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FIRST-PERSON: What can we learn from Mark Driscoll?

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Recently Seattle-area pastor Mark Driscoll has come under a great deal of scrutiny for his foul language and controversial sermon series on sex. I need not repeat here some of the phrases and words he has used as they are readily accessible in scripts on the Internet. Likewise, anyone can download his sermon series on the Song of Solomon from the Mars Hill Church website.

Let me say the following at the outset: I believe our speech and behavior should be above reproach. Several motions were made at the most recent Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting that revolved around Driscoll’s words and actions. To be fair to him, Driscoll has repented and asked forgiveness for his cussing. Some of Driscoll’s apologies were actually encouraged by Lifeway Christian Resource’s own Ed Stetzer. Driscoll has apologized for other similar incidents on various occasions.

I think the question vexing many evangelical Christians about the figure of Mark Driscoll is the paradox we find in people like him: He claims to be “culturally relevant” while at the same time claiming to be “biblically conservative.” While such labels from Driscoll may be controversial to some people, I believe that many Christians have an affinity with those labels because we want to be exactly that: reaching and being relevant to the world while holding to unchanging, biblical truths.

I by no means intend to defend him, but I believe we have to ask this question: What can we learn from people like Mark Driscoll? I think we do need to pay attention not because of the answers he is providing but because of the questions he has identified in the culture. I believe Driscoll, in trying to be “culturally relevant,” is merely trying to answer the questions he heard coming from the culture. Perhaps we need not necessarily listen to Driscoll but rather listen to the culture that Driscoll is trying to address.

What does this culture that he is addressing look like? It is a culture that has little biblical worldview. It is a culture that does not feel confined by the “church culture” of which most Christians are a part. It is a culture that is still asking the same questions as generations before: Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? How can I have happiness?

In asking such questions, the culture crosses into such controversial subjects as sex, alcohol, relationships, career and family. The questions Driscoll tries to answer are real-life questions. With no church background or biblical worldview, the world really is asking questions about such topics as sex, but not perhaps in the way we would ask in a more reserved way in the “church culture.”

For example, I serve as a National Guard chaplain and just spent three weeks on annual training with several hundred young men and women. As I was going about my ministry of presence with these fine young men and women in the military, they would often pull me to the side and ask me very direct questions — questions that Driscoll is trying to answer. Admittedly there is a great difference between my private conversations with these young soldiers and the way Driscoll has decided to answer such questions publicly. Nevertheless, my point is that the questions are being asked, but is the church willing to answer them?

We live in a culture that is no longer a predominantly Christian culture. The culture is not the same as the one in which my godly grandmother grew up. Neither will the answers from my godly grandmother’s Sunday School class answer their questions. In other words, today’s generation is not as reserved as previous generations with regards to topics like sexuality. They talk about it as openly as any other topic during an average day.

So, how can we answer the questions the culture is asking while still maintaining our biblical witness without compromising our speech or actions?

First of all, the church needs to listen. Many of our programmatic and felt-needs sermons are actually not answering the questions of the culture. The culture does not want to just know answers — they want to know biblical answers to those tough questions. And yes, some of those questions may make some of our church people blush when they are asked.

Second, I believe the church needs seriously to examine the language it uses to communicate the Gospel. On the one hand, we do not need to compromise our own language, just as Paul commanded for all of our language to be above reproach (Ephesians 5:4). Nevertheless, we do not have to violate this principle when we try to be culturally relevant. For example, I had a great, godly man who taught the youth Sunday School class at my home church where I grew up. But, every time he would get up to pray, he would start out by saying, “Our dearly beloved heavenly Father, we thank thee for this day that thou hast given to us thy children.” While I understand his deep respect for God, his words did not communicate to those who were new Christians because they were seen as archaic. We need to be willing to examine our own language to make sure we are speaking in ways that can allow someone from today’s culture — not yesterday’s society — to understand.

Last, we must be willing to move out of our comfort zone in order to reach today’s generation. We have developed too much of a “church culture” which has become culturally irrelevant. We have developed so much of our own ways of speaking and acting that we have become disconnected from the world. In other words, we have become so accustomed to our own church culture that we are not only shocked but also embarrassed when the culture asks questions, such as those dealing with sex.

Yes, the Bible has plenty to say on hard topics, as well as the hardest topic of all: the eternal destiny of our souls. The hard question for the church at this time is if we are willing to do what it takes to answer them in a way that is relevant but also above reproach.
Page Brooks is assistant professor of theology and Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He has served as a church planter, pastor and Army chaplain.

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  • Page Brooks