The Tyranny of Cool

I’ve been thinking of late about the whole “seeker-driven” paradigm of church.

The idea seems to appear in various guises, from the entirely seeker-driven model in which the whole way of doing church is structured around supposed appeal to non-believers down to the notion that we must have “cutting edge” worship music if we’re going to attract new people.

Frankly, I’m in two minds about the whole thing.

On the one hand, the idea of cultural relevance is not without merit. I’ve experienced enough other cultures to recognise that the way we do church here in the West isn’t necessarily the only one, nor the right one, nor even necessarily a good one among people whose basic assumptions and cultural patterns are different.

St. Paul understood this. His testimony that “to those under the Law I became like one under the Law (though I myself am not under Law but am under grace)…” lays out a pattern of taking on the language and ways of your hearers without compromising your core identity, which is in Christ.

Jesus did much the same thing in His incarnation. Without compromising His Deity in any way, He took on human nature and became one of us.

Can the same principle be applied to postmodern Western culture? Undoubtedly. Even culture changes with the passage of time (witness the fact that, among other things, astrology is no longer considered a science), and the church that becomes too wedded to the spirit of one age may find itself divorced from the next.

More directly put, if we as the Church are trying to answer questions that no-one is asking, or filling cultural needs that don’t really exist any more, then people will look for something that does meet those felt cultural needs.

On the other hand, I have to wonder about the whole idea of the seeker-driven model of church.

It seems to suffer from a difference of opinion about what our meeting together is for. The seeker-driven model seems to me to make the purpose of our meeting together primarily evangelistic. Church gatherings are structured to please those who are being brought in: concert-level performances by worship bands who differ only in content from any chart-topper, brief evangelistic talks rather than long, in-depth Biblical sermons, arena-style seating and an ambience only one remove from a rock concert.

I wonder when (actually “whether”) these new people get discipled. When do they read and study the Bible and learn to apply it? When do they learn he fine art of prayer?

In my reading of Scripture, the disciples met together for mutual encouragement in Bible study, worship, prayer and the breaking of bread, then went out to evangelise. Church gatherings were for the believers; in the days of persecution in might not have been wise to invite anyone you weren’t sure of, lest they blow the whistle to the authorities and get a lot of people arrested and killed. Not that the early church were secretive about their faith, but as I read the Acts and the New Testament letters, I’m much more inclined to the view that their gatherings were for encouragement, not evangelism.

The seeker-driven model stands this on its head. I suupose in some ways it’s a product of our discomfort with the idea of personal evangelism. “I don’t know what to say to tell someone about Jesus; why don’t I just invite them to church?” In some circles we seem to have substituted an invitation to church for the invitation to Christ.

Every few years another evangelism book floats to the surface, with its own new cheesy terminology to replace the dreaded E-word. When I was at university it was “becoming a contagious Christian”, which was just as dire as it sounds. After all, we isolate people who are contagious, don’t we?

As one who grew up in the faith, it took me decades to make my peace with the idea of evangelism, and some day I may write my own evangelism book: the first one written by a non-evangelist. It’ll be a very short book, though, because evangelism is actually very simple. There are three steps:

  1. Spend time with God listening to Him.

  2. Do whatever He tells you.

  3. Repeat step 1.

Of course, characterising this as “very simple” puts me in mind of von Clausewitz’ famous dictum: “In war, everything is very simple, yet even the simplest things are very difficult.”

The seeker-driven service seems to place the onus of evangelism upon the pastor, not the congregation. I may be missing something here, but last time I looked, the Great Commission was commanded of us all.

The other problem I have with the whole “seeker-friendly” idea (and this applies more to its less extreme incarnations) is that it tends to turn our attention as a church onto what’s trendy rather than what’s true.

As St. Paul demonstrates, the two are not mutually exclusive, but I do wonder sometimes whether our quest for “relevance” and “cutting edge contemporary” isn’t just putting us under a kind of “tyranny of cool”.

“We can’t use PowerPoint slides; that’s so five minutes ago!”

“This new worship song may be a pile of manure, theologically speaking, but if we don’t use it we won’t be contemporary!

Church isn’t about following the latest trends. It never has been, except when it’s going bad. No-one in the days of Nero followed Jesus because it was popular or trendy, though the use of contemporary buzzwords like “salvation” and “fullness” by the early church shows that they were indeed speaking the language of the times.

People don’t follow Jesus because of our excellent cutting-edge music. Lots of people in the West are becoming Muslims or Buddhists, and Islam bans the use of music in its worship while Buddhism doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of God and doesn’t have “worship”. Obviously, the cool music is what attracted them, right?

Yeah, I thought so.

Cool is a moving target. Pursuing cool, as a church, opens us for a never-ending chase of something ephemeral and this-worldly.

We’ve got real substance to offer people. Community that means it, when we’ll get over lying to each other about how we’re doing or trying to look like “proper victorious Christians” all the time. The actual, one-and-only source of Life. A mission with real teeth and real impact. There are battles to fight and great deeds to be done.

By all means be contemporary if that is where God is leading you as a church. But don’t seek contemporarity as a means to growth. Being contemporary is just what you look like. If you don’t have the earnest desire to do the will of God behind it, it will fail.

To paraphrase Proverbs: “Cool is deceptive and relevance is fleeting, but a church that fears the LORD will endure.”

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One thought on “The Tyranny of Cool

  1. Wonderful post and I just imagine you and I see eye to eye on this. The seeker driven model is the opposite of what church should be about, and “personal evangelism” is scary because many church members haven’t been discipled and have no clue of how to share The Lord. Actually, evangelism should just happen in life. Great job!!!

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