Ours is an age of fragmentation, of intellectual hopscotch, of results-oriented activity on the one hand and mindless entertainment on the other. We have demolished the stonewalls and uprooted the hedgerows of our intellectual past in favour of speed, convenience, and leisure; the mass production of information on which to gorge ourselves, without a thought for the mental and emotional habitats which have been destroyed in the process. Sooner or later we will have accommodated these changes to such a degree that we won’t even know to feel regret, and by the time my young children reach adulthood the concepts of silence, stillness, meditation, deep reading, and unbroken thought will be so far back in our history that they may scarcely seem real.
The twenty-first century has largely abandoned being informed in favour of staying notified, we have rejected leafing through the pages of great minds in favour of scrolling through the curated scenes of one another’s lives, we have repudiated analysis in favour of rolling coverage, and we have become addicted to allowing the facts to play catch up with our conclusions. The ultimate outworking of this in terms of education, ethics, philosophy and creativity are difficult to quantify, but these phenomena undoubtedly point towards a downgrade, the purchasing of progress performance enhancers, with subtle regress as their side-effect.To quote the Romantic poet William Wordsworth,
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
A huge, and largely unaddressed, issue is what kind of effect will this tempo and tone have on the life and work of the local church? How should the church address the issue of our overladen minds and emotions – via accommodation or revolution? My contention is that as the intellectual sun sets in the global West, we must always, only, pursue the latter. There are many ways in which this might be achieved, but the following two distinctives might provide a starting point for addressing the cultural cacophony that assaults us each and every day:
Reflection over stimulation: Erling Kagge knows a thing or two about silence, and quite a bit about solitude. As a philosopher and adventurer he has spent time in some of the most remote places on earth, and has developed a sophisticated language to articulate what he has found there. In his book Silence: In the Age of Noise he meditates at length on the virtues and potentialities of being quiet in a sonically busy world. From wide open wildernesses to the enigmatic silences in classical music, Kagge maintains that our brains ‘prefer contrast and become attentive whenever the soundscape changes and doze off when things remain monotone’. The use of silence in poetry and in music, dropping the tone and taking a pause, can be a powerful means of capturing our hearts and imagination.
In a world that rages with noise, which seeks to drown out alternate voices and market competitors by shining brighter and shouting louder, it can be tempting for the church to tune up to such a pitch. We can imagine that our worship services should maintain the same volume as the soundtrack by which people live every other day of the week, we can become seduced by the idea that we must appeal to the hearts of people by means of the visual and the sensory, that our emotional artillery must provide some covering fire for the gospel to advance into a frantic world.
The tragedy is that quite the opposite is likely to be true. Imagine a world where church services nurtured a sonic and sensory sabbath as well as one from daily labour, where quietness and reverence were privileged and prioritised as part of how we recover and regroup before entering the fray again. Imagine a space free from the tyranny of the beep of phones, and the syncopated beat of daily busyness, where the mind and heart can breathe the clear air of being in God’s presence among God’s people to hear God’s voice.
One of the reasons why such a space is difficult to create is that quietness is deeply inconvenient. If we run our spiritual lives to the beat of the world’s drum then there will be little requirement to assess our hearts and search our consciences, or allow the preached word to scrutinise and correct us. If we can fill up the pre-service time with music, the worship service with activity, and the post-service period with conversation then we just might manage not to face ourselves at any point in our week, our month, or even our whole adult lives.
Spaces to think are personally dangerous, but utterly vital to us if we are to grow and develop as Christians. Some of my most important moments in public worship have been in that amazing stillness which descends when God has spoken to my soul through his word, when I am face to face with the truth of God and the reality of my life, and where prayer is not only possible but profoundly needed. If our Sunday gatherings never facilitate this then we have become just one more spark in a world aflame with hype and white noise.
Depth over breadth: another means of revolting against the neon spirit of our age is to pursue and encourage depth of understanding, instead of breadth of exposure. Our culture may be eminently searchable, it may simmer with memes and matters of seemingly popular importance, but we are woefully short on specialism, on profundity of understanding and interrogation.
Many branches of the evangelical church have bought into this mindset, a fact reflected by our assessment of growth by numbers, and our lowering of common intellectual denominators. The health of a church is still measured to some degree by the scale of its platform and the size of its congregation, and the benefit of Bible teaching is often assessed by its accessibility and practicability. These latter elements always follow upon true preaching, but if they are not founded upon the great indicative realities of gospel doctrine then they are of as much value as the quaint sayings emblazoned on cushions in the local gift shop.
Our discipleship and preaching programmes must take stock of the superficiality of many people’s understanding of God and Scripture, but it must never enable it. Coming into contact with the gospel ought to improve our minds as much as soothing our souls, it must stretch us and strain the fibres of our understanding so that we grow and mature, and move beyond milk to the meat of doctrinal understanding. If ours is a culture of wiki-worship, a broad based collaborative sharing of our best guesses at who God might be and what God might want, then we must address this via teaching the truth in its raw reality.
That will mean encouraging concentration, facilitating meaningful engagement with what Scripture actually says, and challenging our hearts as well as those of others to seek to mature in our understanding. This is why sequential expository preaching might be one of our greatest acts of cultural protest – leading a congregation through the rough and the smooth of what a whole Bible book says is a great way of building spiritual muscle and stamina across an entire congregation, and rebuking the hummingbird gathering of factoids that has become the norm in most people’s lives. To teach the tough stuff in a way which helps people to come to grips with the gospel is a form of intellectual hill training in a hopelessly flat cultural environment. There will be pain, there will be emotional and cognitive muscle burn, but such emphasis on depth over breadth will ultimately bring health and vitality to the members of Christ’s body.
It is all too easy to imagine that being counter-cultural is only about our morals and ethics, but these kinds of affective, sensory, intellectual and aesthetic distinctives might prove to be an important way of distinguishing Christian worship from the rest of our world in future days.