The Danger of “Reaching People Where They Are At”

Timothy C. Tennent, the president of Asbury Theological Seminary in his Fall Convocation address, gave a criticism of what Ben Witherington called, “a watered-down evangelicalism.”

We [Evangelicals] disguise our lack of theological reflection by our constant commitment to “relevance” or saying that we are reaching people “where they are.”  Of course, who would deny that the church needs to have a profound understanding of “where people are.”   That is not the problem.  We are quite adept at measuring where people are culturally, but we are at best careless in any sustained theological reflection about where they should be culturally.  So, for example, if the wider culture has become apathetic about ritual, tradition, symbolism, poetic expressions, the value of history, or the necessity of intergenerational relationships, then, no problem, we say, it is the evangelical version of the prime directive to always adapt to culture.  But what if these very prejudices are actually part of the cultural malaise to which the church has been called to provide a stunning alternative?  How easily we seem to forget that the gospel doesn’t need our help in being made relevant.  The gospel is always relevant, and it is we who need to be made relevant to the gospel.  If we spent as much time really immersing ourselves into apostolic orthodoxy as we do trying to capture, if I can use Tom Oden’s phrase, “predictive sociological expertise” on the latest cultural wave coming, our churches would be far better off.  We have accepted almost without question certain definitions of success and what a successful church looks like.  However, we must not forget that, as I told this past year’s graduates, if the cross teaches us anything, it is that God sometimes does his greatest redemptive work under a cloak of failure. Only sustained theological reflection is able to penetrate and unmask the pragmatic, market driven assumptions which largely go unchecked in today’s evangelical churches. [emphasis added]

HT: BW3

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