There is a thin line that one must walk, but never cross, between relevance and compromise, between translation and transformation, between being “in” the world and being “of” it. Which is why I’m growing increasingly concerned about a trend within churches and church leadership that I will call “Pop Church.” Yes, as in “pop culture.”
Pop Church is where the overarching goal seems to be hipness and cultural acceptance, not for the gospel’s sake but for its own sake. And, at almost any cost.
These churches have names like Eruption, Zeitgeist, Factory and Distillery. Okay, I made those up… but you get the drift. They are the names one would choose for a band, not a church. Which, they would probably say, is the point.
The mission is to go viral, which is precisely what anyone who prays for spiritual awakening is after. But in Pop Church, it’s more about the brand or the leader going viral in a culturally affirming way. Meaning, becoming the next U2.
And speaking of the leader, the more Kardashian-style posts on Instagram, the better. This explains the eagerness not only to self-promote on social media (“Watch me cut my hair! Watch me color my hair!”), but also to pursue anything that provides exposure. Shooting a pilot for a talk show on Amazon, getting on Oxygen or following in the footstepsof Ellen almost seems to be the goal (Using a church or ministry to springboard into wider cultural fame.).
There seem to be few rules to follow besides being the kind of person you would want to share a bowl of acai with. First, avoid any public positions on moral issues; translation: anything about the LGBTQ community. Same with abortion. The cardinal sin would seem to be alienating any cultural demographic. So whatever you believe the Christian faith would dictate along those lines in terms of stance or conviction is relegated to something privately engaging, but socially irrelevant.
Second, be fun. As one Pop Church leader said: “If you aren’t making people laugh, what are we doing? What is the point?” One would think the “point” would be making people think. But no – in Pop Church the point is to make them feel entertained.
Even the New York Times laid out the path for any Pop Church wannabe: “First, they lease an old theater or club. Next, they find great singers and backup musicians. A fog machine on stage is nice. A church should also have a catchy logo or catch phrase that can be stamped onto merchandise and branded – socks, knit hats, shoes and sweatshirts… And lastly, churches need a money app [like Pushpay] to make it easy for churchgoers to tithe with a swipe on their smartphone.”
The cynicism is palpable.
It’s not that any of these things are, in and of themselves, to be avoided. It’s how they are being manipulated not for the sake of the gospel, but the sake of self-promotion and wider cultural acceptance.
Pop Church seems built around goals of achieving a Sally Field moment at the Oscars (“You like me! You really like me!”). So the ultimate cultural “win” is not making a difference in culture, but getting culture’s stamp of approval. Which is why the holy grail seems to be engaging with any cultural celebrity who has a Jesusy side – not for their testimony, per se, but to snap a selfie to post (“Paging Chris Pratt… wait… make it Justin Bieber.”).
Richard Niebuhrs’ classic work on Christ and culture outlined two very different approaches to cultural engagement. One was being the Christ of culture, and the other being Christ the transformer of culture. The first approach simply mirrors the world; the second attempts to change it. Pop Church seems much more interested in being the “Christ of culture” model, where Jesus bends and molds Himself to culture in order to be accepted.
And again, with acceptance the ultimate goal and rejection the ultimate fail.
But the actual gospel of Jesus is very different. There, we have Christ as the transformer of culture. Yes, we build cultural bridges across which we can walk to a post-Christian world. But we walk across it for a very specific reason—to offer something to the world it does not already have.
I have written that there are three primary “voices” we can employ in our cultural engagements: the prophetic, the evangelistic and the heretical. In short, the prophetic denounces where needed, the evangelistic builds bridges of understanding with an eye toward conversion, and the heretical distorts the gospel for, say, acceptance.
We must recapture a blend of the prophetic and the evangelistic while avoiding the heretical at all costs. I do not believe Pop Church has embraced a heretical voice.
I just think its goals may inevitably lead it there.
James Emery White
*Laura M. Holson, “Instagram Age Has Its Pastor,” The New York Times, Sunday, March 18, 2018, read online.
*I offer this source due to the NYT quote in the blog, but I want to say that I do not make it a practice to criticize other Christian leaders, and that, by citing this, I am not trying to demean the motives or character of this particular person or church.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.