One of the things that we occasionally do at ebc is use a “secular” song as a part of our worship experience. It’s fair to ask why we think that’s okay to do. I realize there are folks who believe it is just wrong and I accept that. Let me explain how we think about it.
ebc is a missional church. We exist to help people meet God. That means that we meet people where they are to point them to Jesus. That’s messy. There are those who would say culture has no place in the church whatsoever. To those folks I would say that the church is full of culture. It’s unavoidable. The way we dress, our educational system, our view of authority, the holidays we observe are all part of our culture. The church is immersed in culture and has no alternative but to think hard about how to deal with that.
More than two dozen times the book of John describes Jesus as being sent from God on a mission. He left his home and his culture to come to earth and immerse himself in earthly culture to redeem people that he loved. At the end of Jesus’ life he said “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” (John 20:21). The “religious” culture of Jesus’ day had four basic views of how to deal with culture: 1) the Pharisees rejected culture and tried to develop their own sub-culture based on being pure and acting holy. Jesus had a great deal of trouble with them and called them “white washed tombs” meaning they looked great on the outside but were full of decay inside. 2) The Sadducees of the day embraced the culture around them to the exclusion of the claims of Jesus and were therefore not productive for eternity. 3) The Essenes avoided the culture so they could have their own private religious experiences (much like some of the Pentecostal movements of today). 4) But, then the Apostles had a fourth alternative. The Apostles were culturally connected for the purpose of pointing people to the claims of Jesus. The Apostles modeled the tension between Jude 3 and 1 Corinthians 9:22-23. Jude writes to a group of Christ followers urging them to defend the faith because they had allowed all sorts of evil things to enter their fellowship. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9, teaches us to become all things to all people so that by all means we can win some to Jesus. There is a tension to balance; the judgment necessary to skillfully balance the tension is not easy.
For example, the Puritans rejected the celebration of Christmas because it is rooted in a Pagan celebration called Saturnalia, which is true. But most of us have no trouble redeeming that Pagan practice for the cause of Christ. The Revivalists rejected the organ and hymns because they considered both of them tools of Satan used in burlesque houses, which they were. Yet, most of us have no problem using an organ and hymns in worship. More recently Mel Gibson produced an amazing film about the Passion of Jesus. Most of us freely embraced this incredible work of art as a tool to be used for Jesus. Yet Mel Gibson is a mixed bag of contradictory work some of which must be completely rejected as detrimental to our cause. We freely use examples from Christians in sports even though sports celebrates some of the most debase aspects of our lower nature. Preachers quote freely from “secular” authors in their sermons yet much of what those same authors write is detrimental to our cause. The Apostle Paul in Acts 17 has a golden opportunity to speak to the cultural and educational elite of his day and he chose to start by meeting them where they were. He talked first about their obvious commitment to religion and referenced the statues they had placed around the city, even quoting the plaque from one of them and he used that cultural starting point to lead them into a discussion about Jesus. In Matthew 2, God actually uses astrologers (!) to tell Herod about the coming of Jesus.
So when it comes to engaging and using the culture at large to connect with those that we’d like to introduce to Jesus I find that there are three options. There are things about culture at large that must just be rejected as unusable for our purposes. Then there are things in culture that we can freely receive and use with no concern whatsoever. And, then the third and more complex category is when we have opportunities to modify something in culture and redeem it for our purposes. I refer to movies fairly frequently in my speaking. That’s redeeming the culture for our purposes. But that’s not the same as endorsing every movie out there, or even every movie by those same people as the one to which I’m referring. I quote authors regularly, but that is different than endorsing everything that author writes or in some way endorsing the lifestyle of that author. There is no human to which I can give an unqualified endorsement, but that does not mean that they’ve never produced something that benefits our mission. The same is true of using television shows as illustrations.
So the question becomes not whether we will interact with culture in our effort to help people meet God for life, but how we will do that. We are very careful and very intentional about everything we do. Here is the process that we use:
Is this sin or does the Bible forbid it in some way? We say often that we’ll do anything short of sin to help people meet God. But we’ll not violate the Scripture, and we won’t knowingly sin.
Do the lyrics work for the point we’re trying to make? When we use a song that is not intended to be worship but to connect to our audience, the lyrics have to open the heart to the point we’re trying to make that day. Using some songs to open a discussion or a talk about particular things gives us instant credibility with part of our audience.
Can we do it well? Doing any song without excellence is a distraction. Using our incredible volunteers can we actually do the song well enough to make our point?
We understand that it isn’t worship. We have a rather strict approval process for our worship songs. When we use secular songs to introduce a concept we don’t try and make that worship, it isn’t. We see it as a part of the sermon for that day. It’s a connection point.
It’s always a beginning point, never the ending point. We end with Jesus. The point is to point to Jesus.
Will it help us gain credibility and build an audience? Yes, it’s important to build an audience and it’s important to have credibility with them. Jesus used miracles, Paul rented public halls (Acts 19:9-10), we use various cultural tools like music and video.
We will work with our artists to balance the tension between performing for personal glory and investing their gifts for the glory of God in our mission. Really, this is no different than trying to preach an excellent sermon to which people respond and doing it for the glory of God rather than for personal praise. It’s a tension every “up front” person has to deal with all the time.
As we think through these things it’s important to us to be an alternative to what other churches are doing in our area. We will do what others are not doing so we can reach people others are not reaching.
One of the things that sometimes bugs me about these kinds of discussions is that we’re willing to spend hours discussing how far is too far to go in reaching someone that is far from God. Yet we never get frustrated with those who comfortably hide in their ecclesiastical corner wondering why it has been literally years since anyone has met Jesus through them. Why is it that we’ll criticize those that we feel have gone too far, but we don’t criticize those that don’t go far enough? At ebc, we’re going to take some risks and we’re going to do anything short of sin to reach those who have yet to be rescued. We’re not going to get every judgment right, of that I’m very sure. But we’re going to err on the side of jumping into the fray to deal with real people struggling with real life. Proverbs says it so well, “Where there are no oxen the stable stays clean.” Missional ministry is messy. We embrace that mess for the glory of God and our joy.
At the end of the day we all understand why it is so important to spend a great deal of time and thought on the content of our presentations. The content of our message is really important. But, if we don’t spend as much time on effectively communicating the precious truth which has been entrusted to our care to those who need it most do we really love those to whom we’ve been sent? I don’t think so.
Next week we’ll address the false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, which contributes to these discussions.