attempts to make church less ‘churchy’ and more appealing to the non-religious. Sermons were more entertaining (so Billy Sunday might jump up on a pulpit to keep peoples attention), songs were more common (Ira Sankey’s tunes), etc. That trend continued, and intensified, in the ‘seeker sensitive’ movements of the 80-90s (and today). Now, drama’s video clips, and contemporary secular music became regular part of Sunday morning worship. Rick Warren describes how he went door to door asking people what they wanted in a church service before planting Saddleback.

Do you see the problem here? Black and White America have very different tastes when it comes to entertainment. It becomes virtually impossible to appeal to both segments of American society through entertainment. Musical expressions are quite different. TV watching trends are also stunningly different. The authors point out that during the 95-96 viewing season, only two of the top twenty shows watched by black viewers cracked the top twenty shows watched by white viewers – Monday Night Football and ER (which as 20 on the list for black viewers and number one among white viewers). The top three shows among black viewers weren’t on the radar of white viewers, coming in at 122nd and tied for 124th. What does that mean for the church? Unless someone is willing to set aside their tastes, preferences, etc., an integrated worship experience isn’t going to happen. And, unfortunately, nobody seems very willing to do so – witness the worship wars in which one generation of white church goer was/is unwilling to set aside their preference for hymns or praise and worship for the other.

What’s the solution? I don’t know. Reading the book, however, I am embarrassed by the churches unwillingness to think deeply about it. Maybe the solution is a return to more historic, liturgical, otherworldly forms of worship that would make blacks and white equally uncomfortable. The feel in many churches today is that of a night club or concert arena. In other words, it feels very much a part of ‘this world’. Maybe the solution is to embrace the other worldliness of worship, the heavenliness of it. Certainly that would feel foreign to us, to everyone. But is that a bad thing?