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Leadership in a shifting culture.
Winter 1997


This Culture is Overrated

Recently I led a group of pastors in a discussion about our preaching. When I asked, "What areas would you like help with in your preaching?" most responded with:

—"I want help in making connection with my listeners, relating the gospel to their everyday lives."

—"I want to preach sermons that really hit my people where they live."

—"I want to preach in a way that is real, that addresses real-life concerns people have."

In sum, these pastors wanted to preach in a way that addressed their culture.

There was a time when I would have agreed this was one of the primary purposes of Christian preaching-to relate the gospel to contemporary culture. However, I have come to believe that is our weakness rather than our strength. In leaning over to speak to the modern world, I fear we may have fallen in.

One-way traffic

Most of the preaching I have heard in my own church family struggles to relate the gospel to the modern world. When we sought to use our sermons to build a bridge from the old world of the Bible to the new, modern world, the traffic was moving only in one direction on that bridge. It was always the modern world rummaging about in Scripture, saying things like, "This relates to me," or, "I'm sorry, this is really impractical," or, "I really can't make sense out of that." It was always the modern world telling the Bible what's what.

But this way of preaching fails to do justice to the rather imperialistic claims of Scripture. The Bible doesn't want to speak tto the modern world; the Bible wants to convert the modern world.

We who may have lived through the most violent century in the history of the world-based on body counts alone-ought not to give too much credence to the modern world. The modern world is not only the realm of the telephone and allegedly "critical thinking," this world is also the habitat of Auschwitz, two of the bloodiest wars of history, and assorted totalitarian schemes that have consumed the lives of millions.

Why would our preaching want to be comprehensible to that world?

The narrow-minded modern world

The modern world must be made to understand that it is nothing more than that-just a world. By that I mean the modern world is an ideological construct, an intellectual fabrication, a way of construing reality that has lasted for about two hundred years, mainly in Northern Europe and in some of its colonies. Modernity, which held sway over human imaginations in the industrialized West for about two centuries, is now losing its grip.

Unfortunately, too often Christians have treated the modern world as if it were a fact, a reality to which we were obligated to adjust and adapt, rather than a point of view with which we might argue.

Modernity has arrogance built into itself. Modernity, which began as a search for certain and irrefutable knowledge, a quest for the "facts," likes to think of itself, not as a point of view or way of construing the world, but simply as the facts. Therefore, all other ways of construing the world must converse with modernity on modernity's terms. Any other way of construing the world is labeled by modernity as "primitive," "narrow," "tribal," or "provincial."

Fortunately, modern ways of knowing and thinking are gradually losing their privileged status in Western thought. We are realizing that modernity is only one way of describing what is going on in the world.

Modernity has been a good ride in many ways. Humanity has received many gifts from modern, scientific, technological ways of thinking. However, as we end the twentieth century, we are realizing that modernity was not without its losses.

What's lost in translation

When we speak of reaching out to our culture through the gospel, we must be reminded that the gospel is also a culture. This is only one of the problems with the attempt to "translate" the gospel into the language of the culture. As we often say, "Something is lost in translation." We are learning that you have not said "salvation" when you say "self-esteem." To have "a positive self-image" is not at all what Christians mean when we say "redemption." "The American Way" is not equivalent to "the kingdom of God."

One reason this sort of translation is doomed to failure, one reason why it inevitably ends up with our preaching something much less than the gospel of Jesus Christ, is that Christianity is a culture. You cannot learn to speak French by reading a French novel in an English translation-you must sit for the grammar, the syntax, and the vocabulary, and learn it. So you cannot know Christianity by having it translated into some other medium like Marxism, feminism, or the language of self-esteem. Christianity is a distinct culture with its own vocabulary, grammar, and practices. Too often, when we try to speak to our culture, we merely adopt the culture of the moment, rather than present the gospel to the culture.

Rather than reaching out to speak to our culture, our time as preachers is better spent inculturating modern, late-twentieth-century Americans into that culture called church. When I walk into a class on Introductory Physics, I expect not to understand immediately most of the vocabulary, terminology, and concepts. Why should it be any different for modern Americans walking into a church?

This is why the concept of "user-friendly churches" often leads to churches getting used. There is no way I can crank the gospel down to the level where any American can walk in off the street and know what it is all about within fifteen minutes. One can't do that even with baseball! You have to learn the vocabulary, the rules, and the culture in order to understand it. Being in church is something at least as different as being in a baseball stadium.

Rather than worry a great deal about reaching our culture, I think we mostly ought to worry about speaking to the church-laying on contemporary Christians the stories, images, and practices that make us disciples.

The other day, someone emerged from Duke Chapel and said, "I have never heard anything like that before. Where on earth did you get that?"

I replied, "Where on earth would you have heard this before? After all, this is a pagan, uninformed university environment. Where would you hear this? In the philosophy department? Watching 'Mr. Rogers's Neighborhood'? No, to hear this, you've got to get dressed and come down here on a Sunday morning."

It is a strange assumption for a contemporary American to feel that he or she already has the equipment necessary to comprehend the gospel, without any modification of lifestyle, without any struggle-in short, without being born again.

The point is not to speak to the culture. The point is to change it. God's appointed means of producing change is called "church"; and God's typical way of producing church is called "preaching."

William H. Willimon is dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke Chapel.

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