28 September 2005

Still more from the e-mail out-box

The correspondence I posted yesterday prompted an e-mail from someone who was mildly irritated with me. Here's my reply:




To: "Savage Countenance"
From: "Phillip R. Johnson"
Subject: Re: Cr—t-r?!!

Dear "Savage Countenance,"

Many thanks for your message. You wrote:

> why would you question a brother
> who just wants to fit in with the
> people he's trying to reach?...you
> should quit trying so hard to be
> different and try harder to be
> genuine...i'm making this point
> b/c my eyebrow is pierced and i
> have a tatoo on the back of my
> neck...i wear combat boots...and
> i usually wear all black..i listen
> to Christian metal and industrial
> music—i've seen too many christians
> hide in a corner away from the world
> and wait for them to come to
> us...and it just doesn't work
> that way, you know?

OK, first of all let me say that the point I want to make here has very little to do with the question of whether body piercing and tattoos are always inherently sinful.

Don't misunderstand: I would indeed argue that if you pierce or tattoo yourself as an act of self-mutilation, narcissism, or rebellion, then the motivation for such "body modification" is clearly sinful and therefore something Christians ought to avoid.

But that's really beside the point at the moment. Because your whole argument is that you have tattooed yourself and put studs in your face in order to be more "genuine" and to have a better testimony for Christ.

And that's what I want to respond to: the notion that adopting the fads of a juvenile, egomaniacal, shallow, self-destructive, worldly culture "works" better as an evangelistic strategy than a lifestyle that gives more prominence to the principle of Matthew 5:16 and 1 Peter 2:9.

As you have described it above, body modification and combat boots are a significant and deliberate part—if not the very centerpiece—of your evangelistic strategy. You seem to imagine that if you try hard enough to fit into the punk culture, you might actually win people by convincing them that Jesus would fit nicely into their lifestyle, too.

But wouldn't you yourself actually agree that there is—somewhere—a limit to how far Christians can legitimately go in conforming to worldly culture? Surely you do not imagine that the apostle Paul's words about becoming all things to all men is a prescription for adopting every vulgar fashion of a philistine culture. Do you?

Can we agree, for example, that it wouldn't really be good or necessary to get a sex-change operation in order to reach the transgendered community? OK, you might dismiss that as something inherently sinful and wrong for that reason. Well, how about pulling a few teeth and adopting the trashy patois and tasteless lifestyle of Jerry Springer's guest list in order to have a more effective outreach to the underbelly of the cable-TV community? How serious are you about your strategy of accommodation and conformity?

And why is it mainly the lowbrow and fringe aspects of Western youth culture that this argument is invariably applied to? Why are so few Christian young persons keen to give up video games and take up chess in order to reach the geeks in the chess club? or give up heavy metal and learn the cello in order to have a ministry to the students who play in the orchestra?

There used to be a misguided youth on the Web who ran a website called "Backyard Wrestlers for Jesus." He was trying to tap into the backyard wresting culture as a mission field. So he set up a Web site showing kids how to build a backyard wrestling ring, how to do what The Rock and the Dudley Boys do without getting hurt, and how to talk smack without really talking dirty—so that kids who wrestle in their own backyards could improve their style. Along the way, he figured they would see that his Web site had something to do with Jesus, and they'd know Jesus is cool, and they'd like Jesus better because he's so cool.

I admire his desire to reach a troubled culture, but the methodology is all wrong and completely without any credible biblical warrant. I realize making Jesus seem cool is the dominant evangelistic strategy of this age, and everyone from Rick Warren to Brian McLaren is trying in whatever way they think best to make Christianity more hip and trendy.

But I still think it's a bad idea.

Incidentally, I grew up in the 1960s in a liberal church with a fairly sizable youth group where dances with live rock music were the bait used to draw us on a regular basis. So there's nothing particularly fresh or innovative about this philosophy. It didn't work in my generation, and it's not really working now. It's made the church more worldly; it hasn't made the world more spiritual.

In fact, I'd say that this strategy represents the wholesale abandonment of the church's responsibility to a sinful culture.

The most effective way to minister to any culture—and this goes for every culture, from highbrow society to white middle-class suburbia to the urban street gang—is to challenge and confront the culture instead of conforming to it. "Therefore 'Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean'" (2 Corinthians 6:17).

Yes, I know Jesus was a friend of sinners, and His enemies accused Him—wrongly—of participating in their excesses. The truth is that He became their friend without adopting their values. That's the example we should strive to follow, not the example of worldly culture itself.

Phil's signature


42 comments:

Jason E. Robertson said...

To pull a friend from the ditch you must stay on high ground.

jc said...

But to push a friend out of a ditch, you must be on equal level, or lower.

Libbie said...

Yeah, but then you're in the ditch and they have to pull YOU out...

Matt said...

I thought Christ both pulls and pushes us out of ditches by being both the Son of God and 'made sin for us'? Surely? Anyone? Why is is that Christ is actually left out of these matters so much - like we're down here pointing people to Him and He doesn't really care how we do it. It is the Spirit that moves hearts and draws men to repentance, therefore we should act in a way laid down by Him.

Libbie said...

Doesn't that go to the heart of so much of the modern understanding of scripture - we appear to think there are things it doesn't cover. Now, I can maybe understand the whole 'no-TVs-in-the-bible' thing, but reaching people for Christ? You're so right that scripture is by no means silent on this issue.
Perhaps that's what so frustrating about purpose-driven stuff - the assumption that the Holy Spirit can do so much, but He really would appreciate if we do a survey to find out what these sinners felt needs are so that He can finally get them saved..

Wandering said...

For me this is the tip of an iceberg. To me it comes to people’s identity… has the church taught people to have an identity in the world or in Christ? Lines seem to be smudged between assimilation of culture to witness in and challenging culture. (being of the world but not from the world) There is teaching about “witnessing” by identifying with people in the world… but the church sends people out who are so identified with the world that Christ can’t shine through. Phil Johnson, you have such a strong identify in who you are in Christ that you can “challenge and confront” any culture. (Almost… being threatened with loss of your life would really challenge you... even me!) A true identity in Christ and confidence in that identify… allows people to know where to draw the line in identifying with those who they have been called to witness to and where to challenge the culture. In any ministry it’s a deadly line… between effectiveness and being infected! Take a few generations of people… who have grown up in a world struggling for “identification”… it adds to the struggle. Speaking as someone who was born in the 70’s and is involved in encouraging those who witness to people in cross-cultures… this is a big issue not just for my generation of believers… but for the Church and the “mission field” also. Is this not the issue of the “emerging church”… is it not looking for an identity, without trying to be infected by the world? Thus the tip of the iceberg… (ps... I’m new to the blogging world… currently a sideline observer who is challenged by open discussion)

Carla said...

Well, this might seem like one of those high-fiving robot drone-type responses, but I really don't care.

THANK YOU for saying this, Phil. How many more of us have been saying the same thing, to have it fall on deaf ears, only to be argued with?

You said "It didn't work in my generation, and it's not really working now. It's made the church more worldly; it hasn't made the world more spiritual."

Now that, was a mouthful (screenful?).

We have a high and holy standard - we're not called to remain IN the world and of the world, we're called to be transformed, and in this day when you cannot tell who is of the faith and who isn't, based on language, dress, music, movies, games, lifetyles, etc., that's hardly being transformed.

SDG,
Carla

Jeri said...

Nicely put, Phil.

Jeremy Weaver said...

High-five!

Kim said...

Why are so few Christian young persons keen to give up video games and take up chess in order to reach the geeks in the chess club? or give up heavy metal and learn the cello in order to have a ministry to the students who play in the orchestra?

As a mother with teenagers, I gotta remember this one.

Finrod said...

Your email buddy reminds me of half a proverb, i.e., that foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child. For some of us, being a "child" stretched into our 20s.

The rest of the proverb, of course, says that the rod of correction removes the foolishness. Maybe this person's parents won't discipline him/her, but God will. Those of us who insisted on learning the hard way know all about that, don't we?

When someone wants wisdom, they don't turn to young people. There's a reason for that. So, let them be stupid and foolish if they refuse to listen. Hopefully the lesson will be learned.

Libbie said...

A little while ago, on a 'Christian youth' telly programme, a young man who was part of an aspiring christian heavy metal band said that it was important to listen to Marilyn Mansons music, because how could you possibly get on tour with him to reach him otherwise?

I didn't follow that logic either.

jc said...

I don't get "/* .

Daniel said...

They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery.

We see a style that we admire - and being carnal we desire to be admired in a similar way. To achieve this admiration we conform ourselves in varying degrees to that image we so admired. In displaying to the world the simultude of that image, we expect or imagine we shall thereby inherit a similar admiration from others.

Or said yet another way - we desire admiration from the world, and we are not above conforming to the world in order to receive it.

So when we hear of a brother or sister who fits this description we assume they are blind to it themselves - especially when we see that they have justified this carnal compromise as a form of piety.

Because it is so common, and because postmodernism has injected "tolerance" into mainstream christianity (disguising it as a Christian virtue) many believers are aghast when someone points out that the emperor has no clothes.

puritanicoal said...

A tattoo, in a very limited sense, is like a marriage. If you get one while you are an unbeliever, and subsequently become a believer, you are still stuck with it. (End analogy).

Given that limited analogy, if someone becomes a Christian, and they have a tattoo and various piercings, they are pretty much stuck with that tattoo, and could probably jettison the piercings, and be left with the scars. In that case, reaching out to those whom you "understand" in a culture you were once (past tense) a part of, is, to some extent, a good idea, if you are called to do such. I don't have a problem with that at all. As long as there is no compromise, and a definate "set-apartness" between that person and the crowd they are trying to reach.

Phil's point, on the other hand, is right on, to the extent that a person shouldn't use evangelism as an excuse to remain involved in and GET tattoos and piercings in order to fit in.

Another great example is whether should we commit felonies so that we can go to prison to witness to prisoners? If you are already in prison, and become a believer, then have at it. Otherwise, you have to go in through the "front door."

John Rush said...

Amen and amen.
It is getting plain silly out there. God's primary attribute is holiness...not cool.

I was just reading last night that He is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords--and dwells in unapproachable light.

Jesus is not a geek who needs a makeover to be hip.

JRush
An Evangelical Clod

Aaron said...

Don't worry, Phil. He'll go to college, get an MBA, and then "evangelize" the corporate world by blending in with them, too! With any luck (given that he probably does not have a healthy view of God's sovereignty, that's all he could ascribe it to), everyone will notice that his cubicle has a cross and a calendar with Psalms quotations on the wall. Then, with a little more luck, maybe Gordon from Accounting will make the first move and ask why he likes all that "Jesus stuff." Then, oh boy, he can finally say what he's been dying to find the opportunity to say: "Jesus was the greatest leader in history, and if you let him be CEO of your life, you'll end up at Corporate Headquarters when you die!"

Brian Humphreys said...

You have wrote what I have been thinking this past week though being pierced for Jesus was the furthest thing from my mind. The operating premise of modern and postmodern evangelicalism is this: the world just needs to find out how cool Christianity really is. A cursory reading of the New Testament clearly shows this to be one messed up approach to reaching people for Christ. Oh, that modern evangelicals would see that Paul meant for us to be cultural sensitive (1 Corinthians 9:20-21), but not Biblically compromising! Oh, that modern evangelicals would understand that the world often sees through our lame attempts at accommodating the culture!
Lastly, the comment, "It's made the church more worldly; it hasn't made the world more spiritual," was worth the price of the blog.

Brian

dan spors said...

i have a growing issue with the attitude that in order to reach people not like us we have to become something we're not. while i respect the deep motives of trying to share the gospel in a way that we receive a hearing with people who might otherwise not listen, i think that there's a deeper problem with that sentiment.

for example, i think of the formerly popular notion of a 'skateboarding ministry.' as i see it, there are two ways to have such a 'ministry.' either you can have a heart for these people to the point that you build a skatepark in your church parking lot, learn to dress and talk like a skateboarder, and maybe even learn a few tricks (double-entendre?) so that you fit in - or - or you can enjoy skateboarding already and life out your faith in front of other skateboarders.

i prefer the second thought...

Bewildered Berean said...

Just wondering when the Mormons or JW's will pick up on being "relevant"? Imagine the "missionary boys" trading in their mountain bikes for Hogs.

Yankeerev said...

Phil,

The few piercings that I have are scars from my "punk" lifestyle during the late 70's. No more combat boots - Doc Martins were the rage then too -- no more straps between the legs, or torn t-shirts -- unless, of course I have just finished wrestling with my boys in the living room - no more head banging or pogo dancing... No, I was dead and am now alive in Christ. I have no desire to go back to a lifestyle that is sprinkled with christian lingo but has all the trimmings of the death and darkness that I was in. Yet, I have been back -- earingless, strapless, bootless, and pogoless. In stead I went back as the new creature in Christ that I am fully trusting in His grace, not my clothing. The Gospel was shared clearly with love and graciousness, the seed planted and God will do as He pleases.

Matthew Hoover said...

Wait! Does this mean that I can quit wearing Huggies and sucking on my nook-nook, and still keep my ministry in the nursery on Sunday morning?! Great!

Gunner said...

Savage Countenance wrote: "i've seen too many christians hide in a corner away from the world and wait for them to come to us...and it just doesn't work that way, you know?"

I think we should acknowledge that SC's made a valid observation here. Too many "Christians" ARE hiding in a corner away from the world, enlisting "God's sovereignty" as their defense for why they don't follow Christ in seeking and saving the lost. We should do something about this.

SC's trying to do something about it, but is going about it the wrong way, as you (Phil) described. Saying that Christians dressing like their favorite brand of worldliness is the solution for a neglect of evangelism isn't biblical or even logical. Those two aren't even parallel.

I have a problem with anything that makes the Christian identity secondary. No one ever says, "This is solid, biblical Christian music that happens to have a punk flavor." The emphasis is always on the fact that it's "metal" or "industrial" or "punk." Punk first, Christian second. The primary identity of the music is that it's punk. THEN it's Christian.

Christ always demanded the opposite. We are in Christ - we're Christian through and through. Anything that identifies us as anything different than that - making our Christian identity secondary - we should put aside.

Savage Countenace, I assume that your heart for the Gospel and for the lost is genuine. You've said that Phil is trying to be different while you're trying to be genuine. Why can't a Christian be both? And why do you assume that Phil's pursuit of "differentness" means that he's not also genuine? Couldn't he be genuinely different?

Try to be genuine AND different - sincere AND holy. You can do both. Jesus did.

You're challenging Christians who have a bright lamp (holiness) but who are hiding it under a basket. And you're reacting by setting your light on a nice, high lampstand, and then dimming it with worldly identities.

Rather, "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your GOOD WORKS, and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).

centuri0n said...

cf. the TELIP tattoo.

Broken Messenger said...

Uh, oh...I can hear the distant rythmic drums of Pecadillo playing Phil's Chicken Dance music in the distance as I begin to chime in with: Great post, Phil.

Hmm, I too suddenly have this urge to start high fiving....

Phil Johnson said...

Gunner: "You're challenging Christians who have a bright lamp (holiness) but who are hiding it under a basket. And you're reacting by setting your light on a nice, high lampstand, and then dimming it with worldly identities."

Well said.

Also, Yankeerev reminded me of something I meant to add but forgot: I agree that our message to the pierced-and-punk'd generation shouldn't be about the way they look. I wouldn't want the skaters in my neighborhood to think I automatically despise them because their baggy shorts bug me.

How unbelievers look and act is not my concern here. As Christians, we ought to love our neighbors and do good to them regardless of their appearance—even if they look like this lady, this lady, or this lady.

I also don't think Christians need to be embarrassed and shouldn't be marginalized if they bring into the Christian life whatever scars they got from living in the world—whether it be tattoos and piercings, a prison record, or the humiliation of some scandalous sin.

But I think it's wrong, and sends the wrong message, if we magnify those scars or try to parlay them into sme kind of instant credibility that actually communicates to the world that we think the scars of sin are "cool."

And I especially object to the notion that it's good for Christians to deliberately acquire the scars of worldliness because that's the key to some kind of misguided "evangelistic" strategy.

brigand said...

I think that Savage Countenance should broaden his mission field, you know, be "all things to all men", and he should start with an outreach to the Jewish community.

The first step towards getting out of that corner and trying harder to be genuine is a small surgical procedure.

So, how about a little snip, snip, eh?

Hooser said...

For those Holy Countenances:
I think part of the problem that 'Savage Countenance' has, is with the lack of uniquely Christian culture. Most kids can spot the 'posers' from a mile away and often times can spot the Christian sub-cultures without looking too hard. Christian culture has simply been defined at this point in history as mimicking the secular culture or even being more dull than secular culture. I think as Christians, we should be working to develop uniquely biblical culture based off of the Bible. Culture that is not boring, because the Bible is not boring. If we believe in the sovereignty of God, then there should be a wise and Christian response or alternative to everything under the sun. Often times, because of sinful unbiblical pietism, we have in large part made the unspoken statement that sinful=fun and Christian=not fun. This is simply not true.

But there are two sides to this coin.

For those Savage Countenances:
Savage Countenance is consequently asking the Church to be so relevant to an idolatrous culture on a superficial level that it becomes irrelevant as a result. The church has more of a responsibility to be fundamentally relevant even if that means being superficially irrelevant.

That said, I do think that conservative Christians do often hide behind arguments like this as an excuse not to engage culture. We ought to recognize that secular culture is the fruit of a plethora of blind, deaf, and dumb idols and what we should be doing is showing those idols for what they really are and presenting them with the gospel. The gospel is relevant to all people, in all times, and in all places, many people just need to realize the limits of their false gospels.

Check out 'Prophetic Untimeliness' by Os Guinness, he does a great job discussing the issue.

Sack said...

I would tend to agree with you on your arguements about this approach to evangelism, but I have heard simlar things before. What I haven't heard much of, are historical examples of failure. Your example of the 60's was great, especially for those of us in our 20's who heard all the hippie stories from their parents, and can now see how impotent that approach is.

Tolle, Blogge said...

Ironically, the greatest treatment of this mindset came in cartoon form in a King of the Hill episode. As Hank told the hip youth minister, "You're not making Christianity better; you're making rock and roll worse." The last 5 minutes of that episode should be required viewing for evangelicals.

Matt said...

Speaking of tattoos, I recently saw a guy at an amusement park with a tattoo of Jesus.

Matt said...

I have a problem with anything that makes the Christian identity secondary. No one ever says, "This is solid, biblical Christian music that happens to have a punk flavor." The emphasis is always on the fact that it's "metal" or "industrial" or "punk." Punk first, Christian second. The primary identity of the music is that it's punk. THEN it's Christian.

It's true that no one ever says that, but if you ask, the reason most often given why christian x (x=metal, punk, etc) sucks is that the band puts the christian thing first and the music thing second. That is, it's just an evangelistic tool.

They have a point. Contemporary Christian music of any kind tends towards shallow expressions of religious fealty. "Jesus Loves Me" puts most of it to shame in terms of artistic merit. Musically inclined Christians should focus less on injecting the words Jesus, God, love, adore, holy, and so forth into their music and instead try to weave Christian themes into it less superficially.

Jeri said...

r reeves wrote, Ironically, the greatest treatment of this mindset came in cartoon form in a King of the Hill episode. As Hank told the hip youth minister, "You're not making Christianity better; you're making rock and roll worse." The last 5 minutes of that episode should be required viewing for evangelicals.

I saw that episode and wished it were possible to frame it. It was funny but exactly true. Looks like somebody who writes for KotH was raised/educated in a pretty solid church.

coner2 said...

Phil,

I would love to see a comic book series or collage of the images in your post... the "cool kid" trying to reach the chess geek, Jerry Springer's crowd , yeah pull a few teeth, the heavy metal head-banger learning to play the cello... LOL Great images!

Brandon said...

Yep, using the "I am trying to be more genuine" excuse is a cop out of someone who wants to continue in the things of the world. Like you said, we should not be conforming to the world, but we should be transformed by the renewing of our minds(and I don't think that involves piercings or tatoos)

Darren said...

"The truth is that He became their friend without adopting their values. That's the example we should strive to follow, not the example of worldly culture itself."

Yes! Phil, you've keenly peered through the fog that surrounds this issue. Jesus was remarkably able to fellowship with "sinners" and social rejects yet remain his message, which challenged them to live beyond where they were at. The Pharisees weren't the only ones he condemned.

Likewise Paul was "all things to all men," but that doesn't mean he made his life and ministry more about being seen as "one of us" than about the message of the Gospel.

That message remains scandalous. The moment that a conversion to Jesus doesn't involve a fundamental change of what sort of people we are, and the things we do and say, is the moment we know that we've castrated the Gospel.

"All things to all men" must be accompanied by the kicker: "in order to save some." "Jesus loves you" must be followed by "and he is calling you to live beyond yourself, as the person he died for you to be."

Wayne Hatcher said...

Now that's more like it. Phil this is how you should have responded to the first email yesterday. Both of these emails are symptomatic of the same problem: the misuse of Paul's example to be all things to all people. A better picture of Paul's method is to see him on Mars hill. He looks around for a point of contact, a jumping off point, and begins "I notice you are very religious..." The best way to effect the world around you is to be yourself, not a wannabe or a looser. Learn to express yourself verbally, know what you believe, and then look for opportunities to make a point of contact at the level of the target audience.

mrclm said...

You are now a multi-media super star. Todd Friel, drive home host on Christian Radio 980AM KKMS (Minneapolis/St. Paul) picked up on your post today and discussed it on air. He cited you as the source for the thought and read little snippets and took calls in comments. For the most part, the callers would take your assessment and agree. Good stuff as always!

Big Chris
Because I said so blog
http://mrclm.blogspot.com

One Salient Oversight said...

I think that there is something to be said about the importance of interacting with elements of modern culture. Paul, after all, knew all about that altar to the unknown God when he preached in Athens in Acts 17.

I certainly have a music and DVD collection that would make some Christians wonder about me. The idea is, however, that in these artistic representations of mankind (in all its glorious sinfulness), can be discovered ways of thinking and behaving - attitudes towards God and so on.

But the real reason I enjoy my music and films is because I have an arty side to me that appreciates symbolic representations and emotional catharsis - not because I want to evangelise those who watch/listen to similar stuff.

Christianity can never be "cool". We don't need to show the world that Christians can have fun too.

But what the world does respond to is sincerely held beliefs lived out publically and privately. The media and the masses will always be against us, but if we speak and live our faith with unbelievers, they will notice.

Even if we listen to Pat Boone.

geoffrobinson said...

Your cello comment is priceless.

steve said...

I guess Bro. Phil just can't visualize St. Paul decked out as Dracula, sipping a glass of human blood, to relate to the Goth culture. Such poverty of imagination! :-)

Impacted Wisdom Truth said...

"Even if we listen to Pat Boone..."

You mean this Pat Boone?