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Are some churches too cool?

Jim Larson is a hero, pouring out his life as a missionary pulling young girls out of the sex trade in Bangkok. From my perspective, a guy like Jim has a credible platform to issue a critique of the church as he sees it. In this blog he takes on the cool factor in churches: Over the last…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
Jim Larson is a hero, pouring out his life as a missionary pulling young girls out of the sex trade in Bangkok. From my perspective, a guy like Jim has a credible platform to issue a critique of the church as he sees it. In this blog he takes on the cool factor in churches:
Over the last few years, churches have discovered coolness.

A pastor friend of mind likes to attend the cool church conferences
around the country–hip, branded events with names like Q, Echo,
Exponential and Orange.  Q–the ultimate coolness name–is happening
right now. I saw it on my friend’s Facebook page and looked at the
site.  Among the presentations this year are “Justice in the Suburbs”,
“Ensuring Social Entrepreneur Success” and “The Spirituality of the
Cell Phone”.

I am all for coolness in church.  I think Jesus was incredibly
cool.  It’s too bad that Clint Eastwood was never given a role playing
Jesus.  I can picture him, writing in the dirt, “Where’s the man?”,
then standing up with his back to the sun, calmly eyeing the blustering
Pharisees with rocks in hand for a few timeless seconds, spitting at a
beetle, then another pause, and finally monotoning a raspy “He who is
without sin, go ahead…” 

But I’m not sure that the current focus on coolness is even close to
that of Jesus, because, at least as far as I can tell from my outside
vantage point, it seems more concerned with packaging Jesus in cool
ways than actually being like Jesus.  Jesus was cool because he was
simply genuine and unpretentious, whether letting a prostitute kiss his
feet or chasing temple merchants with a whip.  The current movement
seems more concerned mainly with interacting with cultural ideas and
forms, both affirming and critiquing. 
 
To be sure, I see this as a huge
improvement over the church’s historical tendency to either criticize
or ignore most of culture outside of christendom (besides the Super
Bowl), or perhaps worse, to approve or reject cultural forms based on
nothing other than traditional taste.  When I was at Wheaton in the
70’s, secular classical musicians were hailed in concerts at Edman
Chapel while master guitarist Phil Keaggy was relegated to the gym.  In
that we’ve come a long way.

So churches are cooler now, but is it the right kind?  Is it getting
us any closer towards really making genuine disciples of all
nationalities, or is it in fact simply bringing our window dressing up
to date?  It’s one thing to be cool because it makes for good
marketing, and another because it’s simply who you are, single mindedly
focused on your mission. One must ask: if our focus were more on
directly being like Jesus than honing our packaging, may we not only be
far more cool, but far more effective?

Comments (19)

  • When Jesus and the Gospel are “packaged” like a consumer product we become guilty of what I call “commoditizing” the Good News. Having said that if you read the verses prior to the start of Acts 17 you see Paul doing “market research” before he commences with one of the great apologetic discourses of holy writ. There is a difference between being “relevant” and “trendy.” We have a growing culture of “Christian yacht clubs” where people pretend to have read weighty books, run from conference to conference, pontificate about silly things and make global suffering a soundbite for a DVD asking for money. There are many exceptions to that blanket statement. But in the main we are self absorbed, self promotional and casual with the KIngdom. I have been too. No more.

  • First off, some confessions. I have spent the past 20 years learning from Willow Creek, having launched the first “seeker friendly” church that lasted in the Boston area. In part, that effort was a desire to reach out to unchurched boomers in a region where evangelicals make up only 1% of the population (Barna). In part, this effort was a reaction to the stodgy and embattled church choices of my youth. Ten years ago, we hit a roadbump with unhealthy church conflict. Healthy church dynamics learned from Saddleback’s Purpose Driven movement helped right the ship. Our church (North River) is a clone of neither, but grateful to both.

    There are a handful of valuable lessons I have picked up along the way, while learning in the shadow of these megachurches and from their pastors. Marketing does not have to be a negative concept. The moment we print a bulletin or put a sign on the front lawn, we market. The questions are whether we do that poorly or well, or whether we are really building disciples or trying to be the hot church that gobbles up the least “sticky” members of other flocks.

    While I cannot say that either of the founding pastors of these two megachurches are close personal friends, I have met both several times and find that they remain just as passionate about seeing spiritually lost friends come to Christ as they were 20 years ago. They are not jaded by their success. Both lead churches that became “hot” churches, although that was not their specific desire or intent. They love pastors and they love churches and they go way out of their way to help sick churches get healthier. And they have both developed a love and respect for other church traditions around the US and around the world. Those who have been close to them have witnessed this for years. I think this would surprise many critics of modern church movements.

    The problems, though, often come from pastors and churches that merely copy and then try to take things up a notch in order to be the most trendy or the most purely seeker oriented. It kind of reminds me of another day when I ran into pastors who argued over whether we were reformed or truly reformed (T.R.). At that point, marketing goes beyond the quest for relevance to the pursuit of being trendier than the rest.

    My original desire in starting a new church was to find ways to communicate the gospel so that my unchurched friends could hear it. Our aim was to create a safe place where people could hear a dangerous message. Doing that opens us up to relevant art forms (dance, drama, video, poetry) and to relevant and changing musical styles. But the lines that we draw have much to do with intent. If the intent to merely to be trendy, we’re chasing the wrong thing. If the intent of any new method actually helps us communicate the gospel, or to challenge people to go deeper with Christ, then we can move ahead with integrity.

    Where I have found my greatest level of discomfort in learning from megachurches is in the area where success, publishing and conferences all gel. Writing is important because ideas have power and well written books change us. But as soon as the writer gets in bed with the publisher, or in bed with the conference planner, marketing takes over. Ideas that worked become models to sell. The book is no longer only the window to the writer’s soul, it is a product to be pushed and hyped by the publisher. The conference is no longer the opportunity to pass on ideas to fellow learners, it is a venue with a bottom line measured by butts in seats and by booths in the vendors section. How many conferences have we attended that left us feeling in the end that every talk was merely designed to get you to shell out the extra coin to buy another book?

    It may well be that a lack of what the world considers “success” is one of God’s greatest gifts to those of us who don’t have to be concerned with filling the conference or moving the book up the best seller lists. We can carry on with the simple and messy things that build the kingdom.

  • Why do we look to the Word to DO what Jesus says, but when it comes to the “Church”, we ignore not only WHY we gather, but HOW we gather? HE has something to say about that, too. We can have all sorts of ideas and philosophies and critiques, but doesn’t it come back to trusting that Father knows best?? Where do we see each and every member participating and distributing HIS grace for the strengthening of the whole Body! (And I don’t think that means finding a slot for that venue and cramming it into the traditional church structure somewhere.) I’m not meaning to be critical of my brothers and sisters, but I am weary of our not taking seriously what God is doing here on this. Why are we so bent on holding onto our precious manmade structures and then accommodate some of God’s ideas here and there within OUR structures? I too have seen godly motives and goals, but I am puzzled as to why we throw HIS way out the window?? Often, when it comes to the idea of changing the HOW, the dross of the motives and goals come to the surface. May we let Him remove the dross, be the Head and bow the knee. What then will we see happen on the earth?

  • Very interesting comments on here – thanks guys. It is a tough one. Undoubtedly God is alive and well and active in some of the “cool” places and conferences etc. But sometimes it does feel as if the meetings themselves become the focus, the experience of it all and the marketing paraphernalia that comes with it all.

    About 2 years ago Jesus showed me a picture of musical notes pouring out of my mouth. They formed up into a kind of banner, like you get flying behind a plane, and formed music staves that blew in the breeze. They flew up to Heaven and wrapped themselves around the feet of Jesus. Then they went higher and wrapped themselves around His body. I asked Him what it meant.

    He said “Your worship is first for My feet, then for My body.”

    Certainly in my life and service, I have had times of not noticing that I had switched that around. While genuinely wanting to be seeking God, to be after His heart, to be pouring out my love for Him in worship, I could actually switch focus and it would all be first for His body, second for His feet.

    I think in the cool conference/church thing, that is often what has happened. The body becomes the place where it all happens and the focus becomes internal. Thinking that you are seeking God because you are doing Christian things within the church – be it music, outreach, teaching, whatever – is a subtle shift but a shift nonetheless.

    It must be first for the feet of Jesus. Only after that for His body. At the feet of Jesus, what He wants you to do becomes clear. If the focus is within His body first, the opinions will be manifold and they will ring in your ears until you can’t hear that still small voice speaking to you anymore. Feet first, Him first, not things about Him – in that you may or may not be cool and relevant culturally, but you will be doing what He tells you to.

  • Thanks for sharing, Carol. That was great! I want to add a picture God gave me regarding God being alive, well and active in some of the “cool places.” He is FAITHFUL and present where His people gather. He’s been coming and filling up the box He’s been given to every edge of the corner. In that box, we can be very excited about His presence and work. But God would rather blow off the sides and top of the box…and take the lead.

  • Kathy, that’s great. I love the picture of the box.

    I do believe that. God is going to go wherever His people are, but of course that doesn’t mean everything that happens when they meet is from Him or for Him or part of His heart. I think the most amazing attribute of God is His incredible patience! I don’t know how He does it!!!

    But He is sovereign so He will have His way in the end. Good to know we won’t scupper His plans, despite how it looks from this end of the telescope!

  • There are some good comments here. To me the issues are whether being “cool” becomes the goal, or does it change the message, or does it change the object of our affection, or does it effect our ability to follow God in ministry or does it make us a bad financial steward. If we can honestly say “no” to these questions, what is the harm in being “cool.” There is nothing spiritual about being out of touch with today’s culture, or being a social misfit, or acting like the world has not changed in 20 {or in some cases 60} years, or being boring or not reaching people. It is really like so many other things in our Christian lives, it comes down to priority and balance.

  • Amen and Amen! Excellent blog and excellent comments! I think the fruit can decipher between just trying to be cool and actually being cool for Jesus! That’s what I look for. Man, I have an awesomely cool church! And it has sooo much fruit for the Kingdom, beginning with being extremely missions minded and totally outward focused!

    Ah man how I hate boring and religious places. eew!

  • I like what Butch and Paul said about the line between relevant and trendy. I think our intentions are a big part of the dividing line. But perception on the receiving end is also important and should be considered in decision-making as well. It is hard to know how to share Jesus with people without selling him out.

  • Great post – great interaction – thanks everybody.
    I resonate with what was written by Paul regarding Willow and Saddleback. Most often those critical of these ministries are either going off of rumors and unreliable info OR they are basing their judgments on other churches that have tried to thoughtlessly be a clone of these ministries. That just doesn’t work! Each church needs to answer God’s specific call for them. I highly recommend a book by Will Mancini – Church Unique. Best quote from Will: “Your church can’t be anything it wants to be, but it can be everything God wants it to be. Don’t be shy about who you are; embrace and exploit it on behalf of your mission.” P.132

    It is indeed impossible to NOT “package” or “market” the gospel – in missions its called contextualization. Why would that be criticized in our own local setting?

  • Great interaction and thoughtful dialoguethanks.

    My temptation towards the spiritual venereal disease of cynicism is driven by the 20 years I’ve spent as a fund development and marketing consultant to the Kingdom enterprise globally. It’s been a wild journey to be sure. I’ve seen naked emperors with no clothes, marketing supplanting ministry efforts and fundraising strategies which while successful had a chorus line of people when asked about tangible ministry impactsinging in unison: “Take no regard for the man behind the curtain”.

    I’ve also seen wonderful, humble, contextualized, innovative efforts to share the Gospel. AIM does that.

    In the end when endless conferences, books, tapes and training materials create a soundbite culture of lemmings jumping off a popular cliff all the while bellowing out”Wheeeee look at us!” you know something is amiss. A few years ago I went to hear a very popular emergent movement speaker and as I looked around the room realized many people were dressed just like himright down to the funky glasses. I guess emulation is OK. It seems best when Jesus is the one we are emulating.

  • I was blessed to have met and serve alongside Jim Larson and his wife for a stint. Check out what they’re doing in Bangkok through the ministry there – remarkable servants. It was an unexpected joy to open this blog and see that pic.

  • I think there is too much “world” in the church. Satan, over the years drew the line, then cross it out, drew another line etc until we finally have the churches we have today. So now, people can easily fit from one way of life into a church life a bit like changing from one kinda club to the other. Your life can be filled with programmes and meetings and Jesus is packaged in a lovely way of “Jesus meek and mild, full of grace and Hes not so mean. He is not some big God beating you up with a stick” attitude. Grace in abundance but sin and repentance watered down “because we are all under grace now brother.”
    As long as you put your name down on the rota for tea, coffee or clearing the chairs away, youth clubs, welcoming party or whatever way you can participate and “lay down your old life ” for this new one.

    Being led by the Holy Spirit has been replaced by mans new knowledge of “how to minister” what formulars to use when prayer for someone in need. Everyone knows how to use “church” talk, they know how to behave and what is expected of them.It says in Daniel that ” in the last days knowledge will increase” it also says in the new Test. how God will send a decieving spirit that will deceive many. Jesus gave many warnings about like the 10 virgins, half let there fire go out even though they were waiting for the bridegroom.They were shut outside with the rest of the “evil doers”.

    Where is the church God desires? The one way people “walk in the light” with real transparency. Relationships deep, spirit to spirit. No one judging each other but have an over whelming hunger for righteousness and Holiness so constantly pray for one another and correct one another as we try to get rid of all that Satan binds us up with? Where is the real unity? where is the real love? The love that will stop at nothing to stop someone being ensnared by the enemy. The love that leads you onto the battle field to fight on behalf of another person? The love that would drive you into the gates of hell and back just to rescue someone?

    Church to me is nolonger going to a building, its gathering a few trusted friends round a table for a meal whilst we share “God stories”. (The things God has been doing since we last saw each other.) We pray for one another, watch one anothers back as Satan tries his best to cause us trouble and disunity. These trusted friends are radical. They will go whever God sends them. We find ourselves on the streets of our city praying for the drug addicts and the homeless. It leads us to go buy food for the hungry. It leads us to stand down the town on a busy Saturday afternoon and preach the living word hoping that “those that are called out” will pass by and we can pray for them there in the broad daylight, not behind closed doors.

    Churches in my city have nothing to offer me. They are restricted and control by men. God is put on a leash and is not allowed to leave His box. Man has lost his reverance and fear for an Almighty God the one who STILL hates sin because the pendulam has swung far the other way so its all about grace now. There is no healthy balance.

    Sorry if this sounds a bit harsh for all you guys in USA who have a different experience of church. All I can say is it never used to be like this but things have seriously changed.

  • This is my last comment on this posting but certainly not the last day of struggle with the issue. Get a copy of George barna’s book: “REVOLUTION” I had the privilege of serving as one of twelve people on a “Revolutionary Council” which wrestled with the very issues identified in our exchange here. It’s a good read and data driven.

  • Im glad its not just me! Thanks for that Kathy!. The thing that gets me is that me and my friends are treated with much suspition if we ever attend a church. One church that I left about a year ago, didnt like the fact I wouldnt sign up to their rota. They saw this as a “lack of commitment to the body of Christ”. My first annoyance with this was that if I sign up then I am restricting the leading of the spirit on any particular day..” Sorry God I cant go there right now to pray for that person on the street who feels suicidal because I have to set the chairs out, Im on the rota!” It was very noticable that when I was out on the streets praying with teenagers every week, many feeling a very real touch from God, I didnt see ANY of these church leaders doing it!

    I also struggled with a statement someone said to me about how the church is great at adapting to people. Special meetings had been set up for a few druids who had decided to give their lives to the Lord. She said that there was no way they would cope in “normal” church so special meetings take place.

    I thought the whole point of LAYING DOWN YOUR LIFE TO FOLLOW JESUS meant you turn away from all that is not Godly? Not bring in the world in just to please the person and ease them into the kingdom? Surely that is a serious changing the goal post situation?

    I get accused of not being “interested or commited to the Body of Christ” yet I would die for my christians friends. I get accused of being a heritic and “too radical” yet everything I do is scriptural.

    Well, my kitchen table is open for anyone who wants to share God stories….especially on a Sunday morning as Im not in church!

  • Sue,
    Thank you for you comments! When 2 or more are gathered in His name, it is worship! My example from today, went to the store and ended up talking with the guy at the paint counter. We went from cement stain to the blessings of rain in our gardens. He told me to have a blessed day and I spun around. He smiled and said “Yes dear sister, God is even at Home Depot!” It was time for his break and we sat and prayed for his young son who is sick.

    God wants us to reach out to each other every day and in every way that we can. He is not just about Sunday and Wednesday nights. To live and commit to the Body of Christ, you are so right, we need to blow away the walls and roof.

    As a dear friend told me, we need to let God’s love embrace us with all that is unique in our up close and personal relationship with him. He made us all different, all with that unique road map. Why? Because he wants interaction on so many different levels and gingerbread men and women would be soooo boring.

    Blessings to you this day, in your own very unique and wonderful way.
    Patti

  • Patti

    it is a blessing to read your comment. THAT is what I call church living. Many many blessings to you! Its that kind of walk that leads to the miraclous out on the streets of the Western World blowing this orderly life to pieces! I heard of one guy who had a word from God whilst buying his shopping.He stepped out in faith and asked around if anyone had a particular illness God had just revealed to him. Someone said it was them, he prayed, they got healed and before you know it the people working in the shop were asking over the tanoy if anyone needed prayer. The Spirit of God just filled the place and lives were radically changed!

    It doesnt matter where we live on this planet God just wants to use us in our daily walk.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.



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