The Wheaties Principle
Dr. James Emery WhiteJames Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
- 2012 Apr 16
I grew up with Wheaties, the cereal known as the “Breakfast of Champions.” You knew an athlete had arrived on the cultural scene if their picture landed on the front of one of its boxes.
But Wheaties has fallen on to hard times of late. There are many reasons, but industry insiders say that the heart of the matter is simple.
It’s in “no-man’s land.”
That’s my terminology, but here’s what the pundits are saying: Wheaties isn’t healthy enough for the Fiber One crowd, and isn’t bad enough for the Frosted Flakes crowd. That’s “no-man’s land.” By not positioning itself firmly in any camp – not quite the health food, not quite the fun food – it reaches no one.
It’s not just cereal that can fall into this category.
The heart of “no-man’s land” for a church is not being targeted enough to reach the unchurched, but being too targeted to the unchurched for the churched.
Such churches are too tilted to those exploring the Christian faith to have their weekend services attract large numbers of traditionally-minded, church-is-for-me believers; yet too caught in the cultural trappings of traditional church to attract explorers – or at least have their members feel comfortable inviting their unchurched friends.
Why is this it so common for churches to find themselves in “no-man’s land”?
It’s because many churches get the surface issues of connecting with those outside of the church, but little more. They get the music, the dress, the style. Yet they don’t go far enough in leading the church to have a missional heart to reach out to those outside of the church and invite them in, and then to have culturally-informed and culturally-sensitive messages and environments that address the questions and concerns of our day.
In other words, they have style but not substance, décor but not decorum. They’re trying to stand on Mars Hill with an Acts 17 vibe, but they’re doing it with a Jersualem/Acts 2 DNA.
(*If you want more on the Acts 2/Acts 17 divide, see the link below under “Sources”).
So they end up reaching neither group.
In other words, they know about Mars Hill, talk about Mars Hill, even yearn for Mars Hill, but they don’t really know, in an intuitive sense, how to stand on it. They are cultural critics, even cultural students, but not cultural apologists. A real Mars Hill person could spend 10 minutes in their service and see a mindset oriented toward the already convinced of Jerusalem playing out all over the place.
Now, just to be clear: there is nothing in this conversation that is an attempt to criticize what I’m calling a Jerusalem, or traditionalist, approach. Peter was quite effective at reaching the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem with his message. However, I would urge anyone to realize that the world is increasingly become more like Mars Hill every day. Meaning more openly pagan and pluralistic, and less filled with the God-fearing folk that populated Jerusalem.
There’s something else worth considering.
If you go fully traditional (and I don’t mean simply style, but in terms of reaching out primarily to the already convinced), you will reach a narrow segment of believers. But if you go with a full Mars Hill approach – not merely polish and veneer, but all the way as the apostle Paul did in Acts 17 – you reach the largest segment of the already convinced as well. I’ve been watching this carefully, not just at Meck, but in churches around the world. The more you speak directly into the heart of culture, the more you reach both believer and explorer.
The reason is simple: the divide between the believer and the explorer is, at this moment in time, almost non-existent. Their questions, concerns, challenges and struggles have become virtually identical. Both are spiritually illiterate yet hunger for spiritual experience. Both have grown up in a post-Christian context and share a wisdom-deficit along with theological hunger. Both are eager to know how Christ intersects the deepest needs of their life and speaks to the deepest questions of their mind.
You pick where your church should stand – Mars Hill or Jerusalem. I would, of course, argue for Mars Hill. But whatever you do, there’s one place you don’t want to find yourself.
James Emery White
“KOed by Count Chocula? Why Wheaties cereal is struggling,” Darren Rovell with cnbc.com, USA Today. Read online.
For more on the distinction between an Acts 2/Jerusalem approach, and an Acts 17/Mars Hill approach, see James Emery White, “Not In Kansas Anymore”, churchandculture.org. Read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying Through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.