Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cultural Silly Putty?

You might surmise, based on the name of the organization, that a paper presented to the Association for the Scientific Study of Religion would be one which would have high praise for Church Growth Movement methods, but in the case of the quotes that follow, you’d be mistaken. The quotes come from Dr. Walt Scalen’s paper “Lost in Translation: Evangelicals Failed Attempt at Relevance,” which he presented last spring. Dr. Scalen is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, and has taught both college and university classes in sociology, psychology, anthropology, and criminal justice. How does someone with Dr. Scalen’s credentials become involved in apologetics? I’m not really sure, but I’d guess it’s because of a love of revealed truth. He emailed me his paper, and I’m glad he did. As he points out in his email, “Hope you find it helpful in fighting for the Faith once delivered to the saints. We have much to do.” Indeed we do. His paper can be found here, beginning on page 22. Here’s a sampling of what Dr. Scalen has to say:
"It's interesting to note that, in spite of the current emphasis on the various formulas for ministry success, the Scriptures are all but silent on the subject of church growth. As you survey the New Testament writings of the apostle Paul, you can't help but be struck by the stark absence of any advice or specific recommendations that even remotely resemble today's church-growth strategies. Instead, there seems to be an almost obsessive focus on faithfulness in ministry and standing firm against the pervasive pull of a crumbling and godless culture. There is nothing said about attempting to appeal to popular culture. On the contrary, there seems to be a strong emphasis on remaining free from the influence of culture and focusing on the simple proclamation of the "foolish" gospel (Rima, 2002, pp. 36-37). [Dr. Scalen is quoting Pastor Samuel Rima in this quote.]

...It is probably not too simplistic to say that the core ideas driving the New Paradigm Church movement are simply inconsistent with historic Christianity. In a way nothing could be more ironic, and transparently simple. But, the devil is in the details. Despite its enormous popularity and early "success," this movement was doomed from the beginning, which is all the more tragic because its leaders, who have invested their careers, fortunes, and reputations, will likely push forward without ever examining the foundational flaws on which their efforts are based.

...The notion that cultural forms can be used interchangeably fails to understand the extent to which every cultural form is implicated, shaped, and formed by the values, standards, or beliefs of a particular culture. In essence, cultural forms are not neutral and cannot be somehow totally emptied of their exclusive views of reality. For example, the Christian Faith is a culture, it makes distinctive truth claims, and it is shaped by a core set of beliefs, values, and practices. But for some so called "progressive" Christians "the Faith once delivered to the saints" is like cultural silly putty that can be molded and shaped into any form and combined with any other set of practices without consequence. For the naive and unwary, imitation is the road to extinction, and the absence of boundaries diminishes and ultimately destroys identity.

Syncretism has always been the danger of excessive contextualism, but somehow the "we are changing the methods not the message" slogan has so resonated with many Christians anxious to see progress in evangelism and growth in numbers that caution has been thrown to the wind. Assuming that all cultural forms are neutral, almost anything is now "worship," and virtually any outreach method is appropriate for "fishers of men." This poignant phrase used by Jesus in Matthew 4:19 is widely taken to mean that people should be "lured" into the Kingdom by any means necessary, even deception, in the same fashion that fisherman in the modern era use "lures" to catch fish. The problem with this view is ironically one of context; the fisherman in Biblical times used nets. This approach had much more to do with location and timing than enticement.

photo credit: Shoot Art, Not Each Other

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