Article Jul 21, 2015

Six cultural trends from the Bay Area and why they matter for churches

Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in San Francisco doesn’t stay in San Francisco.


These and other cultural fixtures started in the San Francisco Bay Area. Living in this part of the country for the past five years has afforded me a unique perspective from which I’ve observed several cultural trends that are likely to spread across America. Ready or not, here they come. In what follows, I briefly outline six cultural trends and explain how churches need to prepare, adjust or otherwise evolve.

First, postmodernity is a red herring too many Christians are still pursuing. Reports of the death of metanarrative, absolute truth, or certainty are greatly exaggerated.  The reign of technology, absolute acceptance of scientific naturalism and the universal demand for the acceptance of homosexuality in San Francisco reflects a thoroughly modern zeitgeist.  

Local churches should brace for a battle of ideas where pastors need to be adept at philosophy, theology and rhetoric. Shallow exposition, trendy topical sermons or mere dialogue will not suffice. Never before has there been a greater need in America for the unapologetic practice of preaching the Word (2 Timothy 4:2) and for pastors who are trained to teach sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9).

Second, race lines are blurring. Often, a person’s race is a complicated story with no easy (or desired) categorization. Increasingly, people are more likely to self-identify as mixed race or biracial. While much of the country still thinks in terms of “red and yellow, black and white,” the future of race is blurry and complicated.  This case is made convincingly by authors Jennifer Hochschild and Vesla Weaver in their book Creating a New Racial Order: How Immigration, Multiracialism, Genomics, and the Young Can Remake Race in America (Princeton University Press, 2012)

It is clear to me that churches need to stop thinking in bifurcated racial categories that do not reflect the reality of multiracialism. Moreover, churches need to think more about the difference between race and culture. Too often, when talking about wanting to be multicultural, churches are really talking about race; as in, “Our church wants more people whose skin color is not like our own.” But it’s relatively easy to worship with people who have a different skin color but who like the same music, eat the same food and are otherwise culturally homogeneous. It is far more challenging to embrace a person of a different culture, even if you share their pigmentation.  

Third, it is increasingly obvious that secular progressivism is a rigid ideology and it will not stop until it achieves total conformity. I realize this seems like an audacious claim, but from my vantage point it is totally defensible. Secular progressivism is a system of belief that seeks to advance culture through the elimination of the influence of religion or religious dogma, and perhaps specifically, the influence of historic Christianity. Bay Area culture welcomes vague and secular spirituality.  Based on my observations, it seems that secular and naturalistic spirituality will always be welcome because it welcomes sin and exalts self, whereas historic Christianity does just the opposite by calling sinners to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  

Secular progressivism is a fascist ideology because it seeks to use the government to punish those who dissent. In this way, leftist ideologues are increasingly intolerant and authoritarian -both hallmarks of fascism. The church should prepare itself for an assault of personal freedom and for Draconian retaliation from governing authorities against religious conviction, such as the currently proposed bill (H.R. 2450) which would “prohibit, as an unfair and deceptive act or practice, commercial sexual orientation conversion therapy, and for other purposes”; a similar law already “protects” minors in the state of California.

Fifth, either what the Bible says about gender matters, or it doesn’t. It seems to me that local churches in the Bay Area that compromise on gender in regard to women in ministry eventually compromise on gender in regard to sexuality. It stands to reason that if Paul was wrong in 1 Timothy 2 about women not teaching men, then he could be wrong about homosexuality in Romans 1.

If churches are going to insist upon the trustworthiness of Scripture when it speaks to gender as it pertains to sexuality, then these same churches must be ready to insist upon the trustworthiness of Scripture when it speaks to gender as it pertains to the role of men and women in the home and in the local church. Compromise on one issue seems to inevitably correlate with compromise on the other. Practically speaking, churches have a compromised mantle from which to decry homosexuality while they have women teaching or exercising spiritual authority over men.  

Sixth, and finally, agnosticism is much more common than atheism. It is rare to encounter an atheist in the Bay Area. In my weekly evangelistic outings with students of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, and in numerous conversations at coffee shops or other social settings, it has been exceptionally rare to encounter a person who thinks “There is no god.” More frequently, I encounter people who aren’t sure whether or not god(s) exist.

While much apologetic literature is aimed at the new atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens, et al), churches need to spend time preparing to minister to agnostics. Churches should provide training for Christians to engage in evangelistic conversations with people either dismissive as to the question of God’s existence (an agnosticism grounded in apathy) or convinced that there is insufficient evidence one way or the other (an agnosticism grounded in conviction). Either way, agnostics tend to reason neither in terms of “Aye” or “Nay”, but rather, “Meh.”

A friend of mine saw the 2015 blockbuster San Andreas (Warner Bros.) while in Columbus, Ohio for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. At some point during the mindless onslaught of CGI destruction, in which much of the state of California is destroyed, he reported that people in the theater began to applaud. It’s far more likely that, in the future, Californian cultural trends will move across the U.S. than it is likely that California will sink into the ocean.  

From where I sit, the future is now.