The Great Evangelical Divorce
About a month ago, I wrote a post giving reasons why I believe Christians should be good storytellers. After I had shared it on my Facebook wall, one of my close friends commented, in a joking manner, that I should have written the article as a story. While he was only making light of the post, he unintentionally pinpointed one of the greatest temptations facing many evangelical churches today, to which many unfortunately succumb. This temptation is to divorce form and content.
My friend jokingly noted that the subject matter (storytelling) and the form in which it was discussed (persuasive list) were incongruent. To argue for storytelling with reasoning might have been persuasive, but imagine what it would have been like to read a story that explored the impact and power of story*. When form and content are united, the impact is evident. It can be heard in a song like “O Come O Come Emmanuel” which is a song of longing and expectation, composed in a minor key. It can be seen in Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” whose brush strokes communicate the power and energy of light. It can be enjoyed in a glass of wine that is perfectly paired to its accompanying entree, in a restaurant with a romantic ambience. When form and content are united, it is a beautiful thing to experience.
It appears that in many evangelical circles, the forms are viewed as neutral vessels in which any content can be implanted. Therefore, the Sunday morning service becomes a time in which any method of entertainment can be utilized as long as Jesus is proclaimed. Churches install intricate light displays, fog machines, encourage attendees to “check in” on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, and only play upbeat, positive music. It doesn’t matter how we communicate the gospel as long as the gospel is communicated. Anything short of sin for the sake of reaching the lost.
What many fail to see is that the form is not neutral and it is not a blank slate – form (or method) communicates as much, if not more, than the content. A divorce between form and content can actually undermine the message we may want to get across. When light shows and fog machines are used, and the lighting mimicking that of a concert, the gospel becomes something for our pleasure and benefit, not something that calls for our allegiance and obedience. When social media holds a primary place within our church services, we continue to encourage people to be disconnected from their present surroundings. The church ceases to be a sanctuary from the demands of the god of Technology. When we only play positive, upbeat music, we cease to be rooted in the biblical history of worship, which has always had plenty of room for those in need of a good lament or cursing session. The gospel again becomes something that exists solely to give us fleeting happiness, not an invitation to discover the power of Christ’s presence in the midst of suffering.
If my language seems harsh and pointed, it’s intentional. While I do not deny that God uses many evangelical churches which have divorced form and content, I do not think this is a reason to continue to utilize broken means. We shouldn’t be surprised when God makes himself known even through duplicitous preachers. It is God’s nature to remain faithful, even when we continue in our unfaithfulness.
I haven’t always been mindful of form and content, but my friend’s comment has caused me to re-examine much of what I do and how I do it. For instance, a few weeks ago with our high school students, I was teaching on worship and how it often flows out of a response to God. Our normal liturgy is to spend some time in conversation with one another, and then sing a few songs in worship. I realized that to worship before we encountered God in his word might undermine the teaching of worship as response. Therefore, we pushed the worship to the end so that it paired with what we were teaching. While this is an example of when I believe I got it right, there are much more displaying my ignorance.
I pray that we, as Christians, begin to take seriously form and content. Though the gospel can inhabit many forms, we ought to be mindful of whether the form we’re using meshes with the gospel we’re preaching.
*I do acknowledge that to have written a story that somehow communicated the importance of storytelling would not have made a good blog post, and therefore, would not have been good content for the form of blogging.