Stop Sneering and Get to Work: Being a Missionary in the Modern World

I want to revisit my post from Friday about Jordan Peterson. I also want to say something positive about Joel Osteen and modern praise music. 

At the end of my post on Friday I said some provocative things about pastors and Christian intellectuals who sneer at Jordan Peterson and topical, advice-giving preaching. I asked those who sneer at topical preaching to become better cultural anthropologists, to understand why such preaching has mass appeal. 

Phrased differently, I was asking pastors to become better missionaries. 

After his years of work in India, the famous missiologist Lesslie Newbigin returned to the West. And what Newbigin discovered upon his return shocked him. During his years of absence, the West had changed dramatically. The forces of secularism had overtaken and overwhelmed the church. Newbigin returned to a post-Christian West.

Being a missiologist, Newbigin began to think about the West as a missionary. What does it mean to be a missionary in the modern world? How does the gospel get a hearing in this secular context?

Here's the question Newbigin asked: If Martian anthropologists were to visit the secular West, what would strike them most forcefully? We might think it would be our technological prowess. But remember, these are Martians. Our technology would be considered primitive and crude to their eyes. No, argued Newbigin, what would strike the Martians most forcefully about our culture is the fact/value split. As the alien anthropologists lived among us and studied us they would be struck by the fact that no one in the modern world can tell you what "the good" is. And of all the cultures that have ever existed in our world this is a truly bizarre and unique feature. Until our time, every culture in the history of the world existed to tell you what was good and what was bad. But our culture? We have a void. Phrased differently, we actually don't have a culture. Where there should exist a shared vision of the good we have an emptiness, a nothing, a nullity. We possess technology, but no shared vision of the true, the beautiful and the good. And this, argued Newbigin, makes us a very strange tribe. This is what would strike the Martian anthropologists most forcefully: Here is a culture, because no one agrees, where goodness doesn't exist.

Which brings me back to Friday's post. 

I think Newbigin was right. On Friday I was making Newbigin's point by describing the modern world as "a moral vacuum." And my point at the end of the post was to note that advice-giving has intrinsic appeal in a culture characterized by the fact/value split. My call for pastors to notice and understand this appeal was to ask them to become better missiologists. If you understand the culture of the modern world, as Newbigin described, you'll immediately understand why Jordan Peterson and topical preaching has a broad appeal. Their advice-giving is inserting values into the void. Any pastor with a good missionary mind should be able to see that dynamic. 

Which brings me to Joel Osteen and the prosperity gospel. 

I don't think I'm sharing a secret that Joel Osteen and the prosperity gospel is widely ridiculed and sneered at in university seminaries and among seminary-educated pastors. Osteen is, simply, the worst. A theological embarrassment. And yet, if you are a pastor sneering at Osteen I'm pretty confident his church is larger than yours. 

Why is that? Why is Joel Osteen so successful? Well, the answers you typically hear are that Osteen is a huckster and that people are gullible fools. And if that's your answer, well, I have news for you: You're a clueless missionary. 

Let me share a story to explain why.

Last October I was teaching my class at Fuller Theological Seminary for their DMin program. As a part of that class we visit Homeboy Industries. You might know the inspiring story of Homeboy, how Fr. Gregory Boyle helped start the largest gang outreach organization in the world. The story is recounted in Fr. Boyle's best-selling book Tattoos on the Heart

The tours at Homeboy are given by the homeboys. In years past, our tour guides have been younger men, in their twenties. But our tour in October was led by a man in his 50s who had multiple felony convictions and had been in and out of prison for most of his adult life. He started the tour asking where we were from and about our interest in Homeboy. We told him we were in a seminary class at Fuller and that most everyone in the group was a pastor for a church. Hearing that, our guide said, "I'm not very religious. But you know who my guy is? Joel Osteen. He's my guy." And then he went on to tell us how impactful Joel Osteen has been in rehabilitating his life after prison. You can imagine our surprise--teacher and students in a seminary DMin class, a group who had been sneering at Osteen for years, a sneer literally trained into us by our seminaries--standing there, for quite some time, getting a heartfelt testimonial about the impact Joel Osteen has had on this ex-felon's life.

When we returned to our classroom back on campus, I asked the class: "So what did you learn about Joel Osteen?" To a person, we all wished we had churches that could speak to our tour guide. But we also had to confess that our guide would never come to our churches, never listen to our sermons. And yet, he was listening to Joel Osteen. 

So, let me say this plainly for any of us who have sneered at Joel Osteen: Joel Osteen could speak to this gang-member and criminal, could change his life. Could you or I? And if we can't, maybe we should wipe the sneers off our faces and work at becoming better missionaries. 

Because anyone who has paid two seconds of attention to the modern world knows exactly why Osteen has such wide appeal. I think Rob Bell, when he once shared some thoughts about Osteen, got it exactly right. Bell observed that Osteen was "parenting" people who never had any parenting, or at least not any good parenting. Many people have never experienced a stable family where they heard constant and unconditional messages of positivity, praise, and encouragement. Most people never grew up hearing "You can do this! You got this! I believe in you!" But you know who says that, over and over? Do you know who believes in you? Joel Osteen. 

If we took the time to become a better missionaries, we would immediately understand the appeal of Joel Osteen for our Homeboy tour guide, and for many who are struggling in the modern world. Our tour guide was carrying a burden of shame and facing very long odds on his road to rehabilitation. Facing this, he needed positivity and encouragement. He needed a cheerleader. And Osteen was cheering him on. And I'd argue this is exactly the same appeal Jordan Peterson has for many young men. Peterson is the father-figure they never had, telling them to make their bed and stand up straight. So instead of sneering at Osteen and Peterson, why don't we take some time to become better missionaries in grasping their cultural appeal. 

Same goes for modern praise music. I can't tell you how many times I've heard seminary-educated pastors and seminary professors sneer at Christian praise music. The music is castigated for being overly individualistic, therapeutic, and sentimental. We sneer and call it "Jesus is my boyfriend" music. You'll see the point if you listen to the lyrics of a song like Hillsong's "Oceans" (over 129 million YouTube views) or Lauren Daigle's "You Say" (over 242 million YouTube views), lyrics like "You are mine and I am yours" and "In You I find my worth, in You I find my identity."

Instead of sneering at the therapeutic individualism of these songs, their focus upon me and my feelings, take a second to listen to the songs as a missionary, as a cultural anthropologist. Instead of lol lol lol how about we think for a second? To what deep ache in the modern world are these songs appealing to?

This isn't rocket science. The reason praise songs centering therapeutic themes of God's intimate care and love are so popular is simple. As I recount in Hunting Magic Eels, anxiety, depression, suicide, loneliness, and addiction are all sky-rocketing. So the appeal of songs like "Oceans" or "You Say" are no mystery. These songs are hitting us right where we are hurting. Their appeal is blindingly obvious to any decent missionary.

But sadly, we're not very good missionaries. We've been too busy sneering at Hillsong, Osteen, and Peterson.

Now, am I suggesting that churches and pastors should follow their lead? Am I saying that we should ignore the theological content of praise music, preach the prosperity gospel, and hand Bible studies over to Jungian psychologists? No, I'm not saying any of that. What I'm saying is WIPE THE DAMNED SNEER OFF YOUR FACE AND LOOK AT THE CULTURE! If we took a moment to think like a missionary there are some things about Hillsong, Osteen and Peterson staring us in the face. Things we need to address, like any good missionary would, if we want to get a hearing for the gospel in this culture. But we can't see any of this because our seminary degrees have turned us all into elitist snobs. 

The modern would is suffering, staring into a void of meaninglessness where something true, beautiful and good once existed. Families are broken. Depression, anxiety, suicide, loneliness and addiction at high tide. And if you look out upon all that pain, with a compassionate heart and the mind of a missionary, there really is no mystery as to why Jordan Peterson, Joel Osteen or Hillsong are so popular. This, dear pastors, seminary professors, and church leaders, is our mission field. Let's stop sneering and get to work. 

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