Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Preaching and the Culture

What is our call as Christians with regards to the culture? This comes to mind due to a recent blog I read about a pastor who is well known for his use of “foul” language and often overly graphic descriptions. This pastor is often defended by persons with equally colorful language. The point is usually that as this is what our culture is like and we need to reach this culture we need to relate to them as such and since the church is growing in an “unchurched area” then this must be OK.

The first point seems to say that since the culture lives a certain way and speaks a certain way we need to preach in the same manner. However, I am not sure this can be defended by scripture. The usual call is to such verses as 1 Cor 9:22 to bolster the claim that we need to do all that we can to save people. I don’t think Paul is saying he is becoming like an unbeliever so as to reach them but that he needed to come to them where they were to reach them. There is a vast difference in coming to someone in the condition they are in and not asking them to change first than to simply take on the persona of those we are to reach.

Before someone chimes in that we all take on culture in some form, you are correct. But this is not about trying to evangelize in Nigerian while traveling around Sweden. We do need to use words that are understandable to the listener but this does not necessitate using inappropriate language which scripture says in wrong, Eph 5:1-4. Simply because the culture sees something as normal does not dictate its normalcy to the believer. So yes there is a level of delivering the gospel that is done in a cultural context but there is also a limit.

As far as the argument that it must be Ok as many are coming to the Lord and the church I would have to say that size is not the arbiter of acceptability. Notice I did not say success because success in our world is often dictated by numbers as this particular pastor and others like him are seen as successes. Acceptableness is deemed by God, not man, and His word. Since scripture is clear that the use of foul language is inappropriate then I have to surmise it is inappropriate in all situations. Size may reveal the blessing of God but as we have seen over the years in the Western Church the number of attendees in a church does not necessarily correlate to spiritual transformation by God. Only time will tell if those that come to see the stage show are truly called of God or if they are there for the entertainment.

The bottom line is we are simply to preach the Word in a clear and understandable manner, as faith comes by the Word of God (Rom 10:17). It is not by ones exegetical prowess or mastery of speech but by the Holy Sprit that men and women are changed. One can claim to hold to the sufficiency of scripture but when one has to turn to means not dictated by God to deliver the message one is not truly showing a reliance on the sufficiency that may be preached.

This is not even necessarily about vulgar preaching, even thought tha is what instigated this, but it is about the vast numbers of preachers that claim to rely on God and His word but in practice rely on everything but His Word and the Holy Sprit to transform people. This is not trying to say that if one is in a foreign country one should not dress as those around them but is about trying to bridge the gulf between man and God with the materials of the world rather than the word of God. We have to seriously seek God’s word for what we are to do rather than our own understanding of how we think things should be.

I pray these thoughts were not too random as this was more me thinking out loud as there are numerous levels in which we let culture dictate what we do. We are often so entrenched in our culture that we become oblivious to it. The only way to combat this is to truly rely on the sufficiency of scripture and the sufficiency of scripture to reach His people through His Word plainly preached


Dave said...

Hi Tony. Its been too long since I posted anthing on your blog!

Eph 5:4 "filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking" is related to "sexual immorality... impurity and covetousness" (mentioned both before and after verse 4, the second time with a warning of Hell).

Doesn't this help us to understand what is underneath what Paul means when he warns us against foul language and crude jokes?

I agree with you that just because someone is in an unchurched area doesn't mean can speak like the unchurched. Truth is, the language of the World is filled with "sexual immorality... impurity and covetousness" which comes out in foul language.

I also agree that just because such a church is big, and growing, and making converts doesn’t make it acceptable. But that is what people care about. Big growing churches get heard (so do some pastors who speak at conferences and have ministry networks). Sometimes they get heard for good reasons. But our obsession with the "influential" Christian can border on the side of coveting.

I think the covetousness is found on both sides. The people who blindly imitate those rock star pastors and parrot them. And the people who feel the need to set these rock star pastors straight. I'm not saying there is no place for public correction. But our infatuation with publicly correcting a certain type of issues can be covetous because the issue isn't about Christ, but about power. People don't want some rock star pastors to have the influence that they do. Is it Christ or is it fear and envy.

I basically have problems with rock star pastor fans. I've met Driscoll fans that are way too crude. MacArthur fans who think everything hip is emergent and that Biblical Theology is the same as Liberalism. I've met Mahaney fans that looked down their nose on the non-Reformed. I've met Voddie fans that are like quiverfull Rambos.

Now I can read or listen too Driscoll, Macarthur, Mahaney, and Voddie and be helped by them. But their fans rarely help me.

That being said, I think "foul language" is a bigger issue with the fans of certain edgy pastors. Does the empty talk that comes from and leads too a filthy, covetous, sexually impure worldview? I think that is the Ephesians 5 test. Scripture uses graphic images that out of context can seem worldly. But in context warn and draw people away from the world and towards God. Can pastors do the same in preaching?

It seems to me that the lackeys are usually the ones who have immature character issues, more so than the high-profile people. Anyways, I kind of rambled I join with you in your prayer that this post would not be too random either!

Tony said...

Hi Dave, it has been some time.

You know I really did not want to say much on this subject but felt compelled to. I have really stayed away from the whole MD thing as it seems there are two camps: the MD groupies and the MD haters. I am sure there are people in between but of course usually those people are not vocal so you only here the two extremes.

Here is some interaction with your comments:

As far as Eph 5:4 the context may say that it is related to sexual immorality and impurity but I think that the “kai” that is there and for some reason not used in every translation seems to imply an additional item not simply building the one before (my understanding of “kai” being used here). Other translations read:

ESV: Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

ISV: Obscene, flippant, or vulgar talk is totally inappropriate. Instead, let there be thanksgiving.

HCSB: And coarse and foolish talking or crude joking are not suitable, but rather giving thanks.

ASV: nor filthiness, nor foolish talking, or jesting, which are not befitting: but rather giving of thanks.

What I saw as more important was that this talk was to be replaced by thankfulness so that it is sort of saying we are not to waist words but to use them to be thankful. So I think I still see here a call for believers to watch their language. But I would also say that we are not to be proud if we do not use language that is inappropriate as it is only by the grace of God we can do so. That is from one that had a very foul mouth before I was called out of darkness by God.

I think you are right on with the whole “influential” thing. It seems that many western, as this is all I really know, believers are just a star struck with “popular” pastors as the world is with it’s rock stars and sports figures. It is sad that many pastors that are not in the “loop because they do not pastor a big church are never heard even though they may have much to say.

I am not sure how the whole correction thing goes but it is things like blogs that have allowed this to proliferate. There is good in that many that surround them selves with their groupies and would never be corrected but the flip side is that everyone with a keyboard can weigh in on things they have no experience with. I am sure there is much fear and envy going around. I pray this does not come out in what I write. If it does I need to repent and change.

Again the whole rock star thing is a real issue. I have my favorite pastors, many of them dead but we have to still realize they are simply men. How we break this habit will simply take a work of God

My personal opinion on the use of language in sermons is that we need to use more care than trying to be “edgy”. It is God’s word that changes man and not my words. Yes, He uses our words as means of communicating to people but we need to probably preach more simply and do more relying on the Spirit of God to do the work of converting sinful man.

Well, as usual you made me think and I really appreciate that and look forward to hearing from you more. By the way you were not random but you may not be asking the right person about randomness because I think one random person see another’s possible randomness as orderly: )

Well back to my sermon preparation form tomorrow (Hebrews 11:8-10).

Dave said...

Hi again Tony. It has been a while. I didn't indent to implicated MD by your post. It is hard not to think of examples when when we are talking abstractly about (so-called) contexualization and language use. My heart is more trying to interact with your thoughts in thinking about the right Scriptural framework we would best look at this issue.

Right, i see how filthiness, foolish talk and crude joking is in juxtaposition with thanksgiving. I think my point and your point probably more of a both and. The Christian language should be filled with thanksgiving. And the crude language has roots in covetousness etc. I don't think I disagree with that.

I do feel there is a sense of vanity in what you say as trying to be edgy. But some people don't have to try to talk that, it is how they think and talk. That is why i think this issue is more complicated then just saying people shouldn't try to be edgy. I think that people who try to be edgy have a serious heart issue of wanting to be liked by a lost world. But I don't think everyone who gets labeled "edgy" operate out of such vanity.

On the other hand what do we say about people who aren't necessarily trying to sound edgy, but just are? I think it takes a lot more discernment in offering criticism if you want to be building up and not tearing down.

That is the reason why i emphasize the root. If someone is just edgy but in the context of their words it is filled with the gospel, and offering reason for thanksgiving it is really different than then another person who is trying to be liked. The latter person is building their own kingdom and not lifting up Christ.

Our approach to criticism probably shouldn't be "don't forget the rule to not use dirty language". Because people can rationalize around it by saying, "what is dirty language?". And really i don't see examples in Scripture on how far is too far. The closest you get is the clear issue of blasphemy, lying, and taking the Lords name in vain. But dirty language? What does that look like?

But Paul gives a picture of the what the language issue really is about. its about the Gospel change makes a person one who speaks out of thanksgiving and not out of a worldview of darkness. I think that is the principle we have to go by. And so we have to look at the fruit namely: Leads to thanksgiving, not from sexual immorality, covetousness, etc. Not empty word (words that have no effect in helping anyone).

So agree with you that a big church isn't the kind fruit that we should point to in order to justify someone's language. That is a mistake that some people make. Rather the fruit we should look for are related to his character, his qualifications as an elder, and the issues mentioned above.

Ok please don't let this take time out of your sermon preparation. hopefully you won't check you blog before church starts ;)

Its good talking with you Tony. I get kind theologically lonely over here. Its helpful for me to interact with these issues.

Tony said...

Now Dave, your trying to make me think aren’t you : )

You know while I did mention the initials of a certain pastor the truth is this whole area has been on my mind lately as I go through Hebrews. As I read about the faith that the author of Hebrews wants the original listener and us to have it seems clear that the faith that God supplies is also the faith that changes. This change (2 Cor 5:17) is not simply a change in position with God but a change in nature and thus action. This does not mean sudden perfection as we see from scripture that that is not so. But it would appear that this change is not simply about the heart as while it starts there the heart change results in an external change.

So while our conversation has been about language it is so much more than that. Col 3:7-8 speaks about putting aside what we once were and thus this is in effect speaking about putting on the new self that comes form the change that God brings to our lives. This may be a change in many things from language to actions to location but regeneration brings on change. Where this gets sticky is what dictates what we are to change to, obviously it is first from scripture but that is often not as clear as we would like. Do we look to our surrounding culture and see what is the norm and be like that? The problem there is that we are so often entrenched in our cultures that we find it hard to discern the good from the bad.

What I see from the life of Abraham, and this was used as an example for the 1st century Hebrew believers, is that we are to be strangers, aliens and pilgrims in this world. The picture is that we are to be different. This difference is not simply in one area but I think all areas. Thus if the norm in our lives is foul language or crude jokes that will change. If our norm is to see little wrong with the entertainment aound us that too may need to change. The point being is that I do not think we can look at the culture around us and see the norm and assume it.

I am far from saying what culture is to be the norm but I do think there is to be some form of “Christian” culture that reflects the glory of God in all of its aspects. It is about the heart but also about the offering. Until I studied Hebrews 11:4 more closely I always assumed the passage about faith was relating to Abel’s heart and that Cain’s heart was simply not right and that is why God did not accept his offering. But if you read the passage and associated passages in Genesis it becomes clear that the offering was also important and I would say the offering reflected the heart. Thus from the heart will flow the correct offering.

I guess my point, and with all things I am trying to figure out how to verbalize it, is that we need to be wary about simply relating things to the heart and not the action as we then become dualistic. So whether it be language, dress, or other behaviors we need to ask if we would do this in front of God and if what we do glorifies God or detracts from His glory. To ask ourselves are we strangers and aliens in this world. To be as Abraham is to live in the world, as he did in tents, but to be separated at the same time.

This is a good conversation as it has led me to think more about what it is to be a Christian and it is more then simply coming to faith in Jesus but it is living out that same faith obediently on a daily basis. The end result is being quite different from all that is around us and I think it is that difference that God uses to reach people more than we may think.