For those of you who don’t know what a soul patch is, it’s a tuft of facial hair between the bottom lip and the chin. It’s been described as the “You missed a spot” of male grooming. The soul patch sprouted as a fashionable facial accessory in the 1950s when African American trumpeters on the Jazz scene sported it as an identity statement, much like cyclists show off their silky legs as an androgynous emblem of commitment to their hobby. Why this lesson in pogonotrophe? Because it provides the context, or justification for a key part of my story.
Last year John Piper (my favorite super hero) was preaching at the Rezolution Conference (The South African spin-off of Resolved). The mediator for the pastors’ Q&A was a friend of mine and smuggled my spring-loaded question into the line-up. I asked Dr Piper to comment on how much a preacher should take culture into account when trying to reach his contemporaries. I pitted John “I’ve never used an iPod” MacArthur on one side of the debate—the gospel transcends culture so it doesn’t matter if I think Eminem is a colorful candy; I can preach the word in Iambic pentameter and still be relevant, sin, after all, never goes out of fashion. In the other corner I put Mark “I’ve never used cuff links” Driscoll. But Piper saw what I was up to with his x-ray discernment. Nuts.
I was hoping for some explanation of why Piper puts up with the Cussing Pastor’s overemphasis on cultural relevance (constant references to cage fighting, TV, strip clubs, and a worship band that sounds like Nine Inch Nails). Is it really necessary to be that culturally relevant? My years at Grace Community Church had proven to me that John MacArthur’s intellectual style, with stringed quartets performing Handel’s Messiah, managed to appeal to poor Filipino immigrants and Mexican laborers as much as it did to LA’s intelligencia. They came for the preaching, not the orchestra.
My question was a thinly veiled attempt to tease out some Piper-esque wisdom on this potentially spicy topic. He leaped over my trap with a single bound. His underwhelming answer was decaffeinated of all controversy. No passionate gesticulating, no mention of potty-mouth preaching, in short nothing to Tweet. So I did what every seminoid who can’t take a hint would do: I got in line after the session and asked him to elaborate.
The guy before me was in no hurry. While he was basking in his mono-a-mono moment with his hero, I formulated my follow-up question like an angler selecting which fly would best dress his hook. By now the blubbering about how Piper had changed his life was getting really teary; and not in a poignant lady weeping on Jesus’ feet way, but more like grown men who cry that much should have-their-own-tissues-handy way. Piper in avuncular tones and kind words interrupted the guy with a bear hug which was either really gracious, or a sneaky technique he had mastered to muffle weepy fawning. Anyway, when he was done I knew Piper would not revel in another public display of affection which would wet his other shoulder, so I skipped the homage and presented my question again, this time specifically mentioning his highly publicized discipleship of Driscoll. He ignored my bait (wily old guy) but he did launch into a vintage Piper sermonette on why my question was dumb.
In front of all the other pastors who were waiting in line, all taking mental notes of tacks not to take with Piper, he proceeded to explain in an unrestrained snarkiness (thanks Challies for my new word), that anyone asking the question was naïve to how inextricable culture is from preaching. That’s when it happened. He touched my chin. I don’t mean because I had inadvertently leaned into his personal preaching space. I mean he reached out and placed 2 fingers on my soul patch, as if to prove the answer was right under my nose all along.
Grabbing the closest visual aid he could, he declared in a stentorian voice that I’m sure could be heard by everyone in the room, “This looks ridiculous.” The giggles from the bystanders drowned out his softening explanation: “On me it would never work, but on you, as part of the whole package, it works great.” He then went on to say that because every preacher is himself inevitably a product of the culture from which he comes, there is no need to try to be relevant or use artificial additives to make one’s ministry seem more relevant. So according to the expert, trying to redeem the basest elements of our increasingly lowbrow culture is not really necessary in order to be missional. Interesting.
You are what you eat. There is no need to try be culturally relevant. Just preach and be yourself. You and your sermons will naturally reflect the culture adequately to reach your people. Obviously foreign missionaries need to work harder at this, but a Westerner preaching to a Western congregation should do whatever comes naturally. You don’t see fish talking about water, as it were. Culture is the tank in which we swim. Stop trying to focus on the medium and just spout out the message. God takes care of the rest.
So there you have it. John Piper touched my chin and made his point in doing so. In my culture it’s not appropriate for a man to touch another’s face. But as part of the Piper package, it works.