One of the rebuttals that we often hear about using media in worship (mainly from the what some pastors call the “old saints” and others call the “blue hairs”) is that popular culture in all of its profanity is incapable of the sacred power of “fine art.” Implicit is the belief that popular culture never made the world a better place. Consider the list of the most influential pop songs of the twentieth century, which were aired during a TV special. Near the top of the list was “Superstition,” by Stevie Wonder. In between original footage of Stevie bobbing and weaving in front of a synthesizer, I saw sound bites of weathered old cats telling how, when Stevie played his new song, all of a sudden, white kids in the suburbs were being seen with black kids, all grooving together to Stevie’s beat.
As I watched, I began to mentally list the pop cultural moments in our American history that had a profound impact on race relations. From Stevie Wonder to Jackie Robinson to Bill Cosby, which had the most effect on changing the hearts of America about race? “Cultured” art? Legislation? From my viewpoint, the biggest difference is that the late 20th century had a mass media fueled pop culture. Run-DMC jamming on “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith on MTV in the mid-1980s did more to improve race relations with my peers than legislation or fine art ever did. Pop culture. Pop art.
It amazes and puzzles me when people look with disdain on pop culture. Exactly what makes “fine art,” or the art of high culture, better? Because it is the preference of the educated, wealthy and powerful? Is this how Jesus would prefer we conduct ourselves and do our ministry? Or is it because high culture is more full of educated, compassionate, enlightened people who have a better understanding of what the Gospels truly are about? One often sees more selfless compassion among lower socio-economic persons than among the egocentric elite.
I would rather worship a God who is alive in the forms of expression present in today’s pop culture. For those who say these forms of expression are shallow, remember the words of C.S. Lewis: “A live dog is better than a dead lion.” When designing worship, the question need not be, is it appropriate, but rather is it alive?
As important as it is to acknowledge and capitalize on popular cultural expression, the church must do more than just imitate. Worship must rise above the culture(s) in which it resides and to which it refers. Lord knows we’ve seen enough Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire send-ups in worship all over North America that betray the church by the values advertised on those shows. Merely referencing, or more accurately ripping off, culture is not only meaningless, it’s dangerous, because it rips away the very thing that a seeking world comes to church for in the first place.
When churches present a “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” drama, they should ask, did anyone know what it was about? Do they remember the biblical truth connected to it? Was there any? These are important questions to ask about a piece when using cultural references such as Survivor, Millionaire, Saturday Night Live, and nearly any other cultural phenomenon.
Are you redeeming the culture when you parody it or its style, or simply ripping it off? “Who Wants to go to Heaven?”, “Who wants to be a Gazillionaire?” and the most clever of all, “Who Wants to be a Church-onaire?” I don’t have a clue how any of these gimmicks connected to scripture. This rip off trap is a short cut. I must confess my guilt. I once played Regis in a Millionaire drama that was a lifeline short of being redeemed. We worked hard to put it together, and it was done with extreme excellence, but even as a key player, I could not tell you now what the point was. I’m not sure I could have told you then. Many of this culture’s most popular shows are pretty horrid when it comes to values. Millionaire is about greed. Survivor is about treachery. The bad guy wins.
With mistakes behind us, we work on how to redeem culture. One story, presented while we were at Ginghamsburg church in Ohio, was from John, where Jesus curses the fig tree. We felt then that the original metaphor of fruit, vines, and branches would still connect somewhat with this culture, but we gave it an extra push by sharing the story through the eyes of the freshly popular Crocodile Hunter. Viewers would identify it both by scripture reference and metaphor. We have shown that piece several times at conferences and often we ask the crowd for the biblical metaphor, and it never fails that several will always yell out “vine and the branches”. If we can balance cultural references and biblical messages we will be successful at reaching the world we currently live in.
A seminary professor recently told me of a student that wanted to use a film clip for a class project that showed Jesus cursing and flipping the finger, which deeply offended the professor (and me). As I listened to his story, it occurred to me that in all probability his student wasn’t attracted by the clip because she found it offensive, or shocking for its own sake, but rather found something in it that reflected to her Jesus’ humanity. She probably wasn’t agnostic, but ignorant of boundaries that help us, as believers understand our Lord.
It is not our job as ministers to bring the church into the world, but rather through exposing the church to the world, lift the world out of its own mire. If a worshipper leaves the spectacle of experiential, digital age worship with only the memory of a pop culture reference, than that worship has stumbled. The purpose of such a reference, or a metaphor or story or experience of any kind, is to draw people into an experience of God. The worshipper should re-enter their work-a-day world, bump into that reference, and be reminded of God’s ongoing presence in their lives, not that their church did a cheesy counterfeit of it. The world comes to church not for second-rate imitations, but for an experience of God, which is only possible if it is something that they can understand.
Another complaint that we hear (mainly from the digital and largely absent under 30 audience) is that “contemporary worship” is a feeble re-creation of what was once pop culture. One of the biggest challenges is to continue to find ways to redeem current cultural expression. Each generation tends to make their particular forms and styles holy. This is a natural reaction. Most of us tend to confuse Christ and the horse he rode into our lives, so to speak. We’re fairly young, but as we progressively get older and potentially more separated from dominant cultural expression, we will find it increasingly difficult to avoid falling into a comfortable pattern of creating worship that works for us, and not for the world.