If there’s one line everyone has heard from the Christ and culture debates, it’s “In the world but not of it.” The line gets quoted so often, you would think it’s a verse from the Bible.
I wonder, though, if the phrase as it stands needs some tweaking. Isn’t “in the world” kind of obvious? I mean, how many of us would argue that the church shouldn’t be in the world? Is there another spot in the cosmos we’d like to colonize? (It would make the New Atheists happy. . . .)
I don’t expect this to catch on, but if I could suggest a modification, it would be to change “in the world” to “for the world.” The church is not merely to be in the world; she is to be for the world. But she is to be for the world in such a way that she remains unstained by it (James 1:27), i.e., she cannot and must not be of the world, for the simple reason that her Lord is not (John 17:14).
“Not of the world” reminds us that we are a covenant people, that there is a real antithesis (as it’s sometimes called) between the seed of God and the seed of the devil. “For the world” reminds us that we aren’t just filling up space here; we are a commissioned people, on God’s own mission to restore life and light to His world.
All of which brings me to the vexed problem of “contextualization.” Tim Keller has given us a good working definition: contextualization is adapting the communication and practical embodiment of the gospel to a receptor culture by selecting appropriate practices, words, and/or concepts from the receptor culture and using these as vehicles for presenting the gospel. The idea is to stay out of two ditches as we engage a culture: Let’s not be stuffy traditionalists who keep saying and doing things a certain way because that’s how we’ve said and done them from time immemorial, and if the unbeliever doesn’t get it, that’s his problem, not ours (he’ll grow up to our level ifsoever the Spirit moveth). On the other side, let’s not dare to shave the rough edges off the divine Word; let’s not stop growing to maturity as God’s people out of fear that we may not be understood or appreciated; and let’s not forget that some cultural forms are more obedient to the gospel than others, which means that some cultural stuff flat-out needs to be changed (put another way, we need to think about building, shaping, and moving culture, not just adapting to it). I should probably add to this last point that our comfy Western culture comes in for critique by the gospel every bit as much as any “foreign” culture.
But here, let us be frank, things always turn out messy, despite our best definitions. Take, for instance, the issues of (a) preaching and (b) singing in worship. There are preachers who preach in such a way that it would take a supernatural work of God for anyone other than a lifetime insider to connect to their sermons. Their preaching mightily sanctifies the twenty people who find them comprehensible; no one else returns after an initial exposure. Such preaching is not of the world, to be sure, but neither in any meaningful sense is it for the world. It is arguably better than the watered-down, compromised, frothy, non-fat drivel served up in a lot of liberal and evangelical pulpits (do we even use those anymore?), but from another perspective, maybe not: drivel doesn’t give the world the gospel; insider sermons don’t give the world the gospel. Hmm.
More controversial still: song in worship. The number one turnoff I hear from people who visit conservative Reformed congregations (such as my own) goes something like this: “We liked [in some cases] the sermon; we just couldn’t handle the music.” There are a few possibilities here, which in turn lead to some questions. One possibility is that the music was old, stale, funereal, stuffy, and/or otherwise unpleasant – a grief to God as well as men. Another possibility is that the music was rich, excellent, even demanding, but the average North American (especially if he or she is young) has little appetite for anything that doesn’t lightheartedly entertain. This prompts some questions: Is Christian worship (including our singing) supposed to be for the world, or is it basically an in-house affair between God and His people? Is this a false dichotomy? Certainly worship is a meeting between God and His people, but what are we to do with the dozens of biblical texts that summon us to sing His praises before the nations, and that summon the nations to join in? Must the song of the church be outdated, difficult, or unpleasant so we can maintain the antithesis? On the other hand, shouldn’t the glory, majesty, grandeur, and holiness of God dictate our style rather than the inanities of pop culture? We are, after all, His people, worshiping Him – and who He is makes all the difference for us in everything, including music.
Let me offer a sidebar here about tradition: traditional language, symbols, forms, music, liturgies, etc. One of the things that drew me to the Reformed faith early on was the fact that it had roots. It had the humility and courage to look back, to love the past, honor the past, even submit to the past. In this, I felt (and still feel), it took the Holy Spirit seriously: we are not the only generation in which He has been working. Now that I’ve been in a Reformed context for a number of years, I would want to ask this question: don’t we tend at times to look back on a previous period or generation in church history and think the Spirit’s work was more or less completed there (things having largely declined ever since)? Even as so many contemporary Christian movements claim pneumatic priority for the here and now, don’t we often claim pneumatic priority for there and then? As much as our doctrine of the Spirit should teach us to look back (like children to their parents and grandparents), shouldn’t it also teach us to look ahead, simply because “God’s best” is never locked in a time loop (my thanks to a close friend who suggested this metaphor to me)? If we really believe in the maturing of the church over time, shouldn’t we at least be open to new forms, new sounds, new ways of expressing things, new emphases and nuances – all the while keeping our eyes firmly on the past to make sure we’re obeying the gospel and honoring the wisdom of our fathers? Isn’t there growth that doesn’t entail distortion and unfaithfulness?
I’m asking questions that have been asked many times before, and since it’s pointless to go over old conversations without attempting to contribute something new (however small), let me offer two proposals to conservative Reformed congregations that are trying to keep their worship “otherworldly” in the best biblical sense, yet who are sensitive to the fact that contextualization (including updating) can’t simply be damned:
First, we need to repent where our worship seems unpleasant to incomers because it’s . . . well, unpleasant. There are Reformed folk who seem to enjoy deathly somber, straight-laced, stuffy worship. The more out-of-tune and out-of-touch the worship experience, the better they feel about it. There will always be churches like this; the only mercy is that they self-insulate the world from their influence. There are other churches that really want something more – but you know, if I walked into a room where people sat in formal silence, sang old tunes like they were afraid they might be heard, listened for an hour to some guy prattle on in three hundred year old language, mumbled “amen” after multiple long prayers, and seemed kind of glad when it was over, I wouldn’t be uninspired – and I’m an enthusiast for Reformed worship! What in God’s name is wrong with singing great tunes lustily, shouting out amen, breaking a few gnostic canons here and there, and generally looking as if we think our God is enjoyable? Might psalms be more attractive to visitors if they were sung in four-part harmony, at full throat? Might sermons seem a bit more attractive if they occasionally answered questions the average Joe is asking? If they tied what we (on the inside) know to stuff the unbeliever knows . . . you know, as in, connected?
Second (to some of my more culturally aggressive brethren), we need to be patient with the fact that people and cultures aren’t yet where we believe they need to be (and will be, by the grace of God). Some day we may find ourselves in a time when you can preach for forty-five minutes on Aaron’s ephod, and an audience of thousands will listen raptly. This is not (I modestly suggest) that time. Some day it may be possible for entire congregations to sing the psalms of David and sound like Handel’s Messiah. We aren’t there yet. So if you want to use a contemporary popular tune, or lyrics arranged on this side of the rise of Middle English, the sin of presumption doth not cling to thee. Be at peace. Your congregation will probably enjoy it, and it can only help the poor soul coming in who’s never experienced anything like this before.