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Multiculturalism veiled as "Missional"

I thought I’d post a helpful discourse by Dave Doran in his journal article on “Market-Driven Ministry,” which answers well recent justification of a neutral view of culture and music by a claim to being “missional.” Doran describes the market-driven philosophy as one that is pragmatic in several crucial areas, one of which is their view of culture.

Stated simply, cultural relativism believes that because cultural matters have no absolute moral value, they cannot be considered to be normative. Since they are not normative, they may be treated with indifference. Few people, either secular or religious, doubt that cultural relativism has captured our day. Allan Bloom, a secular university professor laments that our educational system, because of its acceptance of cultural relativism, is driven to teach us the history of men’s prejudices “not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.”1

As reflected in [Rick] Warren’s argument about music, the vast array of cultural differences leads to the conclusion that it is impossible to assert the superiority of any culture—he calls it “cultural elitism.” Bloom speaks eloquently to this type of argument,

The fact that there have been different opinions about good and bad in different times and places in no way proves that none is superior to others.… On the face of it, the difference of opinion would seem to raise the question as to which is true or right than to banish it. The natural reaction is to try to resolve the difference, to examine the claims and reasons for each opinion.2

Whether intentional or not, the marketing movement practices a non-thinking, popular form of cultural relativism and multiculturalism. As James Davison Hunter points out, one of the first steps in multiculturalism is to redefine culture so that it no longer refers to norms and values which serve as the “shoulds” and “should nots” of our society. In the multicultural framework, “culture is essentially reduced to life-style (choices about how one lives) or, at best, customs (practices that have the sanction of tradition but are not insisted upon as inviolable) or possibly collective experiences.”3

These are precisely the descriptions of culture found in the marketing literature and conferences. In fact, Douglas Webster goes as far as to suggest that “the church marketer’s analysis of culture is so superficial that it is deceptive.”4

These ideas clearly form the basis of the quest for cultural relevance. Culture, in the marketing orientation, is merely a life-style factor, not an ethical or moral issue. That is why Murren can refer to their worship philosophy as striving to “be inclusive and intelligible to the baby boomer culture.”5 Working from this life-style premise, arguments are marshaled that cultural adaptation is an essential part of communicating the biblical message. For instance, Ed Dobson, defends the idea of a seeker sensitive service that utilizes “culturally relevant” forms by comparing it to the work of missionaries,

We understand this principle when we send missionaries to other countries. These missionaries seek first to learn the language and the culture of the places to which they go. Only then do they attempt to communicate the gospel.

We would never send an English-speaking missionary to a Spanish-speaking county [sic] to minister exclusively in English. That would be irrational, not to mention stupid.6

Ignoring the glaring flaws in the analogy,7 Dobson’s use of the term culture confirms the fact that it is being used to mean life-style or common experiences. He further confirms this by drawing a comparison between using basketball marathons to reach teenagers and the start of a seeker sensitive service. Again, the argument reveals that culture is viewed in terms of life-style, not as a value system.

It is not a long way from basketball to rock music, drama, and the good news about Jesus Christ. A seeker-sensitive service is an attempt to place the gospel in a culturally relevant context. The language of contemporary music, drama that engages, talks that are relevant, and answers that are honest make up the language of secular America. Just as the gospel was not compromised at a basketball marathon, neither is it compromised in a seeker-sensitive service.8

David Wells has written at great length to demonstrate that this very problem, assuming that culture is merely a matter of life-style versus a matter of moral significance, is causing great harm to the health of evangelicalism. The force of his arguments is compelling,

Evangelicals are antimodern only across a narrow front; I write from a position that is antimodern across the entire front. It is only where assumptions in culture directly and obviously contradict articles of faith that most evangelicals become aroused and rise up to battle “secular humanism”; aside from these specific matters, they tend to view culture as neutral and harmless. More than that, they often view culture as a partner amenable to being coopted in the cause of celebrating Christian truth. I cannot share such naiveté; indeed, I consider it dangerous. Culture is laden with values, many of which work to rearrange the substance of faith.… It is because many evangelicals believe in the innocence of modern culture and for that reason exploit it and are exploited by it that they are unable to believe in all of the truth that once characterized the Protestant orthodoxy.… The stream of historic orthodoxy that once watered the evangelical soul is now dammed by a worldliness that many fail to recognize as worldliness because of the cultural innocence with which it presents itself.… We now have less biblical fidelity, less interest in truth, less seriousness, less depth, and less capacity to speak the Word of God to our own generation in a way that offers an alternative to what it already thinks.9

The sting of these words is only exceeded by their perceptiveness. Yet, due to its fundamental principles, the marketing movement is bound to offer the consumer exactly what he or she wants. In some senses, its pragmatic use of cultural marries well to the mindset of the baby boomers, the most commonly chosen target for ministry. Douglas Webster describes the typical baby boomer as, “indoctrinated in this collegiate atmosphere, [they] feel comfortable with cultural relativism (everyone is entitled to his or her opinion) and satisfied with spiritual relationism (inspirational feelings about oneself, others and God).”10

This viewpoint cannot stand unchallenged by those who operate within a God-centered world view. Culture is not amoral. Myers speaks well to this issue,

As Christians, we insist that there are permanent standards for culture. Culture is the human effort to give structure to life. But human nature does not exist as a law unto itself. Human nature is, as part of God’s creation, a permanent standard. Men and women cannot act against their own nature without violating the standards God has established in their very being. Moreover, the rest of creation, in which culture is established and with which culture must contend, has a divinely established order. Cultural institutions, artifacts, and expressions that deny, suppress, or distort that order ought to be recognized as inferior to those that acknowledge, honor, and enjoy it.11

The most important question, however, cannot be answered by the marketing movement because it is one of truth, not pragmatics—Is the use of contemporary cultural forms consistent with the message of the gospel? or, Are those forms so value-laden that they distort the message? Pragmatism can only answer these questions based on the consequences that result from using them. The great danger is that these forms, because of their popularity in our culture, may actually yield positive results by the marketer’s standard—an increase in numbers. But this may be a short-term gain which turns to long-term losses. One writer warns of this problem,

Worship practices that only evoke good feelings and thereby foster a character that seeks instant gratification might be enormously successful at first, but the costs, though not immediately obvious, may be high. The very methods that attract crowds might also prevent the development of habits of reflection and learning. A focus on self and feelings limits the nurturing of a godly and outreaching character.12

The Movement Has Surrendered To Popular Culture

The willingness of the market-driven churches to adopt rock music as the primary tool by which they position their churches in order to be relevant clearly evidences the cultural surrender that results from pragmatic ministry.13 This choice is faulty for at least three reasons.

First, it disregards the plain fact that rock music cannot be separated from its cultural context and values. Even a cursory reading of secular and religious writings on the history of rock music and the philosophy which undergirds it reveals that rock music is a culture carrier, not merely a neutral form of cultural expression. For Rick Warren to flatly deny that there is any moral significance to music is either woefully naive or culpably negligent spiritual leadership.14 Some Christian analysts of this question acknowledge the significant role of culture in evaluating the use of rock music for ministry. Kenneth Myers calls shallow thinking on this issue into question when he writes,

In assessing rock ‘n’ roll, for example, it’s not enough to read the lyrics and find out on what beat of each measure the accent falls. We also need to consider what relationship rock has with other aspects of pop culture, what social role it plays for its fans, and how it compares with other musical options available to listeners. We need to look at the culture of rock, not just the words and music.15

Peter Wicke, a sociologist, writes, “Rock music is a mass medium through which cultural values and meanings circulate, through which social experiences are passed on which reach far beyond the material nature of the music.”16 Rock music not only springs from a particular cultural matrix, it helps establish it. The authors of Dancing in the Dark help us see this,

While neat dichotomies are dangerous, it is safe to say that for the most part rock and roll features feeling and experience more than thought and analysis; it cares more about identity and intimacy than knowledge and intellect; it celebrates the here and now, focusing on the experiential rather than the ideological…it appeals and functions primarily on broad emotional and attitudinal levels, as psycho-emotional map and mentor for many. In laying out such a generalized, affective map for great numbers of teens, it establishes for teen culture a supportive atmosphere, an ambiance with guidelines for acceptable expression and behavior, at least as far as other teens are concerned.… It is a self-contained world in which sensory experience and emotional involvement take precedence over verbal content and rational analysis.17

Contrary to the shallow viewpoint of the marketing advocates, rock music is far more than a life-style choice. It embodies and establishes a culture loaded with meaning and values, and the culture of rock music is antithetical, not neutral, to Christlike living. The fact that it can be embraced within the church for worship purposes is a tell-tale sign of contemporary evangelicalism’s inability to sense its own worldliness. At least Richard Quebedeaux recognized what was taking place,

Indeed, rock is inherently a form of music that made its way by outrage against taboo, and there are no taboos left. It is profoundly significant that evangelicals, even the more conservative among them have accepted the rock mode. The acceptance, obviously, indicates a further chapter in the death of self-denial and world rejection among them [emphasis added].18

Harold Best sums up well the curious combination of rock, worldliness, and pragmatism,

Our borrowing of rock is evidence of a loosening life-style among evangelicals. We can use anything we want to in witnessing now. That’s both a virtue and a vice. We’re in this whole pragmatic mishmash that says, If it works, it’s good. If it’ll bring souls to Jesus, it’s good. As far as I’m concerned it’s just pietized pragmatism.19

Second, and developing from the first, by adopting a stance of moral neutrality on music, the marketing movement ignores the destructive character of rock music. Allan Bloom, cited above for his warning against surrendering to cultural relativism, argues that all music is value-laden. His assessment of the character of rock music ought to jolt those who so quickly embrace it as a ministry vehicle,

This is the significance of rock music. I do not suggest that it has any high intellectual sources. But it has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere in which there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions…rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire—not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. It acknowledges the first emanations of children’s emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimating them…Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertainment industry, everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later.20

Third, beyond the question of rock’s moral worth, the marketing movement fails to question if the musical character of rock music is compatible with the message of the gospel. Many are concluding that it is not. At the heart of this conclusion is the realization that the gospel is a message with content to be believed about a Person to be received. Rock music is inadequate for communicating the content of this message without distortion,

Perhaps the biggest limitation…is the failure to recognize that the primary mode of meaning and expression in rock is not “rational discourse.” Among the major artistic media for teens, rock in particular is a non-rational mode of communication, dealing with the sensory and the emotional, employing the figurative lyrics, musical mood, and symbolic gestures.21

Rather than surrendering to the culture for the pragmatic sake of church growth, “Christians can help society recognize the danger of its loss of reasoned discourse in the all-consuming ubiquity of entertainment. By offering worship that educates instead of entertains, that uplifts and transforms through the renewing of the mind (Rom 12:2), the Church can expose the meaninglessness of our present culture.”22 The gospel message, which is absolute and transcendent, is being tied to cultural forms which contradict it at the core, because they are forms built on the principles of relativism and immediacy.

Kenneth Myers joins this critical assessment of the marriage between popular culture and ministry,

It may have been easier for the Corinthians to eat meat offered to idols than it is for us to enjoy popular culture innocently. Idolatry is so obviously foreign to Christian values that it must be guarded against constantly. Even idolatrous ideas are not too difficult to identify and resist. But a sensibility, a consciousness, is much more evasive and subtle…while critical of some of its content, the church has a virtually uncritical attitude toward the form of popular culture. In fact, the church has adopted those forms without much resistance, in the alleged interest of promoting its message. But the message has thereby suffered, and so have its members.… Popular culture’s forms are not capable of sustaining the Christian conviction of a holy, judging God who demands repentance and promises the joy of obedience.23

Once more we see that the attempt of the marketing movement, due to its capitulation to man-centeredness, yields fruit which is scripturally unacceptable.

It seems to me that this recent appeal to being “missional” as a justification for viewing culture and music as neutral is nothing more than a regurgitation of market-driven multiculturalism.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p 26. []
  2. Ibid., p. 39. []
  3. Before the Shooting Begins (New York: The Free Press, 1994), pp. 200-201. []
  4. Selling Jesus, p. 71. []
  5. The Baby Boomerang, p. 190. []
  6. Starting a Seeker Sensitive Service, p. 15. []
  7. There at least two—one logical, one ethical. The logical error is a classic case of comparing apples (language) and oranges (music). A missionary learns the language because it is the necessary component for communication; choices of musical style are not necessary matters of communication. The ethical error is the assumption that cultural adaptation is morally neutral—something we would not agree with if a missionary moves to a cannibalistic society. That is, missionaries do not adopt the native culture wholesale; they must put it to the test of biblical morals. []
  8. Dobson, Starting a Seeker Sensitive Service, p. 16. []
  9. No Place for Truth, pp. 11-12. []
  10. Selling Jesus, p. 63. []
  11. Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1989), p. 30. []
  12. Marva J. Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) p. 111. []
  13. Cf. Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, p. 280; Stewart, Church Leaders Handbook, p. 21; Murren, The Baby Boomerang, p. 189; Dobson, Starting a Seeker Sensitive Service, pp. 34-35. []
  14. Ironically, one of Warren’s arguments for using rock music is its power to impact character. He writes, “Aristotle said, ‘Music has the power to shape the character.’ Satan is clearly using music to do that today. The rock lyrics of the 1960s and 1970s shaped the values of most Americans who are now in their thirties, forties or fifties… If we don’t use contemporary music to spread godly values, Satan will have unchallenged access to an entire generation” (The Purpose Driven Church, pp. 279-280). Warren, by using the terms “music” and “lyrics” interchangeably, dodges the question of how a vehicle so powerful for corrupting morals can so easily be transformed into a powerful tool for producing godliness. In so doing, he misrepresents the words of Aristotle—the very quote demonstrates that he disagrees with Warren about the moral neutrality of music. Music (what Warren defines as “an arrangement of notes and rhythms” [p. 281]) clearly communicates moral value by its character (e.g., provocative or sensual music) and associations (i.e., the images or conventions with which is readily identifiable, e.g., striptease music). []
  15. All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, p. 31. []
  16. Rock Music: Culture, Aesthetics and Sociology, trans. Rachel Fogg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. ix. []
  17. Quentin J. Schultze et al., Dancing in the Dark (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), pp. 162-163). This observation is perhaps more significant in that the authors, involved in teaching/research for Calvin College, write from a perspective quite distanced from fundamentalism. []
  18. The Worldly Evangelicals (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 118. []
  19. “Music: Offerings of Creativity,” Christianity Today 6 May 1977, p. 13. []
  20. The Closing of the American Mind, p. 73. []
  21. Schultze, Dancing in the Dark, p. 162. []
  22. Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, p. 72. []
  23. All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, pp. 181-182. []