There seem to be two gravitational pulls from the society upon local churches. These two gravitational pulls are to become popular or to be in power. I suggest a third way- the protestant process.
Western American Evangelicalism can be summarized largely by the two above pulls. Many in evangelicalism follow and imbibe the pop culture without knowing it. It very seldom resembles Christianity other than slogans. Many still imbibe of the power centers which tells Christians what to think. These overlap a great deal, because of the nature of how one stays in power today is by wielding popularity to keep one’s market share. Nevertheless, the interrelationship is probably too complicated to deal with here. Some examples of how evangelicalism imbibes the methods of pop culture would be contemporary Christian music with its record deal, licensing agencies, distribution companies, agents, and blatant copying of the lager culture’s styles. Another example would be the television, web and social media celebrity pastors. Some celebrity pastors do not even have to be part of a congregation because of their wide following.
Examples of the power centers would be big Christian publishing and distribution (http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2011/october/harpercollins-buys-thomas-nelson-will-control-50-of.html). There are also Christian education institutions, magazines, and other media. These are entrenched institutions, which have done much good.
I am not against institutions per se. Nor am I against the popularity of Christianity. My concern is that these two pulls of the larger culture affect the local church. First, misinformation about Christianity often more often than not comes from these institutions, not from the local church. It does work its way into the local church, but only from the top down. Second, when moral failings of pop culture or power sources happen, it marks the local church in the eyes of the on-looking world. Third, it tempts the local church to imbibe of one or both of these pulls in order to remain relevant. Fourth, these pulls draw the Christian local church away from the process of discipleship, and into the game of keeping the congregation together for fear of the church down the street doing the next big thing.
Consider the downside of pop culture. Pop culture is largely populist. People get what they want. This results in people not getting what they need, and never getting anything better than what they want. It promotes popularity over quality. It often produces caricatures of good products (think Walmart knock offs). There are upsides too. For example, though a caricature, the popular version of anything points to an original referent. Some people may look beyond the popular to the better. There would have been no small coffee shop industry in the 1990s without Starbucks. Still, the church must note negative side. People will hear what they want to hear. They will find preachers for themselves who will tell it to them. They will never learn anything more than what affirms their delusions. Popularity will trump quality teaching. The leaders who represent a group will often be a caricature of that group. For example, Mark Driscoll as the popular version of Calvinists.
Consider also the downside of power culture. For all their good, Institutions must at some point consider the bottom line. The result is, the purity of the thing suffers. For example, seminaries must compete with other seminaries for students, which is done by offering degrees and learning tracts that leave a mark on the church. Consider the counseling degrees one can now get from seminary. Consider that many seminaries take women into the M.Div program. Consider the result of many seminaries offering non-M.Div degrees that focus more on the duties that should belong to lay trustees and more resemble the MBA than the M.Div. Also consider the way pop culture and power relate. Power is often held by wielding popularity. The itching ears want to read books about babies who die and go to heaven and come back to have their father’s write fictional accounts to dupe the masses for a buck. That is what the people want, and the publishers will give it to them. Consider the results to the church. What use to be the means of reformation in the publishing of great works has become a game of market share and the next big thing.
What is a local church to do if not be pulled by these two Goliath draws? There is an answer in the protestant philosophy of ministry and being nuanced and exclusive. One may stumble over the terms, but I will explain.
The best place to eat is always the most exclusive. There was a coffee shop in Mission Valley which would rely entirely upon word of mouth for advertising. People would regularly tell the owners, “I love this place, and it is already busy enough, and I don’t want anyone else to know about it so it does not get any busier.” The principle here is that the thing was superior, worthwhile, not competing with pop culture, and not catering to the powers that be. It had a loyal clientele, who were reluctant to even tell people it existed because they feared losing the exclusivity.
There was a second thing about it. They had a certain definite process based on an ideology which (though not exclusively there’s, in fact it) was the right way to do coffee. It was different from Starbucks. The product was different. The service was different. There was no comparison to the pop-culture nor the power centers.
There was a third dynamic, nuance. The business was catered to or nuanced and fine tuned for their specific clientele. The principles were all in tact, but the model is unlikely to work elsewhere or with other food fads. The business was able to cater (not to the masses) but to their loyal clientele. They had a limited menu, limited hours, limited staff, and limited funds. Nevertheless, the nuanced way that the business gave people what they knew was right, rather than what the people necessarily wanted resulted in the success of the business.
This illustrates a lesson for the church. Success can be had through faithfulness to what is right, not through capitulating to power or popularity. Still, one must count the cost of the fact that there is no way to compete or compare with the size and power of the corporate powers or pop culture.
Think how those three dynamics apply to the local church. If a church is exclusive it means that they disciple their own people, and growing or shrinking they continue to remain faithful to those whom they serve. By exclusive it is not meant that people are excluded, but that those in membership are the focus of the ministry. Second, consider nuance- the specific culture of a church guides the pastoral needs. What books to preach, what applications to emphasize must be tailored to the specific situation. There is no one size fits all cultural nuance to pastoring, planting, and organizing churches. Officers in the church must be mindful of the current discipleship of the people and speak where they have need for repentance and learning. They must consider how the basic principles of the process of ministry apply the the given congregation.
Third, consider the process of protestant discipleship. Discipleship means learning. The calling and vocation of the Christian is discipleship, which means learning. This learning results in the transformation through the renewing of the mind. There can be no substitute for the process. Pop-Christianity may circumvent the process by getting people to attend and see a spectacle, confirm its truth by an emotional experience, measure effectiveness by political action, or measure effectiveness by the deeds of the social gospel, but these things are not Christian ministry. The ministry is the hard fought process of instruction, attending the means of grace, persevering through life’s trials, teaching people to keep the Ten Commandments, caring for one another in the covenant community, praying in the presence of God for others, and confessing the faith with heart and mouth. This may take different exact forms in the local church. The books preached, the applications made, but there is only true ministry to engage, no substitutes.