One of the great challenges that all Christ followers – and particularly Christian leaders – face is finding our voice culturally, specifically in speaking to Generation Z. As a generation, they hold few things dearer than acceptance and inclusivity. To them, acceptance means affirmation. If you don’t affirm, you don’t accept. This unfortunately permeates all of culture, not just Generation Z, where to be considered “welcoming” is code for condoning all lifestyle choices.
So what kind of “voice” should we use?
Biblically, there are three primary voices speaking into culture: the prophetic, the evangelistic and the heretical. The prophetic voice, such as Jeremiah’s, is clear in its denunciations and warnings. The prophetic voice is an admonishing one, a “thou shalt not,” a clarion call to turn to God and get right with God. It is not a popular voice for culture to hear. That is why it is not a popular voice for Christians to use. Quick: name a popular prophet. See? As an old seminary professor of mine once quipped, “Assume a prophet’s voice, expect a prophet’s reward.”
The second voice is the evangelistic voice. This is the apostle Paul standing on Mars Hill (Acts 17). It is the voice attempting to build bridges across cultural divides, to explain things, to make apologetic cases. The evangelistic voice is focused on calling people to a relationship with Christ as Forgiver and Leader.
The final voice is the heretical voice. To be sure, heretical voices in the Bible are never celebrated, but they are noted. The false prophets of the Old Testament and the false teachers of the New Testament are frequently detailed. As the apostle Peter declared: “There will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). This is the voice that not only speaks against the gospel but also, more specifically, attempts to distort the gospel’s presentation to culture itself.
The heretical voice is most at play and seems to be the most seductive for Christian leaders when attempting to engage culture. It is tempting to try to connect with a post-Christian culture by mirroring its post-Christian values and sentiments.
For example, Rob Bell, former pastor and frequent guest on Oprah Winfrey’s television network, maintains that a church that doesn’t support same-sex marriage is irrelevant. Bell had earlier questioned the existence of hell in his 2011 book Love Wins. Bell made the comments about gay marriage on an episode of Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday, where he appeared with his wife to talk about religion and spirituality. He called the church’s acceptance of gay marriage “inevitable”, and the reason that it should be accepted is because loneliness “is not good for the world.”
“I think culture is already there,” Bell continued, “and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.”
His thinking is that for a church to be relevant, it must not only embrace homoerotic behavior but also jettison Scripture as any kind of authoritative guide to this or (seemingly) any other cultural issue in which public opinion goes against Scripture. The new source of revelation is personal fulfillment. In this case, no one should be lonely, so whatever fills the loneliness gap should be affirmed.
We must understand the danger of such an approach. Yes, it landed Bell on television. Yes, it was and is a popular stance culturally. But if the Bible is to be cavalierly abandoned as mere “letters from 2,000 years ago”, then historic orthodoxy has truly been abandoned. Christians embrace the Old Testament as inspired by God because Jesus did, and the New Testament as equally sacred because it is based on the teaching of Jesus and His apostles. If we relegate the Bible to less than the revelation of God, then we are relegating Jesus to less than the Son of God. As Christians, we can have robust discussions on the nature of inspiration, and certainly on the dynamics of interpretation, but not on the authority of the Bible itself.
That was established by Jesus.
Further, to adopt self-fulfillment and self-satisfaction as the ultimate apologetic is to make the self central to all things. This was, of course, the great temptation put before Adam and Eve in the garden that led to the fall of humanity. Pursuing whatever we desire is not what is best for the world.
What is best for the world is when we submit our desires to what is best for the world. And that is determined by God.
Finally, the “relevance” of a church is not found in its capitulation to culture, but its transformation of culture. Any student of ecclesiastical history knows that whenever orthodoxy was abandoned in order for the church to mirror culture, it led to the church’s great demise. We do not gain the world’s attention through a compromised voice but through a prophetic one. No one would argue the need for a winsome and compelling voice for Christ in our culture more than I; no one would argue the need for contrition for a lack of love toward those with a same-sex orientation more than I; no one would argue the need for the church’s relevance more than I. But if we follow Bell’s strategy, the church really will continue to be even more irrelevant than it already is.
Because it will cease to be the church.
The key in attempting to speak into culture with relevance, but not compromise, is found in the dynamic between translation and transformation. Theologian Millard Erickson, building on the insights of William E. Hordern, notes that every generation must translate the gospel into its unique cultural context. But this is very different from transforming the message of the gospel into something that was never intended by the biblical witness. Transformation of the message must be avoided at all costs. Translation, however, is essential for a winsome and compelling presentation of the gospel of Christ. It is precisely this interplay between translation and transformation that must be navigated by every leader in regard to culture. If transformation takes place, then we have simply abandoned orthodoxy for the hopeful sake of warm bodies, and the tickling of ears does not exactly have a welcome spot in the biblical materials. If translation takes place, we intentionally build bridges of cultural understanding but retain our prophetic voice in the marketplace of ideas.
Transformation is heresy.
Translation is the heart of our mission.
Knowing the difference is the crucible of leadership and the difference between being in the world and being of the world.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World (Baker).
Carol Kuruvilla, “Former Megachurch Pastor Rob Bell: A Church That Doesn’t Support Gay Marriage Is ‘Irrelevant’”, The Huffington Post, February 20, 2015, read online.
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology.
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.