An Excerpt from 'Unfashionable'
If you’re like most people, you think our culture today has the most expanded vistas ever—the most wide-open perspectives, the most enlightened outlooks.
But think again.
People in the twenty-first century are living in a “world without windows,” to borrow a phrase from sociologist Peter Berger. In previous eras people lived with “windows” opening out from life in this world. Most cultures generally accepted a larger purpose beyond the immediate, and they recognized the higher power of something supernatural. As Os Guinness notes, “The deepest experiences of all were held to be ‘religious,’ ‘sacred,’ ‘other,’ or ‘transcendent,’ however these terms were defined.”
But in recent times technological advances and scientific expansion have increasingly succeeded in shutting the windows and closing the blinds. The physical replaces the spiritual, the temporal replaces the eternal, and “what is seen” replaces what is unseen (Hebrews 11:3).
In this windowless world, God, transcendence, and mystery have become less and less imaginable. All of life is “rationalized.” Everything becomes a matter of human classification, calculation, and control. “What counts in a rationalized world,” says Guinness, “is efficiency, predictability, quantifiability, productivity, the substitution of technology for the human, and—from first to last—control over uncertainty.” Everything’s produced, managed, and solved this side of the ceiling, which explains why so many people are restless and yearning, as I was, for meaning that transcends this world—for something and Someone different.
This may be why every television season seems to bring new supernatural dramas, such as Ghost Whisperer, Supernatural, and Heroes. And why people are increasingly fascinated with Eastern mysticism, angels, aliens, psychics, the afterlife, and metaphysical healing. Our generation is crying out for something different, something higher, something beyond this world. They long for elements that a world without windows disallows—mystery, transcendence, and a deep sense of wonder, awe, and spirituality. “Eternal questions and yearnings,” says Guinness, “are thrusting their way up between the cracks in the sterile world of secular disenchantment.”
Hungry for the Timeless
Moreover, because today’s world is in a constantly accelerating state of flux—always changing, never staying the same—people crave constancy and depth. Such painful impermanence makes people open to, and desirous for, things truthful and historical, ancient and proven. As one cultural critic observed, “From the historic preservation movement to the nostalgia of popular culture with its TV reruns, historical fiction, and ‘retro’ fashions, contemporary people are fascinated and attracted to the past.”
In a recent study conducted by LifeWay Research, unchurched Americans indicated that they preferred more traditional-looking church buildings by a nearly two-to-one ratio over the generic warehouselike structures built in recent decades. “Quite honestly, this research surprised us,” said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research and missiologist-in-residence for LifeWay Christian Resources. “We expected they’d choose the more contemporary options, but they were clearly more drawn to the aesthetics of the Gothic building than the run-of-the-mill, modern church building.” Stetzer believes (rightly, in my view) that unchurched Americans may be drawn to the look of old cathedrals because they speak to a connectedness to the past.
People in today’s world are desperately reaching, not just upward, but backward. They yearn for a day gone by when things seemed more constant and less shallow. They want to tap into treasures of the past as they search for a staying power that seems unattainable in the present.
Ironically, our culture’s rejection of absolute truth is stoking an unprecedented hunger for truth. In his book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, Thom Ranier reveals interesting discoveries that highlight the contemporary thirst for truth. More than 85 percent of the unchurched people Ranier surveyed said that a church’s theology and doctrine would be their primary consideration in choosing a church. Not music, not entertainment, but theology—truth. New generations are thirsting for truthfulness, not trendiness. They long for someone to speak to them truthfully about a time and a place other than their own, about something and someone other than themselves. They want to know that there are different people out there with their sights set on a different world.
|Color blindness is the apt metaphor for some: They miss the rich-hued splendor of the spiritual vision of life and see only the colder, duller world of black and white. (Os Guinness)
Through personal experience people have realized that the modern world’s unwavering claim that mass information leads inevitably to mass transformation is an empty lie. I’ve talked to many people who are becoming increasingly wary of the latest techno trend. They complain of how impersonal and disenchanting modern life has become. They’re weary of both the messages and the methods being churned out by the marketing machines in today’s world.
That’s why if you stop and listen, you’ll hear that the cry of our times is for something completely otherworldly. People are up to their necks in up-to-date structures and cutting-edge methodologies. They’re beginning to understand that modern capabilities cannot make us better and more satisfied people nor make this world a better, more satisfying place. They seem desperate to recover a world that once was, a world that allows for mystery, miracle, and wonder—a world with windows to somewhere else.
This shouldn’t be surprising to Christ followers. As Romans 1 teaches us, once we ignore God, we inevitably misuse the goods of creation as we mistakenly make our own rules. So our sin in the vertical direction (ignoring God) inevitably causes disorientation on the horizontal level (as we lose our sense of reference and direction).
The Irrelevance of Relevance
As believers in Christ, we should celebrate these yearnings among today’s generation, for their longing is for something only Christ can truly offer. We should be ecstatic that our culture is getting “vertical,” yearning for something different from what this world offers. This great cultural crisis brings a great Christian opportunity.
But here’s my concern: many church leaders have been telling us for a long time that the church’s cultural significance ultimately depends on its ability to keep up either with changing structures and environments (innovative technology, for instance) or with the latest intellectual fad (such as postmodernism).
Recently I was flipping through a couple of well-known Christian magazines. I counted six full-page advertisements for upcoming conferences designed to help churches adapt in order to meet modern needs—“new ways for new days.” Some emphasized improved techniques, programs, methods, and advertising strategies. Others stressed our need to “emerge” from preoccupation with traditional truth claims and theology and to focus instead on what’s most important—relationships, caring for the poor, and social justice issues—forgetting that robust theological confession (belief) and Christlike practical compassion (behavior) are always meant to go hand in hand. To believe otherwise is like arguing that the wing on the right side of an airplane is more important than the wing on the left. Without both working together, the plane isn’t going anywhere.
Here’s what struck me: all this comes at precisely the time when our culture is growing weary of slick production and whatever’s new and is growing hungry for authentic presence and historical rootedness. Younger generations don’t want trendy engagement from the church; in fact, they’re suspicious of it. Instead they want truthful engagement with historical and theological solidity that enables meaningful interaction with transcendent reality. They want desperately to invest their lives in something worth dying for, not some here-today gone-tomorrow fad.
It’s both sad and ironic that this shift is now putting the church in the wrong place at the right time. Just when our culture is yearning for something different, many churches are developing creative ways to be the same. Just as many in our culture are beginning to search back in time, many churches are pronouncing the irrelevance of the past. Just as people are starting to seek after truth, many churches are turning away from it. As a result these churches are losing their distinct identity as a people set apart to reach the world.
I have good news for all of us who are becoming weary of this pressure from church leaders to fit in with the world: we don’t have to. The relevance of the church doesn’t depend on its ability to identify the latest cultural trends and imitate them, whatever they might be. “The ultimate factor in the church’s engagement with society,” Guinness says, “is the church’s engagement with God,” not the church’s engagement with the latest intellectual or corporate fashion. Contrary to what we’ve been hearing, our greatest need as twenty-first-century churches is not structural but spiritual. Our main problem is not that we’re culturally out of touch; it’s that we’re theologically out of tune.
We need to remember that God has established his church as an alternative society, not to compete with or copy this world, but to offer a refreshing alternative to it. When we forget this, we inadvertently communicate to our culture that we have nothing unique to offer, nothing deeply spiritual or profoundly transforming. Tragically, this leaves many in our world looking elsewhere for the difference they crave.
Not long ago World magazine featured a cover story entitled “Next Gen Worship.” It highlighted specific ways in which churches and pastors are trying to reach contemporary people by “fitting in.” A response—entitled “Why I Walked Out of Church”—came from Julie R. Neidlinger, who is single, thirty-four, and a writer/artist.
I’m not going to be one of those starched-collar Christians who, based on personal preference, say that this is a sign we’re going to hell in a handbasket and that all things are wrong unless they are done as they were with the Puritans. What I’m saying is that I can’t stand the phoniness, or trendiness, or sameness—or whatever I’m trying to say here—that the church seems to catch onto at the tail end, not even aware of how lame it is. The fact that this is not only actually successful in appealing to people, but attracts them, also disgusts me.
It makes me want to throw up.
It’s buying into some kind of lie or substitution of cool culture as being relevant when it isn’t.
If I see another cool Bible college student or pastoral studies major wearing the hemp choker necklace, flip-flops, open-at-the-collar shirt that’s untucked, and baggy jeans, saying words like “dude” and “sweet,” I will kick their.…It’s like the Christian version of annoying hipsters, an overly studied and homogenized “with-it” faux coolness.
World magazine writer Mickey McLean saw Julie’s response to the cover story and wrote:
I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a lot of Julie Neidlingers out there trying to avoid all the trendiness. . . . Maybe the evangelical church should listen more to the Julies of this world instead of demographic and marketing studies. Then, maybe they’ll keep people like her who are looking for spiritual depth from walking out the back door.
To be clear, the overarching concern for Julie is not what a pastor wears or how he speaks. For her, those are just indicators of a deeper, more disturbing trend. What really bothers her—and a multitude like her—is how fascinated many Christians are with adapting to whatever our world deems to be cool. What many like Julie long to see are courageous church leaders who don’t care whether they fit in, who dare to be countercultural, and who, like John the Baptist, will serve as a voice crying out in the wilderness.
Ironically, the more we Christians pursue worldly relevance, the more we’ll render ourselves irrelevant to the world around us. There’s an irrelevance to pursuing relevance, just as there’s a relevance to practicing irrelevance. To be truly relevant, you have to say things that are unfashionably eternal, not trendy. It’s the timeless things that are most relevant to most people, and we dare not forget this fact in our pursuit of relevance.
In an article about younger generations returning to tradition, Lauren Winner notes that young people today “are not so much wary of institutions as they are wary of institutions that don’t do what they are supposed to do.” What Christians are “supposed to do” is remind our culture that the things of this world aren’t all there is and that human beings aren’t left to the resources of this world to satisfy our other worldly longings. Christians alone can provide our culture with that longed-for transcendent difference, because only the Christian gospel offers a true spirituality, an otherworldliness grounded in reality and history. Only the Christian story fuses past, present, and future with meaning from above and beyond. That’s what we have to offer and proclaim.
Remember, from chapter 1, how I woke up after a night of hard partying and went to church, never to be the same again? As I reflect on what changed me that morning (and what can change others), I’ve concluded it was the out-of-this-world realization that God is God and I am not—that he’s big and I’m small. That’s a realization no human strategy, structure, or fashion can reveal. We can’t engineer God’s transcendent presence; we can only fall on our faces and beg for it. In fact, we rob this world of the opportunity to see God high and lifted up—above and beyond us—when we try to program him and fit him into contemporary categories of “cool.” When the size of God grips us more than the size of our churches and leadership conferences, and when we become obsessed with surrendering our lives to God’s sovereign presence, only then will we be redemptively different and serve as God’s cosmic change agents in a world yearning for change.
We Christians have been entrusted with an eternal, transcendent truth that can transform our weary culture and open others’ eyes to a world beyond their own: the story of a simple Jew who made a difference because he was different.
And that’s where our difference starts.
Tullian Tchividjian is author of Unfashionable and pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.
This excerpt is used with permission by Multnomah.
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