The corporate world has gone granola. Business executives prefer the term community to customer base, and companies extol their “holistic” products. In the current commercial zeitgeist, where millions of consumers are flocking to Facebook and paying higher prices at Whole Foods for farm-fresh cheese, buzzwords like organic, communal, relational, and viral are part of the everyday lexicon.
And Christianity isn’t immune to these cultural fads. As people head to church this Christmas, many will be sitting in new churches that have abandoned the traditional nomenclature process, which gave us the First Parishes/Assemblies/Fellowships of the world by identifying the physical real estate the congregation occupied or the particular stance it held. Instead, they’ll gather to celebrate the advent season in a church whose name expresses universal concepts of community over creed: REUNION, Common Ground, Mosaic, The Gathering, The Table, and Portico.
I grew up the son of a relatively hip evangelical minister—a denomination I dislodged myself from in college—so I’ve always had an interest in how pop culture and church culture intersect. Yet as a business reporter, I was skeptical of a religious movement that mimicked the vernacular trade of marketing gurus. But instead, I found myself approving of these chicly named churches’ adoption of a contemporary cultural craze. Sure, it’s trendy to extol community, organic growth, social justice, and going green. But these concerns were always supposed to be at the forefront of the church’s mission. The early Christians formed networks of small groups, pooled resources, and established what amounts to an early form of welfare for the poor. In short, they were social activists. Which would seem a contrast to the individualism of numerous mainline Protestant denominations and many of the consumer-driven evangelical organizations. By participating in the popular movement toward stronger community bonds—starting with their names—these younger churches are returning to their roots.
During what REUNION Christian Church calls its “gatherings,” the pastor, Hank Wilson, proved deft at weaving in elements from pop culture without seeming trite or like he’s pandering. The worship team played a Death Cab for Cutie song in between sets of contemporary praise ballads. He played a clip from Good Will Hunting to illustrate a point about intimacy. And when Wilson referenced a dated Saturday Night Live skit of Eddie Murphy channeling Buckwheat, he had a solution for all the young congregants looking lost: “YouTube it.”
In an e-mail, Wilson told me, “The church should stick very close to pop culture because that is where the people are. … I hope when people think of Reunion, they will think of a community [that] is trying to live differently inside of our culture—not separated or at war with it—all for [the] purpose of pointing people to Christ.”
This perspective might seem radical since it requires a straddling of the imagined fence between the sacred and the stylish. And, of course, there are fundamentalists who shy away from pop culture, considering the influence of rock music, MTV, and the like inherently corruptible. But many churches have long tapped into cultural currents to remain relevant with the masses.
Christmas was originally a pagan holiday before it was successfully usurped by the church. Famous American evangelist Billy Sunday used two cultural entertainments of his day to woo crowds: baseball and the carnival. He even hired a circus giant to serve as an usher during one of his camp meetings. The Salvation Army—perhaps the denomination that best personified a taking-it-to-the-streets mentality in the 19th and 20th centuries—turned the drinking song “Charlie Champagne” into the soul-stirring “Praise His Name, He Sets Me Free.” (The line “Here’s to good old whiskey, drink it down” was transformed to “Storm the forts of darkness, bring them down.”)
A concoction of Christianity and pop culture can produce mixed results, though.
In recent decades, the line between the church and commercialism has blurred nearly to the point of invisibility. Ministers, armed with Bible verses and effusive charm, are best-selling authors of books about how God can make you happy. Megachurches employ just about any performance-enhancing tool they can to charge up an audience, including rock bands, bright lights, and fog machines. And Christian-sanctioned merchandise, from those WWJD bracelets to video games, continues to be cranked out. All of which has sparked a culture war of sorts pitting the megachurches against modern-day fundamentalists.
But for these coolly named churches, cultural attentiveness has appeared to pay off. In many ways, these churches are a reaction to both the megachurch and fundamentalist models. Unlike fundamentalists, these churches are engaging with pop culture, but they forgo the in-your-face style found in the average megachurch.
Most of the churches I spoke with identified with the “emergent” or “missional” movements—two outgrowths of the mainline Protestant and evangelical denominations that share a common emphasis on interacting with cultural climates. Though they may have picked up a few marketing tactics from the megachurches (i.e., direct mail and transit ads), they often meet in smaller groups and the emotional register of their services can be far less charged. (At the REUNION gathering, I noted the conspicuous absence of an altar call.)
More importantly, many of them have evolved with the purpose of addressing social justice and environmental issues, like health care and global warming. Some have launched health clinics in foreign countries, provided microloans for people in developing nations, spread awareness about human trafficking, and created ministries for people living with HIV and AIDS. These are the types of issues that are being embraced by grass-roots culture, and the discussion and activity taking place within these churches can mirror what’s happening at college campuses. I’m not saying other Christian churches aren’t philanthropic. They are. But their charitable works can come off as secondary to the goals of converting hordes of souls to Jesus or pushing their conservative brand of family values.
There is a passage in the New Testament book Acts that I’ve always felt spelled out the way a church should, well, act. In it, the church is described as a group of people that “shared all things in common,” where possessions were sold and distributed “as any had need.”
OK. This is communal living, and it is organic, which makes it seem very en vogue at the moment (hence the spate of churches brandishing trendy names. James Dalman, a pastor turned branding consultant, told me that he once advised one church planter—folks who establish smaller-sized churches, sometimes serially—not to go with the name iChurch). But there’s nothing wrong with these young bodies of believers tapping cultural fads and lingo as they return to such an ancient idea of Christianity, so long as they earn it with fruitful action. Religious movements can come and go as quickly as a season’s fashions. I’d like to see this one stick.