"Each year 3500 churches die. Most of these churches are liberal churches or from traditional denominations," remarked Pastor Mark Driscoll. Mark Driscoll is the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, where the congregation consists primarily of people in their 20s and 30s. As many churches across the country die, Mars Hill has grown from 12 people to over 3000 in the past six years in "one of the least churched cities," comments Pastor Driscoll. "Many of the dying churches don't know how to reach out to non-Christians in ways that reflect the lives of people today. If changes aren't made, a church will lose future generations."
Driscoll's call is for churches to speak to the culture without losing the hard truths of the Bible. Mars Hill is a collection of recent converts that many would see as unlikely people to attend church. At a service, former exotic dancers, bar owners, artists, and people covered with tattoos and/or body piercings mingle with young families and college students. The congregation meets in a 40,000-square-foot warehouse converted into a sanctuary. Inside, the walls are tones of brown and black. Paper lamps hang between industrial pipes from the 30-foot ceiling. These lamps dimly light the room. A band blasts out through roughly $700,000 worth of sound equipment donated to the church. An art gallery in the main lobby showcases the church's painters and artists. To the side of the lobby, free coffee and teas are available in a Starbucks-style setting. This is all part of an aesthetic Mars Hill believes connects with the un-churched.
Last week, Pastor Driscoll hosted a conference at Mars Hill for 400 young church planters and pastors seeking to reach non-Christians. A church planter is someone who starts a new church. Often, a church plant will begin as a Bible study in a home, and as it grows larger than the house can support, a building will be sought to meet in. Most of these church planters start churches to reach people not being reached by traditional churches. Everyone was given Pastor Driscoll's book, The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out.
"The church needs to rethink how they are reaching non-Christians," Pastor Driscoll told me. "Somebody has to act like a missionary, figuring out how to build churches that speak the language and style of the culture, so that church and religion is accessible to people without giving away their belief system.
"Traditionally, there have been two options. You are a liberal who embraces culture but gives up the distinctiveness of your belief systems. Or, you are a fundamentalist who maintains the distinctiveness of your belief system but stays out of the culture altogether."
At the conference, I spoke to several people from Southern California. "I love what Mark says about redeeming Pagan culture. If there are elements in the culture we can redeem, we need to redeem these," Pastor Dave Fandey, from The Fields Church in Carlsbad, remarked. "Christians need to get involved in the arts, music, and social justice. God has created everything. There are elements of His creation the church has abandoned. We need to use these elements for His glory. We have retreated from the culture and have failed to communicate God's message to the culture around us."
Duane Smets, from Newport Beach, told me he was fired from a church for trying to teach using film from the culture several months ago. "I wanted to show the college group the movie 21 Grams. The movie raises a lot of questions about God's existence, about right and wrong, about evil and man's relationship with each other and with God. The movie deals with sex and drugs and violence, but the Bible deals with these things too. I wanted people to think about these and critique them through the Bible. People are getting their beliefs through movies these days. We need to ask, how does this compare with what the Bible says?" Smets said the senior pastor felt this was going too far -- Christians shouldn't watch movies with this type of content in them.
Tim Berroth is part of an emerging church called Crossroads Church in Chula Vista. "Being missional is not a fad or a new concept. It is how God has always operated in expanding His kingdom. The church in America has forgotten this. To do this well, it will be messy. The church must live in a place of tension of being in the world, but not of the world.
"The church should strive to communicate the timeless story of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a context and language that is relevant to the culture," said Berroth. "This can be done in a variety of ways; the study of popular film and television, music, books, magazines, and art. Whether most Christians accept it or not, it is true that these mediums are the preachers to our culture. And unless the church is able to discern the elements of truth and error communicated by these mediums, it will unfortunately continue to be irrelevant and marginalized. The church today, for the most part, has boxed itself into a weird subculture that is ridiculed and voiceless in the public discourse of issues that matter."
Berroth continued, "For the most part, mainline denominations and many of those who pride themselves on being nondenominational are stuck in some time warp that looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. They sing songs in a style that is dated, the architecture is dated, and the language that they speak is dated. Their mission is not to convert people to Christ but to convert people to be just like them. It's an unspoken rule that to be a part of their churches, you need to look like them in how you dress, you need to talk like them, and like what they like, such as Christian music, getting rid of your television, not drinking or smoking. I don't see any of that in the gospel. Churches that refuse to adapt to and engage the culture in which they live will eventually die out, or, at they very least, be marginalized to the point of being irrelevant. I would say we have already come to that point for many churches."