taking the words of Jesus seriously

A recent HuffPost teaser for Billy Graham’s new (and assumed to be “last”) book released Tuesday, The Reason for My Hope: Salvation, says in it he tackles the topic of “trendy religion.”  In a quoted excerpt circulated by the publisher he writes:

Many churches of all persuasions are hiring research agencies to poll neighborhoods, asking what kind of church they prefer; then the local churches design themselves to fit the desires of the people.  True faith in God that demands selflessness is being replaced by trendy religion that serves the selfish.

This passage is from Chapter 6, Defining Christianity in a Designer World.  The quoting of I Thessalonians 5:5 as an epigraph to begin the chapter implies that this “designer world” – and any church that patterns after it – “belong[s] to the night or to the darkness…”  In the chapter that follows, Graham (who obviously sounds a bit too tech savvy here to have crafted much, if any, of the text himself) chastises the world – and the church – for its focus on pleasing the self.  In several quotes from various news outlets, research agencies, and blogs, Graham challenges the trend of individuals creating their own tailored “religions”.  He merges non-traditional spiritual beliefs with the tendency of human beings to want to “belong” to something.  This creates a consumer-centered church which sheds unpopular beliefs and draws parishioners into a safe, non-challenging place of belonging in order to sell their watered-down “product”.

Related: Franklin Graham’s Religion is Not His Father’s – by Kathy Vestal

These are of course well-placed criticisms that have been espoused by many others.  In fact, I think it would be a challenge to find a prominent minister (evangelical or other) who hasn’t expressed similar concerns about the culture and church today.  But, I think it would be almost equally difficult to find a mainstream church (even a megachurch) that has given up completely on traditional beliefs about the divinity of Christ, the negative influences of sin, and the hope of salvation in order to attract a following.  (Graham does take on the likes of Rob Bell who have questioned hell in a later chapter, No Hope of Happy Hour in Hell.)  And, it would be almost as difficult to find a church, no matter how traditional, that doesn’t care what people think of them (sans Westboro Baptist) and that doesn’t embrace elements of consumerism (e.g., sales of books/CDs/DVDs by the pastor or guest speakers, labeling of products with the church brand, or charging for attendance at church conferences).  Graham is no exception: just see the line of products – including a branded music album and a DVD with weird patriotic symbolism – accompanying his book release.  We can criticize this self-centered, consumer-driven approach all we want but very few of us are doing anything to stem the tide (aside from those exiting the institutional “church” and relying on other forms of church and community).  Essentially, American capitalist culture has become institutionalized in the church.  Jesus would likely flip all our tables.

While I absolutely agree with elements of this criticism, and do respect Billy Graham’s life work (especially his earlier emphases on religious and political tolerance), I do take issue with one component of the above quote – and I think this criticism can be applied to both elements of the  “old guard” of American evangelicalism and certain voices represented by younger “progressive” or “missional” Christ followers.  This is the belief that secular methods of research drawn from the marketing profession – essentially applied social science – have perverted the mission of the church.  This line of reasoning equates targeted with trendy, strategic with sinful.  Is it wrong to tailor certain elements of the church experience with trends and practices in the culture being served?  Ultimately, I think this question leads to much larger questions.  Can social science make church “better”?  And what does “better” mean?

If by “better” we mean a church that is more culturally significant, more attractive to people, and larger and more gifted with resources, then yes – social science can further the mission of the church.

As a social scientist and a Christian, I believe in the power of science to improve the human condition.  I am currently working on a project funded by the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion to study megachurch practices.  I hope that my findings will ultimately have some positive influence on the practices of these large churches and the church as a whole.  Other funding agencies, like the Lily Endowment-funded Louisville Institute offer funding for research by pastors and researchers with an explicit focus on how the project “will contribute to the vitality of Christianity in North America.”  Or look at the work being done by the Leadership Network.

Graham and others, I think, are insinuating that reliance on research and surveys (which his book does quite a bit) means a church denies “biblical” principles to attract those unwilling to adopt “traditional” Christianity and rejects the selfless ethic of Christ in favor of fulfillment of our own selfish desires.  This need not be so.  Some churches that I am familiar with have refused to follow consultants’ wishes to remove crosses from their buildings just to attract those who find this image offensive.  (On one hand, the message of the cross should be offensive; but on the other, we must be careful to put our trust in Christ and not just symbols with cultural baggage.)  Other churches work very hard to design a quality children’s program – not only to attract young families but to train and equip the next generation of the church for a life of faith and service.  I’m sure surveys would show how important this is to families when searching for a church home – mine included.  Maybe this is selfish, but it might also mean we want our kids to learn how to be selfless.

Also by Joshua: Sandy Hook and the Tearing Asunder of Evangelical Christianity

Can the church be culturally relevant, even successful, without the use of social science?  Yes, we can base our actions on anecdotal evidence, for example, but social scientific methods can help us fine-tune our programming in a more accurate and focused way.  It can help us better understand our fellow human beings with an eye to connecting them to Christ and the church.

Let’s not confuse motivation with methods.  “[T]rue faith in God” can be furthered by polling neighborhoods and asking people for their cultural preferences for church programming and services.  If the resulting “product” doesn’t have a televangelist’s face or an American flag on it, does that mean it’s less genuine and committed to the gospel message?

Sure, surveys can be self-serving – but they can also help us understand people better.  In Romans 3, Paul (and Graham in another book excerpt) tells us we are all born sinners – which basically means we are all selfish.  The church was designed, by Jesus’ example, to serve sinners.  Shouldn’t we thus find the best possible means to serve the selfish all the while pointing them to Jesus?

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