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On Niche Churches and Prefab Christian Cultures: Why Driscoll is right but he’s got it all wrong

August 18, 2011

When Mark Driscoll – the pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill and the leader of the Acts 29 church planting movement – posted a facebook status joking about “effeminate” worship pastors a little while ago he was met with a barrage of online criticism and was encouraged by his elders to explain himself. A few days later on his website he made a confession of flippancy and proceeded to put his comments in context. But instead of offering a retraction Pastor Mark Driscoll placed most of the blame on the brevity of the medium (i.e., facebook) and proceeded to announce that a fuller online defence of his views on the matter of gender roles would be forthcoming this fall. As is the case with most celebrity pseudo-apologies, it was enough to abate most of the controversy, but I don’t really want to let him off that easy. I revisit this not because I care about what he says on facebook, but because I have grave concerns about the theology behind his remarks. Thus in an upcoming series I intend to offer constructive counter proposal to Mark Driscoll’s complementarian views on gender roles and this week I want to cap off the theme of my last few posts by addressing the ecclesiology underlying this episode – which I consider indicative of a widespread mistake in evangelical churches today.

Driscoll explained his facebook comment by relating the story of his encounter with a man who was put off by the supposed “femininity” of so much church worship today. In the encounter Driscoll pointed out that the Psalmist was a warrior King, and in the fallout he appears to have emerged more resilient than ever to construct church in such a way as to – as he often puts it -“get the men”. In the aftermath I ended up engaging with another blogger who came to Driscoll’s defence and followed his suggested link to a Douglas Wilson book and I have come to the conclusion that Driscoll is onto something. This is his pastoral heart. He aches for this particular group which has been unnecessarily alienated by the Christian cultures that we’ve constructed and he rightly aims to do better. I just think that his complementarian ideology combined with the common evangelical capitulation to marketplace values has led him astray.

In Driscoll’s view, what is called for is a more masculine church: We have to get these men back, and we do so by re-fabricating the Christian culture to cater to them. To an egalitarian or a feminist this sounds revolting, but hear the guy out. Driscoll does not mean to alienate anyone. Since he sincerely believes that men are the leaders he believes that if  you get the men you get everyone. Many have rightly critiqued Driscoll’s views on gender (as will I, at least implicitly, when I get to my own series on the matter), but what I want to point out here is that ecclesiologically speaking Driscoll sits quite comfortably with common evangelical church practice today. This is the part of the story that has flown under so many radars, and it is more troubling to me than the gender roles issue (which for me is saying a lot). Driscoll’s story is only the tip of an iceberg that evangelicalism’s titanic has been parked on for years.

Let’s face it, many church leaders today take it nearly for granted that it is our job to discern target groups and tailor our worship and our ministries to reach them. As indicated in my last post, I think this has its roots in some good motivations and some appropriate missional correctives. However, as it has progressed it has taken on an anaemic idea of Christian community and been swept up in the values of the marketplace – leading to what I can only describe as niche churches and prefab Christian cultures. I don’t want to pick on Driscoll, I just think this event illustrated the battle of niche cultures perfectly.

But what do I propose we do differently? Well, what if we trust Driscoll’s pastoral concern for this alienated man but reinterpret the problem and its solution? My counter-suggestion is that this man’s man is alienated not because Christian worship is “effeminate” but because it is overly sentimental, and that the answer is a more diverse communion, not a narrower one.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the expression of sentiment in worship, nor even an appropriate attention to the inspirational aspects of the gospel. But in recent decades I think that our worship and our preaching has been hijacked by an adverse addiction to sentimentality. Watch for this yourself in the coming weeks, even if you are the pastor or worship leader in question: How much pressure is there to design liturgy and preaching in order to facilitate, recreate or (worse) to fabricate an emotional or spiritual experience? How often is sentimentality treated as synonymous with spirituality?

Driscoll’s man is able to flag this problem for us, not simply because it has no appeal for him but because it does not really speak to him. He does not resonate with this and because of the way that sentimental expression is equated with spirituality he quickly concludes that he need not apply. Perhaps he needs to be stretched in that regard, but who did we say was doing the “outreach” here?  The tragedy is that this is not necessarily a rejection of Christ or a resistance to the foolishness or offence of the gospel but may actually be his alienation from Christ in the name of a prefab church culture that has very effectively reached a whole bunch of people but in its shortsighted strategic vision has alienated a bunch of others. We can see why Driscoll does what he does. But that doesn’t mean he has made the right diagnosis.

This feeling of alienation is nothing new. The emerging church culture is largely a reaction to the seeker-church culture, which is largely a reaction to the hymns and KJV crowd that preceded it. My own melancholy personality and rather intellectual bent has left me feeling like an outsider to many church services myself – even ones that I’ve led! But fixing this problem by building a church in my image is not the answer. We don’t need a non-sentimental church for the non-sentimental people, we need an alternate vision of the church altogether. More on this in a couple days.

For now I’ll leave with the suggestion that when we shape our churches exclusively to reach a target sub-culture we neglect the multiculturalism not only of our neighbourhoods but also of the gospel itself. As far as I can tell the early church did not attempt to multiply itself by any such strategic advancement. Instead we see it coming to grips with Pentecost as the reversal of Babel; the reuniting of disparate cultures around a gospel that could be heard by every tongue. We see Paul giving some harsh words for the worshippers in Corinth who went ahead on a niche communion rather than waiting for everyone in the church to partake together. We see Jesus giving a commission that is expansive and not reclusive; reconciliatory and not (at heart) exclusive.

I have a good deal of sympathy for the missional motivation that led Mark Mittleberg to expose the culture gap that hindered Christians from reaching their neighbours. However, we have to believe that this gap is crossed daily by the Spirit of the living Christ working among us and not by a prefabricated Christian culture that shapes itself to appeal as much as possible to a strategic demographic. Not only is this alienating for those who might otherwise be reached, but it makes for a church in danger of trusting its union to something artificial rather than to the One in whom we are united.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2011 10:30 pm


  2. August 19, 2011 2:16 pm

    So Jon, what did you think of the Doug Wilson book?

  3. August 19, 2011 2:47 pm

    I haven’t yet read enough of it to be able to give much of a review. But I felt that, like Driscoll, it chalked some things up to masculinity/femininity which might be addressed better under other rubrics without adding confusion on gender issues. Have you read it?

    I highly recommend Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s Fathers and Sons: The Search for a New Masculinity

  4. August 19, 2011 3:11 pm

    Your point is a good one, Jon, but be careful with your appeal to the church at Pentecost. The Acts account could easily justify the opposite to what you say, that because the one gospel is heard by a diversity of people in their own distinct languages, there is reason to target specific groups.

  5. August 19, 2011 4:25 pm

    To be clear I have no problem with targeted missions and the efforts to translate the gospel (both linguistically and culturally). The problem I have is with the narrowing of a particular church to one sub-cultural expression. Even this can be okay as a kind of “pocket” of any given church, but it should not be confused with an actual church in its own right. Does that make sense?

  6. August 19, 2011 4:30 pm

    Yeah, it makes sense, and I agree. But then what’s the point of targetting people (e.g. skaters) if eventually we have to say, “Okay, now come to real church”?

  7. August 19, 2011 4:58 pm

    Well, I suppose I’d say that you “target” them interpersonally the same way that you have friendships and relationships which take particular shape according to the types of persons involved. And perhaps there is a place also for group church gatherings where they explore their unique expressions of Christianity … but when it comes to forming a church, the church should be fluid and ready to engage with all sorts of sub-cultures and generations, and the “real church” that you are inviting skaters and grandmas to attend is precisely one where they are invited to have communion in Christ with all sorts of different people. Short-circuiting this seems to me to be tantamount to charting a course for the church which is different than the one charted for it by the gospel.

  8. August 19, 2011 7:10 pm

    Jon, thanks for that recommendation. I’ve not read much of Wilson – snippets and chapters here and there – but I’ve been pretty uncomfortable with what I have read. I read through just the intro and first chapter of the book you link here, and it raised all sorts of red flags for me.

  9. August 19, 2011 11:10 pm

    Jon, thanks for a provocative kick-off to what looks like should be a very helpful series on a major challenge for the contemporary Evangelical church. Your diagnosis here is enlightening — I’ll be very interested to hear what you suggest as an alternative to what Driscoll is doing.

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