Is “contemporary” really contemporary?
People talk about dusting off tired methods, inane traditions and outmoded approaches to outreach in order to drag the church kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
They were saying the same thing in the 19th century.
And in the 16th.
And in the….
You get the point.
Lesslie Newbigin reminded us that: “The gospel is addressed to human beings... If the gospel is to be understood... it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed and has to be clothed in symbols which are meaningful to them.” This has long been understood.
Historian Nathan Hatch has noted that it is the embrace of new approaches to worship, ministry, evangelism – and even organization – that have historically fueled the Christian movement, particularly in the North American context and its success at initially withstanding the onslaught of the Enlightenment.
Hatch contends that it was the wave of popular religious movements that broke upon the United States in the half century after independence that did more to Christianize American society than anything before, or since. Most to the point, Hatch observes that religious leaders “went outside normal... frameworks to develop large followings by the democratic art of persuasion... they were alike in their ability to portray, in compelling terms, the deepest hopes and aspirations of popular constituencies.”
Consider the camp meeting, championed by Francis Asbury, but initially met with great skepticism by Methodist authorities. They perceived “a manifest subversiveness in the form and structure of the camp meeting itself, which openly defied ecclesiastical standards of time, space, authority and liturgical form.” Camp meetings encouraged “uncensored testimonials... the public sharing of private ecstasy; overt physical display and emotional release; loud and spontaneous response to preaching; and the use of folk music that would have chilled the marrow of Charles Wesley.” Yet the camp meetings brought together three to four million Americans annually, an estimated one-third of the total population of the time. It was a phenomenally successful instrument for popular recruitment and, without question, used greatly by God. Asbury simply referred to them as “fishing with a large net.” This “audience-centered” approach, writes Hatch, “meant that the church prospered.”
The dynamic of many great movements of God has been the embrace of unconventional methods that connected with the audience in order to present Christ. Consider Luther’s move away from Latin when attempting to convey the Scriptures to the German people. He knew that he could be far more effective, and establish rapport with the peasantry far more compellingly, if he spoke in simple German and had the Bible translated into the German language. William Tyndale, in another context and with another language, did the same a generation before. Or think of Dwight Moody who preached in theaters and circuses and used songs written by Ira Sankey that echoed the popular styles of the day (e.g., the waltz). During his famous World’s Fair campaign of 1893 in Chicago, shortly before his death, Moody even advertised his ministry in the amusement columns of newspapers.
Every generation must translate the gospel into its unique cultural context. 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. Charles Colson wisely wrote that: “Many churches… have found the right balance; behind all the music and skits and fanfare stands a solidly orthodox message that deepens the spiritual life of the members. That is the key. What matters is not whether a church uses skits or contemporary music or squash courts. What matters is biblical fidelity.”
James Emery White
James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity.
Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism
James Gilbert, Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science.
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology.
Charles Colson with Ellen Santilli Vaughn, The Body.
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 and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.