Tip #10: Pay Attention to What’s Upstream

[for context, see the original post Ten Tips for Becoming a Better Pastor]

Ideas flow downstream.

Someone – probably the church growth people back in the 1980’s – sold pastors the notion that cultural relevance requires familiarity with popular culture. In other words, being “relevant” requires illustrating your sermons with material from Lady Gaga and Modern Family and American Idol. But this stab at relevance has exactly the opposite effect: a year or two from now, when Lady Gaga is MC Hammer and Modern Family is Cheers, your sermon podcasts will be painfully irrelevant. By contrast, John Piper’s sermon transcripts from 1985 are still profoundly current.

Pop culture is the cess pool at the end of the stream. Today’s pop culture is an engine running on the fumes of the 1990s (or the 1980s, if Madonna’s Super Bowl halftime show is any indication). To be a culturally astute and missionally effective leader, you need to spend less time in pop culture and focus on what’s upstream.

Upstream means academia as well as local culture. It means research journals and monographs. It means paying attention to the fields of sociology and philosophy, as well as to your neighbor next door. It means ignoring the 24-hour news channels (a creation of the entertainment industry) and reading literature instead. It means developing a discerning artistic eye and ear.

You’ll notice that this tip overlaps with previous ones (listen and read widely, seek out a good debate, saturate yourself in the primary sources). That’s intentional. Here’s my concern: good pastors should be culture makers, not cultural consumers. Pop culture is intended for consumption. It is a creation of the entertainment industry. If you build your preaching and your leadership on imitating or even “engaging” pop culture, you’ll create a shallow, marketing-driven church that may attract a lot of immediate attention but will fail to build long-term disciples.

But if you pay attention to what’s upstream, you’ll avoid being duped by the latest cultural fads. You’ll see that the Big Questions are still the Big Questions. You’ll be able to assess the foundational assumptions underneath pop culture – what does this song assume about human personhood? What story is this filmmaker telling? What ethical philosophy is this politician espousing? And your preaching and leadership will have weight, because instead of flitting around on the surface of things, you’ll be pressing down deep to the foundational issues of human personhood and purpose. You’ll be showing how the biblical storyline answers humanity’s most basic questions. You’ll be giving people a story big enough to find themselves in.

If you want to become a better pastor, pay attention to what’s upstream.

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