The Fear of Cultural Interaction

The old pastors like Joe Wiens, who fought modernist liberalism from a rural church in Montana, were either retiring or dying by the time I came into ministry. But I got a sense of who they were and what they experienced. Decades ago, Joe discovered that his denomination was sending missionaries around the world who didn't believe in the inerrancy of scripture, in the deity of Christ, or that Christ's death literally paid for sin. Joe was the mildest man you could meet, full of prayer and charity. But these discoveries were the beginning of the end.

He led his church out of the denomination.

This was not just an isolated misunderstanding. It was an experience repeated across the country, especially from the 1920s through the 1940s. Such conflicts may have been more decisive in casting the fundamentalist mindset than the rise of Darwinism. The average Christian witnessed a betrayal of his core principals not by unbelievers, but by hierarchies of the churches. Many took the lesson that interaction with the larger culture -- with its entertainment, education, and practices -- was a sure way to be unfaithful to the Bible.

The problem of how to influence the world without being poisoned by worldliness is one that evangelicals have not solved.

Fundamentalists have taught that believers must disavow not only outright sins, but also practices that lead to sin. Just this evening, I read a sermon outline from the pastor of a thriving suburban church in which he said that dancing, alcohol consumption, and movies were "slippery slopes," and called for "complete abstinence." Last week, Dale Fincher wrote about an incident at Cedarville that illustrates this mindset here. The university canceled an appearance by Shane Claiborne because Claiborne was seen as Emergent. Let one of their kind in, and what's next?

Fincher wrote that "anyone who is trying to live the good news of Jesus that has a different texture to mission than Christian fundamentalism will be suspect. There's little way around it. If you don't use the typical accepted vocabulary, then expect suspicion. I've been at the brunt of it myself with no good Biblical reason, but that I just don't fit the sub-culture."

In trying to preserve an alternative culture to mainstream America, fundamentalism kept out worldliness of a kind, but only by chaining itself to authoritarianism.

Broader evangelicals take a different view of interacting with the world. They have said that the only things wrong with non-Christian songs, movies, and educational institutions were the messages. We could use pop music and movies if we filled them with godly themes. So evangelicals have created an alternative universe of media, schools, and organizations devoted to copying the styles of secular offerings while delivering safe content.

I believe the effect on evangelical churches has been deadly. In the mimicry of secular pop culture, all the worst characteristics of American consumerism have been injected into the veins of corporate worship -- the passivity of the audience, the relentless me-focus, the suffocating sentimentality. And the mimicry has deprived evangelicals of the best aspects of pop culture: the creativity that takes art from the street and a shows it to a broader audience. Mimicry simply does not inspire.

When I say this result is deadly, I'm choosing my word carefully.

Evangelicalism does not present itself as a counterculture. It offers no contrast to the ways of vanilla suburbia, but insists that the blessings of Christ can be enjoyed without any sacrifices. Emergents are absolutely right in criticizing these aspects of evangelical culture, and in searching for deeper bonds. (See Len at NextReformation on a move toward missional orders here.) We are seeing the beginnings of a flight from the corpse of Christianity at the mall.

Both the fundamentalist and evangelical approaches seem to have had the same result. Believers have been taught only to shun the outside world, not to interact with it wisely.

For fundies, the shunning is literal. Evangelicals, for their part, try to shun with a smile, offering substitutes that taste just like the real thing. But a young believer stepping onto a college campus for the first time still has no idea how to present herself, still does not know how to articulate where she comes from, still cannot take what she has inherited and build a life in hostile territory. She knows that her cultural upbringing is simply not adequate.

We have to interact with the world without being poisoned by worldliness. This problem will not go away. So what can we do?

There are emergents who display biblical Christianity among people hostile to the gospel. They study and pray deeply, and they have found ways to communicate truth openly. These emergents don't need lectures on staying committed to God's word; they're living it.

There are conservative evangelicals -- even fundamentalists -- who also display biblical Christianity among people hostile to the gospel. They know how to interact with homosexuals, environmentalists, new agers of all stripes. They don't need lectures about openness; they're living it.

These two groups don't seem to agree right now. But if the majorities in the two groups can view each other outside the lenses of past antagonisms, they will start to talk. Their disagreements will become more specific, and their fellowship more broad.

Joe Wiens was no fighting fundy. He supported Billy Graham crusades from the early days when Billy would stop on the highway and pray with the local pastors -- pastors from many traditions. Joe knew how to interact with and learn from other Christians. He died a man of peace, not a man of bitterness.

By losing the fear of interacting with each other, even in disagreement, we may learn how to show wisdom to the world.