Taking the Church
to today's culture
is a professor of religion at the University of Southern
California and also executive director of the university’s
Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Richard
Flory is associate
professor of sociology at Biola University.
Miller and Flory collaborated on the book GenX Religion.
They spoke with Managing Editor Ken Horn at Assemblies of
God Theological Seminary where they were speaking at a forum
for the D.Min. program.
Why is it important for the church to understand
At the risk of sounding too much like a marketing answer,
businesses that don’t pay attention to their customer
base go out of business. There are certainly eternal truths
that are part of Christianity, but the actual package in
which those eternal truths are put changes. During the last
2,000 years many of those packages have, for a period of
time, been enormously successful. But the culture changed
and churches that didn’t repackage essential fundamental
elements of the Christian message disappeared.
What does a church have to do to be relevant?
Churches that are growing are innovative. The pastors are
reading the culture. That doesn’t mean that they are
compromising the gospel message to the culture. Rather,
they’re understanding the crises that this culture
creates for individuals. These crises differ from generation
to generation. These pastors create worship and programming
that address the crises that individuals are experiencing.
That immediately creates a bond between people who have
a need and a church that is providing an answer.
People are looking for permanency in a community of faith.
The appeal of some of the groups we’re talking about
is not their programs, but that people can actually go there,
actually know people, and actually interact with people.
They can, in effect, be part of other people’s lives
on a basic and intimate level.
What specific kinds of things are successful churches
A lot of visual technology is used in these churches. Whether
there is artwork going on during the service, or whether
it’s in a return to older rituals and traditions where
you have to interact in some fashion. This interactive visual
experience is one level. There’s also an outworking
of the smaller community where participants are committed
to each other but they’re also committed to their
surrounding community. The personal religious experience
is important. But these churches try to cultivate outside
relationships from that. They live out their faith, whether
it’s in a programmatic kind of social ministry or
whether it’s participating in whatever issues are
going on in their city.
Are there things that churches hold on to that they
need to get rid of in order to reach today’s culture?
The hallmarks of being a Christian are people who have dedicated
their lives to Christ, who are loving each other without
reserve and who are caring for their neighbors who are Christian
or non-Christian. These believers basically have leapfrogged
the traditions of organized religion and have gone back
to the roots of their faith in the first-century church.
They have taken that as normative for what the life of a
Christian should look like. At the same time, they have
recognized that clearly one has to translate that faith
in terms of worship forms that are contemporary but with
The issue of authenticity — authentic Christianity,
authentic life — is really enormous. What you say
you are, you had better be.
What are some strengths and weaknesses you have
seen in Pentecostal churches you have studied?
I’ve mostly studied Pentecostal churches that are
vital and growing, so I could comment more on the strengths
than the weaknesses. There seems to be a flexibility of
leadership that is often thoroughly decentralized. There
may be a strong leader at the helm, but the ministry is
really given to the people to do. That really has led to
a lot of innovation in these congregations.
I’ve studied have a lot of new converts in them. So
these are in a sense first-generation Christians, and these
first-generation Christians bring with them a certain freshness
because they don’t know what church is supposed to
be. So they oftentimes are radically contemporary in their
worship styles, worship forms, and that’s one reason
why a lot of Pentecostal churches are growing.
Churches in decline
tend to be overly bureaucratized and they simply, for all
of their higher education, oftentimes culturally aren’t
is that, in an emerging way, a lot of Pentecostal churches
are becoming more sensitive to community services and to
community outreach as opposed to simply preaching the gospel.
Particularly in the developing world, the Third World, there
are a lot of Pentecostal churches that aggressively are
meeting the needs of people with AIDS. They’re meeting
the educational needs of people. They are right out there
on the front lines trying to respond to people, and not
in a manipulative way.
A number of churches hold separate traditional and
contemporary services. Have you seen examples of churches
that are successful in actually bringing generations together?
Yes. We categorize them as “cultural innovators”
or “cultural appropriators.” In these churches
the younger generations are part of the larger church. They’re
not shuttled off to be with the college group, or the young
adults group, or the contemporary service, or whatever.
They’re just a part of the church, part of the community.
do you see the church going?
I think one of the fears, particularly among evangelicals,
is that it’s going to be secularizing. I don’t
see that happening. I think it’s a sign of vitality
that people are creating new ways to express their faith,
but ways that are rooted in old ways. Churches are discovering
how to be relevant in the best sense of that term to newer
generations while maintaining the important core elements.
I think we will experience as a country a continuing increase
of people of secular commitment. But I’m not at all
convinced that church attendance per se is going to drop
off. It’s been very constant for three decades. I
suspect that it will stay constant, but there will be some
reshuffling of the deck. There’s going to be growth
and decline. I think there will be a continued growth in
independent churches that are nondenominational and I suspect
that there may be some continued growth among Pentecostal/charismatic
I think that
there is culturally a great openness to personal healing,
out of a nonmedical bottle, and that churches that lay hands
on people with expectation as opposed to empty promises
may experience growth. The modernist worldview separated
mind and body. In this sort of postmodern generation, body
and mind are coming back together. Therefore you’ll
see more full-bodied religion both in terms of worship,
but also in terms of touch and healing. I think you’ll
see a supernatural dimension too with a younger generation
actually more open to that than their parents or grandparents
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