Reflections on Surfing Secularism, part I

A few days ago, I posted a link to an article by Dave Schmelzer, who used to pastor a Vineyard church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For those who have not read it, here is the link: http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/03/19/surfing-secularism-why-fighting-the-rest-of-the-world-is-a-losing-strategy-for-churches/31356.  The gist of Schmelzer’s piece is a call to leaders and congregants of the church in the United States to disengage from “us and them” rhetoric in favor of that which invites the secularist into a conversation about Jesus.

Schmelzer describes two broken ways that the church in the US has implemented to disastrous effect over the last three decades.  The first approach has to do with drawing lines in the sand over where one stands on matters of doctrine in relation to the secularist and the compromised church leader and/or churchgoer.  Schmelzer identifies both John Piper and Mark Driscoll as two pastors and authors most representative of this first approach.  The second approach that Schmelzer finds equally ineffective as the first has to do with making the Sunday worship experience more hip and not like your parents’ church.  Schmelzer sees this approach as infused with the short-lived megachurch and seeker sensitive strategies.

For Schmelzer, the best option for churches and its leaders is to focus on the message they preach (and try to live out) as being good news for all people, not just for church people.  He identifies three key presuppositions embraced by those churches and leaders who succeed in living out this approach: 1.) It’s not about “them.”  It’s about “us.”  (In fact, maybe there is no “them.”); 2.) It’s not about the trappings.  It’s about the offer; and 3.) Our culture does not equal God’s culture.  From here on out, I will be taking each presupposition in turn to analyze and critique its viability for framing the ministry approaches of churches and church leaders.

The first presupposition listed by Schmelzer that leads to successful culture surfing by churches is the attitude or posture that “It’s not about them.  It’s about us.  (In fact, maybe there is no them.).”  If I am understanding the heart of this point aright, then the church and its leaders must take care in how she expresses the truth about Jesus.  How I say something is every bit as important as what I say.  Do I speak the message in such a way that it seems like I’m against people rather than for them?  Another way to express this is to say “Earn the right to be heard before speaking up.”  The implication being that church leaders and its congregants need to maintain a humble posture.  I want to listen to who you are and the path that you have walked along up to this point.  It is inviting and non-confrontational.

Schmelzer makes a good point that drawing lines in the sand veers toward heresy hunting within the church, or shutting the doors to those on the outside.   He does not use those exact terms, but the ideas lurk in the subtext.  For Schmelzer, John Piper and Mark Driscoll are two influential, evangelical leaders guilty of line-drawing that alienates the outsider.  This is where a little dishonesty creeps into Schmelzer’s piece.  He does not waste any time or language in labeling these men as line drawers who create an us-them tension.  Unfortunately, Schmelzer errs in failing to list any specific examples from either Piper’s or Driscoll’s ministry.  It is true that Driscoll has a reputation that precedes himself with putting his foot in his mouth; however, professional courtesy demands that examples be provided to support one’s claim.

Schmelzer seems content with innuendo rather than being taken seriously in his critique, which impugns his own argument.  He falls prey to the very thing that he accuses Piper and Driscoll of doing: drawing lines by pointing out that this is what they do, but I go about it differently.  This sounds utterly childish at best and nearly slanderous at its worst.  For the sake of Christian charity, it is important to back up one’s claims with specifics, especially in a public forum like a blog.  No one reading Schmelzer’s piece will deny that humility or meekness is to characterize the church and its leaders’ interactions with the culture.   We are to be humble like our savior as the apostle Paul writes in Philippians chapter two.  It also means that as Jesus took up his own cross, we must take up ours, too.  It is the cost of discipleship.

One final note about Piper and Driscoll…both of these men have demonstrated faithful service to the Lord and his church.  Piper retired in 2013 after thirty-three years of gospel ministry at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minnesota.  Driscoll has redoubled his efforts of late to focus on the people and the city that he serves.  Neither of them are perfect, and in Driscoll’s case, he has opened himself up to attack.  Schmelzer has a stronger case with the Seattle pastor, but provide the examples.  It is one of the most basic rules of writing, and it is the most basic rule of engagement with one’s peers and opponents.  If one fails to adhere to this etiquette, then there is little reason to give attention to what one may say.  Tomorrow I will engage with Schmelzer’s second and third presuppositions for propriety’s sake.

 

 

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