If there is one thing that marks out this present age it is the quest for The Next Big Thing. One can see it all around in the wider culture: there is a whole genre of TV programs dedicated to finding the next pop star; companies like Apple make their money by constantly reinventing the same old products in slightly improved forms, assuming both that the public will fall once again for the notion that this version is so much better than the last, and that said public will not realize the company has already developed the next generation after this one, to be rolled out in just six months’ time. The public never seems to disappoint on either count. Why? Because the public assumes that the meaning of life is always in the future and, increasingly, to be found in some kind of technological solution.
There are many cultural factors that influence this spirit of the age, from the dominance of a scientific paradigm, which points constantly to the future as the source of something better, to the celebrity culture of Hollywood, with its constant production of new stars. Here, however, I want to focus on just three: the pervasive entrepreneurialism of the modern age; the obsession with youth culture; and the fixation on big personalities. These three factors are closely linked in the culture of the modern evangelical church.
Entrepreneurial Innovation in the Church
In the wider culture, entrepreneurialism now enjoys the status of a virtually unquestioned virtue. Information technology, the free market, and consumerism all underline the value and importance—the good—of entrepreneurialism. One has only to think of the connotations of “risk taker,” “innovative,” and “thinking outside the box,” compared to “routine,” “traditionalist,” and “conformism,” to see how positively the modern entrepreneurial spirit is typically viewed.
There is nothing wrong with this in the field of economic endeavor. When it impacts the church, however, it creates an environment where there is both disrespect for the way things have been done—and indeed thought—and where in practical terms there is a shift toward the kind of people who embody entrepreneurial values. This means a bias to the young. It also means that there will be an assumption, perhaps initially implicit but increasingly explicit, that the problems the church faces are by and large technical in nature.
A good example of this phenomenon would be some responses to Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s book, What is the Mission of the Church? There, amid other criticisms, notable reviewers have criticized DeYoung and Gilbert for not having the technical sociological knowledge to write such a book. As Charles Finney in the nineteenth century turned revival into a technique, so his sophisticated modern heirs have apparently turned the church into a technical phenomenon. The assumption is that church leaders now need up-to-date sociological savvy combined with an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.
This is a real problem. While there certainly are technical aspects to church—such as good places to meet, decent acoustics, proper ministerial preparation, friendliness, and so forth—most, if not all, of such things can be safely located in the realm of “common sense” and may be generally communicated without turning to technical sociological vocabulary or the expertise of a consultant. The major problem for the church is not technical but moral: human sinfulness. People do not refuse to believe because the minister has not mastered a particular demographic study or because he has failed to understand how “people today” think (this, and its synonyms, are typically code for people between 18 and 35, and thus not a majority of almost any population). People do not believe because they are in rebellion against God. This should place obvious limits upon how important we regard technical issues, in what context we study them, and how much time we should be prepared to spend on them.
“The Culture of Cool”
Innovation is cool, and the gravitational pull of cool is in only one direction: toward youth. Indeed, perhaps the most significant factor in the phenomenon of The Next Big Thing is youth culture. The emergence in the latter half of the last century of this as a separate concept and, more importantly, as a marketing opportunity, has had significant impact in all areas of life and has literally transformed the world. Youth culture depends upon the constant reinvention of its products and accoutrements. Youth markets consequently have a kaleidoscopic quality and speed of turnover that matches our increasingly short attention spans. The result is constant flux and change.
There are a number of good reasons to be concerned about youth culture in the church. Evidence suggests that the church in the West is not doing a particularly impressive job at retaining its own youth or attracting young people from outside. That indicates the approach of a worrying demographic shift in church attendance. In the face of such a trend, it is appropriate for the church to reflect long and hard on her youth strategy and to engage in some soul-searching. While no one would argue against the church doing her best both to retain her young people and to attract other young people to join, the means by which this is pursued is a topic for serious conversation.
The irony of the preoccupation with youth is twofold. It has actually led churches to take their cultural cues from that sector of society least qualified to offer mature wisdom rooted in experience and age. Part of this is itself the result of technical considerations: the power of the new medium of information technology is a power that resides primarily in the hands of the young. Thus if a denomination or parachurch group depends to a large extent upon its ability to have a significant and attractive online presence, then the most significant strategists are going to be those who have the most innovative and cutting-edge approach to this medium: the young and the entrepreneurial.
Now it is quite clear in the New Testament that Paul assumed that, with few exceptions, the church leadership would consist of older men, men of stature in the church community and of good reputation with those outside. That is why, when it came to the comparatively youthful Timothy, he had to counsel him to make sure that no one despised him because of his youth. Such advice would be at best unnecessary, at worst incomprehensible, today. “Let no one despise you because of your great age” would be the more likely counsel.
The Celebrity Phenomenon
In addition to the obsession with youth, there is another problem prevalent in the American church, and that is the cult of the Great Leader. This is a particular problem for the American church because of the predilection of American culture to invest supreme confidence and hope in individuals. A contrast with Britain is instructive here: in Britain, everything, from politics to sport, tends to be oriented toward institutions. The political party is always more significant than the leader; sport focuses on the team, not the charismatic individual within the team. In America, elections are about the great figureheads and magnetic personalities; and teams are often known first and foremost for the one or two superstars who represent them. There are signs that this may be changing a little under the impact of American pop culture in the U.K., but the general difference remains. This is not to say that the British way is in any way superior: if America idolizes the individual, then the U.K. arguably idolizes its institutions. Sufficient to the culture are the idolatries contained therein. But it is to say that Christians in specific cultures should be aware of the specific idolatrous tendencies of the context in which they live.
The cultural fall-out from this for the American church is that America has produced more than its fair share of church-leader figures who can seem like Christian alternatives to the culture of Hollywood. Those who regret the lack of famous young leaders in British evangelicalism not only demonstrate an unbiblical concern for youth in leadership but also reflect American culture’s preoccupation with significant, influential individuals. There is certainly much to be critical of in British evangelicalism as in its American counterpart, but the lack of possession of fame by its leaders is not one of them.
At root, the concern for The Next Big Thing is not actually that new as a phenomenon, at least as a symptom of something deeper. It is simply a manifestation of the constant tendency of the church to assume its challenges are primarily technical, not moral, and thus to capitulate to the criteria of the secular world when it comes to setting its agenda. In an innovative, youth-oriented culture, the temptation for the church is to prize innovation and youth above all things. In this sense, Paul faced exactly the same problem in Corinth. There the proclivities of the wider culture were shaped by Corinthian society’s admiration for the great orators of the day, their equivalent of our pop stars, movie actors, and IT gurus. To make an impact, one had to be a masterful public speaker and, indeed, to look the part, Greek orators pumped iron, had excess body hair removed, and tried their best to look like Greek gods come down to earth.
Paul did not simply reject this approach as technically wrongheaded; he repudiated it as an actual contradiction of the theology of the cross and of the crucified Christ that formed the very content of his preaching. Worldly criteria, whether Jewish or Greek, were as so much nonsense to him and irrelevant to the question at hand—the question of how to see the church witness effectively to Christ in the hostile culture.
This kind of thinking set the tone for his approach to church leadership as expressed in the Epistles. Paul wrote those letters with a view to the end of the apostolic era, wrestling with what church leadership should look like once those men passed from the scene who had received their commission directly from Christ. His proposals are scarcely likely to pass muster today among the technocrats, the sociologists, and the entrepreneurial: hold fast to the form of sound words that expresses the apostolic teaching; and appoint ordinary, respectable men to positions of leadership. As to the first, it is by its very definition not innovative. The task of the church is to pass on that which it has received, not to make it sexier or to soup it up in some way. Indeed, even the very form, not just the content, is to be that which has been tried, tested, and, one assumes, somewhat staid.
As to the second, the qualities Paul outlines are really very mundane. Hellenistic and Roman culture was quite familiar with the idea of the Beautiful People: the great orators, the powerful generals, the charismatic public figures, the wealthy, the networkers, the socially prestigious, the good-looking, and the suave. It would have been easy for Paul to have folded such factors into his prescriptions for leadership. Yet Paul mentions none of these things; he wants men in leadership who manage their households well; who, if married, treat their wives with fidelity and respect; who are apt to teach (meaning competent, not necessarily outstanding); who do not get drunk; and who are well thought of by their neighbors and their work colleagues. In other words, he wants people in leadership who are, by the criteria of the entrepreneurial and youth cultures, really rather bland, nondescript people. Indeed, it is quite likely that, were Paul alive today and looking at the church, he would not be asking where the young and the famous leaders are or where The Next Big Thing is coming from, but rather: Where are all the anonymous pastors and elders who work faithfully in their local churches week in week out, year in year out? The widespread existence of these, and not the church equivalents of George Barna or Justins Timberlake or Bieber, would be for him a gauge of the church’s real health.
The problem of The Next Big Thing is set to remain for American evangelicalism. Everything from America’s entrepreneurialism to its fixation on youth culture to the increasing evangelical fascination with information technology is helping foster a church culture to which Pauline notions of church and leadership are not simply irrelevant but actually antithetical. “Let no man despise you because of your youth” is a verse worth pondering. The day it becomes incomprehensible is the day the church takes its leave of Paul. One sometimes wonders if that day has not already passed.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of church history and vice president for academic affairs at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). [This article first appeared in MODERN REFORMATION magazine.]