Stetzer urges churches to connect with culture
JEFFERSON CITY—Culture matters. If nothing else, that’s what Ed Stetzer wants you to know.
Stetzer is a missiologist with the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and leads NAMB’s new Center for Missional Research. In short, he approaches church planting in the United States as if it were a foreign mission field, trying to determine the best way to culturally relate to each community with “people group” in official Baptist Speak. Stetzer spoke to Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) staff and dozens of state pastors and other guests June 6 at the Baptist Building.
“Reaching people through their culture is a controversial topic,” he said. “Let’s be honest. Not everybody thinks culture matters.”
“There are two times in Southern Baptist history when baptisms really took off and our churches grew,” he said. “They took off in 1917-1919 and then plateaued for 30 or so years and then took off again in the early 1950s. What happened in 1917 and the 1950s? What happened was that Southern Baptists reached people in culture in a way they hadn’t before.”
Stetzer said that in the 1910s, Southern Baptists began what would become the precursor to the Cooperative Program and began an unprecedented era of cooperation and partnership among churches.
“They began doing things differently,” he said. “When they did, revival broke out and baptisms took off.
“In 1954, the ‘Million More in ’54’ campaign was to enroll a million people in Sunday School. Culturally, it worked! People would go door to door to total strangers and say ‘Hi, I’m Ed. Can I enroll you in Sunday School? Can I have the names and ages of your children?’ People would say yes! Try that today and you’ll go to jail immediately.”
Stetzer said that much to his surprise, records show that about half of the people would then actually show up for Sunday School the next week.
“It is a cultural mystery to me how that worked, but I don’t live in 1954. It worked and we enrolled 780,000 and baptisms took off that year. We knew how to do church in the ‘50s. It worked!”
The problem, Stetzer said, is that many of the churches are still “doing church” like it’s 1954, when the people they are trying to reach live in 2006.
“Those who were most successful in the last paradigm almost always have the most difficulty in the next,” he said. “When it comes to growth, people want to return to a past they knew to be effective, whether that past is the ’30s, ’50s or ’70s. But we are not called to eras. We are called to now.”
Stetzer added that this doesn’t mean throwing out traditional means of ministry out the window in favor of instantly adding an electric guitar and wearing Hawaiian shirts.
“I’ll drive in a bus ministry if it’ll reach people for Jesus,” he said, adding that his sister was saved as a result of a Southern Baptist bus ministry in New York City. “I’ll enroll people in Sunday School if it’ll reach people for Jesus.”
By the same token, Stetzer said churches shouldn’t be afraid of change and engaging culture if it means reaching people with the truth of Jesus.
“Ultimately, culture matters,” he said. “Why care about culture? Because we care about the Gospel.”
Stetzer joked about the only two Southern Baptist “saints we ‘pray’ to,” Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, as an example of engaging culture.
“Lottie Moon literally became Chinese to reach the Chinese,” he said. “Culture matters not to make a more trendy church, but to reach people. The missional church is a church that is thinking like a missionary in their community, engaging it with the power of the Gospel. Ultimately, what we’ve got to recognize is that culture does matter.”
Stetzer identified three types or levels of “emerging churches,” or some of the most prominent churches with a missional mindset. Some, however, go too far.
“We have to be careful as we go into emerging culture,” he said. “Some will go too far. Some will not go far enough. I know a lot of biblically orthodox people who are reaching people with the Gospel in emerging churches. They and the churches are functioning with a biblical understanding of sexuality, and a biblical understanding of church membership, etc.”
The first he defined as Relevants. These churches, said Stetzer, are striving to make church and its presentation more relevant to a new crowd. Stetzer cited The Journey church in St. Louis as an example. He noted that while Relevants are taking a new approach, they hold true to traditional Southern Baptist doctrines such as the inerrancy of Scripture.
Second are the Reconstructionists. They move a step beyond the Relevants and create “new forms” of church while still preserving the message. Examples of this include house churches and Set Free, a very fluid congregation of the homeless in Kansas City.
Third on Stetzer’s list are the Revisionists. He defined this last category of emerging churches as often reaching too far toward embracing culture, to the degree of rethinking not just the forms of church but the nature of the Gospel itself. According to Stetzer, churches in this category – such as Emergent churches or Fred Phelps’ Kansas congregation – may take issue with certain facets of the Gospel such as atonement, Scriptural authority, the nature of redemption and embracing post modernism.