Le Mont-Saint-Michel is a tidal island off Normandy, France. Water levels have varied over the centuries, but at its highest, the island would be completely cut off from the mainland, and at low tide, foot traffic could recommence.
The tidal island is a decent illustration of the relationship between the church and its surrounding culture. The church is rather like the island, somewhat separate, but still somewhat connected to the dominant culture. The culture is like the mainland. The tides represent how accessible the one is to the other.
When the waters were low, it meant plenty of traffic between the Island and the Mainland. That meant people, art, language and even categories of thought travelled back and forth. The Island influenced the Mainland, and vice versa, and in times dominated by Christian thought, there was enough homogeneity between the two for there to be only a minor culture shock when going from the one to the other. People going from Mainland culture to the Island church didn’t feel like complete foreigners.
The rising waters of secularism mean that the traffic between the two diminishes, until friendly relations between the two are basically ended. Faithful churches become island cultures. Their identity, norms, loves, customs, and art forms become increasingly localised, with little counterpart in mainland secularism. The Island and the Mainland are increasingly distanced from one another, and become foreigners.
When this happens, churches have two choices. They can attempt to maintain enough familiarity with the Mainland, by importing various secular forms into their churches. Alternatively, they can put their heads down and cultivate Island Culture.
What does Island Culture look like? It means unabashedly perpetuating your own Christian culture in your local church, without respect to how many links it retains to secular culture. That includes the coveted links of relevance, novelty and recognisability.
For example, Christians do not worship the way they do or teach what they do because secular culture announces this week’s List of Relevant Topics. We teach what we do because God has already limited and bounded what will be perpetually relevant in a book called the Bible. Christians do not worship, disciple and shape church life with an eye to how new, updated, or contemporary they seem. Island culture means how old or new something is becomes of secondary concern. What we’re interested in is if something is True, Good, or Beautiful, regardless of whether it was made yesterday or in the fifth century. We have no irrational prejudice towards what is new, nor do we have some nostalgia about a supposed Golden Age of Christianity in the past, but we should not be surprised if much of what we use in island culture originated in eras where Christianity was far more fruitful and culturally dominant. When the bridges between the church and its society were wide and plentiful, the traffic brought both good and bad into the church, which we can continue to sift through. But there is no reason to feign shock that the best artefacts of Christian culture are often older than 100 years. This is Island Culture.
But perhaps the hardest pill to swallow about Island Culture, and especially for pastors, is the matter of recognisability. A visitor to your Island Culture from secular mainland will increasingly find it all very strange, very unfamiliar, and quite unrecognisable. He will not recognise the way of singing, much less the music or the hymns. He will not recognise the authority structures, the way of praying or preaching, or the discipline of the church. It will seem very, very unusual. In fact, his first experience is that he will likely characterise it as “weird”, “abnormal”, “too traditional” or “a bit too sombre”. The unfamiliarity will make him feel awkward, and to most populist Evangelicals, that is just death. The thought of a visitor feeling out of place or uncomfortable fills many pastors with utter dread.
And therein lies the problem. Emerging from a long season where the Island and the Mainland were fairly connected, many pastors are unprepared (and some are unwilling) to embrace the realities of Island Culture. They’re convinced it is still possible to make a church feel familiar to a secular visitor. They usually make this attempt in the music, the outward presentation of the worship service, and in the trappings of technology, or lifestyle-based ministries or sermons. They will sometimes characterise these as “externals” or “preference issues”.
Such words are evidence of what psychologists like to call “confirmation bias”. The vocabulary is designed to reinforce a comfortable view: that there is nothing specifically Christian about music genres, affections, modes of worship, or various technologies; these are all blank hard drives, ready to be filled with Christian content. Actually, these hard-drives often carry powerful viruses of secularism that inevitably destroy the Christian nature of whatever is copied to them. They are artefacts of culture, which always shape the meaning of whatever we put in them.
What many such pastors do not realise is that this distance between us and secularism is not one created by a faithful church. It is created by a secular culture that is rocketing away from biblical norms. The faithful church is not trying to be deliberately odd. Even if it simply perpetuates Christian doctrine, worship and ethics within itself, the faithful church will find the distance increasingly growing between itself and the culture of Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Google, Hollywood and the secular elites. Rising tides don’t mean the island is floating away. It just means previously exposed bridges of commonality are disappearing.
To the degree you seek to make people immersed in secular culture feel at home on when they visit the Island is the degree to which you must import and naturalise ideas, morals, entertainments, dress, or music which are not simply non-Christian, but increasingly anti-Christian. And ironically, to the degree that you succeed is the degree to which you have failed: failed to faithfully preserve and perpetuate the faith.
I take it for granted that every church wishes to be warm and welcoming. I imagine every loving pastor wishes to reduce the awkwardness of unfamiliarity for secular visitors as a sheer act of hospitality and compassionate evangelism. All this is good and well. But the real problem is the pastor who thinks he can reduce the distance between the Island and the Mainland by importing Mainland goods, and baptising them as Christian.
He may see some successes. Unbelievers may feel that the church speaks their language, settle down, and assimilate into the church. On the other hand, what the seeker-friendly movement has abundantly shown is that too much of this simply colonises the Island for secularism. The natives on the Island superficially identify with Christianity, but everyone speaks with a secular accent. They may turn out to be long-term tourists, and not real residents. Again, too much success at this may actually be a sign of failure, given the growing distance between Christianity and secularism.
What then? We cannot control the tides. We cannot move landmasses. We must not turn the Island into a colony of the Mainland. Conserving and propagating Island Culture is our only obedient option. What does that mean?
Embrace being unusual. Embrace the task of a lot of explaining for those who come to you as refugees from other churches. Embrace slower growth, and accept (with sadness) less return visitors from the neighbourhood. Accept some of the most likely candidates for getting and perpetuating true Christianity will be those who grow up in your church, if they have faithful and thoughtful parents who explain what is done and why. Accept you will be misunderstood as a hide-bound traditionalist, or as a wooden conformist to an old way without any sense of the times or the way to remain relevant. Accept that you will be caricatured as the stereotypical parson with an aversion to change, a suspicion of youth, and a perpetual scorn towards modernity. Accept that the only way people will really understand what you’re doing is if they spend a long time on the Island.
And then, put your head down, and work.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.