Church Culture vs. Popular Culture

Reading Ken Myers’ book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes has convinced me more than ever that the church must deliberately create and sustain a Christian counter-culture in order to fulfill our Lord’s command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Popular culture, the culture in which we as modern Americans live and move and have our being, creates precisely the opposite conditions in which Christians can grow into wise, zealous, and mature followers of Jesus.

For Myers, the main problem isn’t the unedifying and ungodly content of so much popular culture. Christians have always been sensitive to those aspects of mass culture that the Bible condemns as sinful and worldly. Rather, and this is why Myers’ book is still so helpful for Christians even thirty-two years after its publication, the greater danger of popular culture is the way it shapes how we think and feel, and how we see the world. Myers refers to the “sensibilities” that popular culture subtly inculcates in us, sensibilities wholly inconsistent with a Christian approach to life.

For this reason, Myers doesn’t spend time criticizing the objectionable content of popular culture, nor does he call for Christians to stop watching movies or listening to contemporary music. This is no jeremiad against the various evils present in popular culture. Instead, he carefully shows us how the very nature of popular culture tends to undermine the foundations of a strong Christian faith.

All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes is a challenging book at times. Myers digs deeply into the historical roots of popular culture and interacts with heavy thinkers on the subject. But his style is not dry or overly academic. If you’re willing to think hard and persevere with the book, you’ll find it may profoundly change the way you look at the world around you. At the very least, you’ll be a wiser and more wary consumer of popular culture.

I believe it’s difficult to exaggerate the danger popular culture presents for Christians and the church. In his 2012 introduction to the book, Myers writes this:

… I remain persuaded of a brazen claim made in 1989 (without as much knowledge as I have acquired since then), that “the challenge of living with popular culture may well be as serious for modern Christians as persecutions and plagues were for the saints of earlier centuries.”

(pg. v)

Perhaps the challenge is even greater. At least in the face of persecution and plagues, a Christian is supremely aware that his life is hidden with Christ in heaven above. But a Christian whose mind and heart have been shaped by popular culture, a “culture” that numbs us to any transcendent reality, simply gives no serious thought to heaven at all.

As a pastor, I especially appreciated Myers’ concern for the effects of popular culture on the church. Here are three specific challenges the church faces as we seek to be faithful to God in a world whose ideas, values and priorities have been formed by popular culture.

First, the forms of popular culture are incapable of communicating the truth about the greatness and glory of God. Regardless of content, popular entertainment and music tend to fix our minds on the immediate and immanent. Popular culture’s concern is with this world, the here-and-now, and cannot lift up our minds from earth to consider heavenly realities. In other words, popular culture leads us away from the truth of God, not towards it. Myers writes:

Popular culture’s forms are not capable of sustaining the Christian conviction of a holy, judging God who demands repentance and promises the joy of obedience.

(pg. 182)

For this reason, the church must give careful thought to the forms she uses in her worship. The idiom of pop music is great for narrating the drama of a teenage romance, but it’s awful for communicating the truth of the majesty of a holy God.

Second, the sensibilities formed by popular culture work against the development of Christian character. In his book, Myers provides a list of qualities and values engendered by popular culture, versus those fostered by traditional and high culture (pg. 120). To list a few of those, popular culture “discourages reflection,” “emphasizes information and trivia,” “appeals to sentimentality,” “relies on spectacles, tending to violence and prurience,” “leaves us where it found us,” is “incapable of deep or sustained attention,” “reflects the desire of the self,” and “tends toward relativism.”

All of these effects militate against the formation of the sort of character needed to bear the cross of Jesus daily and follow him in faith and obedience. At best popular culture will make a Christian shallow. At worst it will make the gospel message seem utterly irrelevant to the real concerns of life.

And third, popular culture fosters an individualistic mind-set wholly at odds with our calling to live, serve, and worship together as members of the Body of Christ. One irony of popular culture is that, while it is popular and so creates a touchpoint for relating to others, it tends to isolate us from one anther. We become oriented around ourselves, and not around a community. Myers writes, “At root, popular culture’s dynamics tend to encourage a self-centeredness that Christians ought to avoid” (pg. 101).

God calls us in Christ to be a community: we are united to one another in the Body of Christ, we are to love and serve one another in the church, and we are to consider others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). The more immersed we are in popular culture, the more difficult we’ll find it to give ourselves selflessly to others in the church in a spirit of humility and love.

After reading Myers’ book, I have a better understanding of why many people find a traditional worship service like ours to be “boring.” To someone whose expectations of a church service has been shaped by their immersion in popular culture, a more reserved, Word-centered service like ours will seem strange and even dull.

What is the church to do? The answer is to create and foster a distinctly Christian culture, a counter-culture that produces the right environment in which our faith in God is nurtured and which facilitates the formation of a Christian character, one of patience, service, sacrifice, and self-denying love for one another.

I am persuaded that a church whose teaching and practice is confessionally-oriented, historically rooted, and theologically robust can produce the kind of healthy church culture that engenders faith in, and faithfulness to, the Lord Jesus Christ.

As a congregation, we must never fail to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ that saves sinners. And we must strive to teach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). But we must also be careful to ensure that our church culture is one that reinforces, not undermines, the truth proclaimed in our preaching and teaching.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Pastor Johnson