Exegeting the Culture or Teaching the Faith?

Someone will object, “But why can’t we do both?” Fair question but my growing impression is that those who talk most about “exegeting the culture” seem to spend more time doing that than teaching the faith. This has been an issue with the Crystal Cathedral (now Willow Creek) model for decades. “We’ll win them on Sunday and teach them on Wednesday.” Really? Apparently Wednesday has been removed from the calendar. If all these new converts were really being taught on Wednesday would they really stand for what passes for worship on Sunday? They can’t actually teach the Reformed faith on Wednesday with without provoking an all-rebellion and that would kill the goose laying the ostensible golden egg on Sunday morning.

R. Andrew Myers (HT: Wes Bredenhof) reminds us of the how the Huguenots taught native Americans to sing God’s Word (the Psalter) in French in the 1560s in Florida. We might quibble with their missionary strategy (one thinks of 1 Cor 14). Perhaps they also taught them French but Andrew has a passage from Robert Stevenson about the lasting effect of French psalmody upon one group of American natives.

My point is that we say that we want to reach the lost. We tell ourselves that in order to do that we have to “exegete the culture” the result of which is, it seems, to make the church look less like the church and more like the surrounding culture. My concern is that we’re not actually “reaching the lost” as much as we’re shifting baby-boomer evangelicals out of megachurches and other places and then ditching Reformed piety and practice in order to accommodate their revivalist assumptions and baggage.  If we are really about reaching the lost, do the lost, the unchurched, really care what we sing? Why will they be more attracted to “Shine, Jesus Shine” than to Psalm 23?

Could it be that we aren’t really “reaching the lost” at all but just telling ourselves that we’re “reaching the lost” in order to accommodate ourselves to the prevailing evangelicalism in order to boost our attendance numbers?

What hath “the mission” of the church to do with “church growth”? Can anyone show me a clear, sane, biblical, confessional case for concern about “church growth”? Reaching the lost? Fulfilling the mission? Making disciples, preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments, and administering discipline yes, but “church growth”? I don’t think so.


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  1. Dr. Clark, today Confessional Anglicans remember Augustine the Lesser, of Canterbury. 26 May. Augustine and his assistants arrived on the Isle of Thanet in 597 and were given Canterbury as their base by the King of Kent, Ethelbert.

    Tomorrow, 27 May, we remember the Venerable Bede, Presbyter in the Church of England. It appertains to the point of your post to bring both forward.

    A quote from Bede about St. Augustine of Canterbury:

    “As soon as they entered the dwelling-place assigned to them, they began to imitate the Apostolic manner of life in the primitive Church; applying themselves to constant prayer, watchings, and fastings; preaching the Word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as in nowise concerning them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living themselves in all respects conformably to what they taught, and being always ready to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached.

    In brief, some believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their blameless life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine. There was on the east side of the city, a church dedicated of old to the honour of St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, was wont to pray. In this they also first began to come together, to chant the Psalms, to pray, to celebrate Mass, to preach, and to baptize, till when the king had been converted to the faith, they obtained greater liberty to preach everywhere and build or repair churches.

    When he, among the rest, believed and was baptized, attracted by the pure life of these holy men and their gracious promises, the truth of which they established by many miracles, greater numbers began daily to flock together to hear the Word, and, forsaking their heathen rites, to have fellowship, through faith, in the unity of Christ’s Holy Church.

    It is told that the king, while he rejoiced at their conversion and their faith, yet compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow citizens in the kingdom of Heaven. For he had learned from those who had instructed him and guided him to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion. Nor was it long before he gave his teachers a settled residence suited to their degree in his metropolis of Canterbury, with such possessions of divers sorts as were necessary for them.”

    The Venerable Bede (?673-735). Ecclesiastical History, Book I, Chapter XXVI. How St. Augustine in Kent followed the doctrine and manner of life of the primitive Church, and settled his episcopal see in Canterbury.

  2. Isn’t “church growth” a clear, sane, biblical result of making disciples (Acts 9:31, for example)? I agree that we should focus on obeying Christ’s commission (“go make disciples”) and leave church growth to him (“I will build my church”, Jesus said). But must every attempt at making disciples in a culturally relevant way (like Christ modeled by leaving heaven’s culture and entering earth’s) be characterized as naturally leading to some gospel-message-killing church that is judged as “in the world and of it”?

    How about we merely judge each church by it’s fruit of making more and better imitators of Jesus Christ regardless of how they do it?

    What ever could you mean by wanting to keep the “church looking like the church” and “not like the culture”? Are you talking about faithfulness to the sacrements being practiced in a certain way? Are you talking about what sort of songs are sung, and how they are sung, at Christian assemblies? Are you speaking of protecting the practice of prayer, scripture reading, preaching and other important things as a regular part of church services?

    A church looks like the church when it is making disciples of Christ. Nothing more, and nothing less. Whether it sings “Shine, Jesus, Shine” or Psalm 23, or both, or neither, has little to do with the church looking like the church.

    Exegete the culture all you want, I say. Exegete scripture and cool religious practices found there all you want, too. Use a current movie clip and/or an ancient Christian practice to tell the story of Christ when you assemble. All of this can potentially look like “the church” whether it looks like the culture or not. How will we know? When that church is making a disciple-making difference outside of their walls.

    Let’s all go teach the lost folks of our communities to sing the Psalter in French if it successfully leads them into an initmate relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And if that doesn’t work, let’s try something else until it does.

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