July 10, 2011

The Day John Piper Touched My Chin: Cultural Relevance in Preaching

by Clint Archer

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.

Richard "Soul Doctor" Baxter lends dignity to the soul patch.

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.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • This blog is becoming a fast favorite. A very engaging and thought provoking post, I just have a couple questions, scratch that, several question. 🙂

    Aren’t we naturally sinful, even post conversion?

    Shouldn’t our model for preaching and ministry be the Bible? Specifically, how does God’s Word want us to act? What example was set by Christ, the Apostles, even the historic men of faith?

    Yes, we’re men of our times and from our own cultures, but aren’t we all striving to be conformed to the Image of Christ and to teach and serve as He did? (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18)

    What about 2 Corinthians 3:1-17?

    Thanks, I look forward to more discussion.

    • Mark Blackburn

      It seems like there is definitely wisdom in the fact that we are still a part of our culture and have been influenced by our culture. I appreciate Erik’s comments and direction pointing towards that we are still never the less to be conformed to Christ by the scriptures and not to remain static.

      Paul did mention that he did become all things to all men (1 Cor. 9:22), which perhaps indicates some relativity is necessary (as fish do only swim in water). But the question becomes how relative do we need to be?

      God’s Word does hone us with respect to every area of life, including our speech. I guess instead of analyzing how relative we are/should be to the culture, the gauge should be in how relative we are to the Bible.

    • Erik, I agree with everything you’ve said, but I also think (I could be wrong) that what you’ve said is perfectly consistent with Clint’s post. Where did you sense some disconnect?

      • I don’t disagree with Clint’s post, just throwing out some ideas as food for thought, Clint’s post was well written and humorous. I was just wondering if sometimes we are too focussed on culture and not on what Scripture says, which is basically Clint’s point. Sometimes we have to do what is not natural or culturally relevant to follow Christ.

  • Jordan Standridge

    Thanks Clint, this post will help when someone defending the missional mindset says “MacArthur could never make it in Seattle, they are too sinful up there!”
    That’s the beauty of expository preaching as long as it’s the bible you’re preaching you can be relevant. Italy, South Africa, Seattle or LA just keep your soul patch and preach the word.

  • Anonymous

    Clint, my vocabulary increases whenever I read you. When will I be able to use those words, that’s another issue. =)


    • Mary Elizabeth Tyler

      I agree, Elaine. This article is so artfully executed and just plain fun to read that I think I will take a second shot at it. Not all things Christian related are all dry bones and desert sand; it’s nice to see humor for a change.

      • Anonymous

        I actually did read more than once. That’s a great way to describe it: “artfully executed”, it makes me feel I am part of the narrative. I love the humour in it as well.

        • Mary Elizabeth Tyler


          Since we are talking about artfully executed, and we have already given due respect to Clint’s article, there is another article *equally artful and witty* written in the **same vain** as Clint’s article, although written from a secular mind-set.

          Roger Rosenblatt a former essayist for Time Magazine wrote an article titled: “Would You Mind If I Borrowed This Book?” Put it into your browser and it will pop up.

          For all you book lovers out there and connoisseurs of those authors, who have a strong penchant for fine writing, this is the article to read. It is brilliant and masterfully done. A word of caution, I believe he uses a couple swear words in the article.

          And **ALL** the authors of this blog are in the running.

  • Clyde Silla

    Great post Clint.

    Perhaps should also respond by saying, let’s stop worrying so much about the way preachers outside of our city dress and focus on reaching the people in our city?

    • Hey Clyde, maybe I’m dense, but I’m not sure I’m understanding your comment. Could you clarify?

  • Eric Davis

    Dude, you should never wash your soul patch again.

    • Mark@DR

      Eric, you assume Clint washed/washes his soul patch… 😉

  • Another great post by an artful writer.

  • Tim

    Preaching from where you are and where God’s taking you? Whodathunkit? (Apparently John Piper.), Thanks for the fun – and insightful – post, Clint.

    Pogontrophic seminoids unite!


    • Tim

      Pogonotrophic! (Poor typing skills on constant display.)

    • Tim

      Editing by monitor greatly appreciated!

  • I never thought of Richard Baxter as the Soul Dr. before. This was a great post and I just wanted to say, beyond the content, which was very good, I really enjoy your writing.

  • Clint, you’re an excellent writer. I like a blog post that makes me check my heart while simulatenously turning to the dictionary. Thanks for giving me something to consider this morning that hits me right where I am.

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    Hey, thanks for featuring my Photoshopped image of John Piper as Superman, originally available at YeHaveHeard.com under “Spiritual Superheroes”! 😀 http://www.yehaveheard.com/2009/11/spiritual-superheroes/

    • Anonymous

      No problem. Thanks for showing me the source. You can count on the batman one getting stolen soon too!

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  • Greg Long

    He touched me, oh, he touched me, and oh what joy that floods my soul!


  • Jeff Dollard

    This seems like a somewhat less than full response to me… it is true that every person is a product of their culture, so there is really no such thing as being devoid of cultural relevance in preaching – but there are many cultures to which you can or cannot present the gospel as relevant. Said another way, the cultural context in which you present the truth-nugget of the gospel determines much in how it is received. It is naive to pretend that all Western culture is identical.

    Foreign missionaries are not the the only people who encounter cultural differences.

    It seems to me that the call to make disciples of all nations (and not just the geopolitically defined ones) is an extraordinary challenge to us to step outside of our own cultural context in order to present the gospel as relateably and understandably as possible to all people. That extends far far beyond the culture in which you grew up, whether you’re within your own national borders or not. Consider the heart of LA, where there are over 100 languages spoken in homes within a few mile radius. Consider the difference between inner city homeless ministries and suburban elder boards. And on and on…

    It is true that the gospel is relevant to all people at all times, but the way it is communicated most certainly is not.

    • Hi Jeff,

      I found your statement that “there are many cultures to which you can or cannot present the gospel as relevant” a little confusing, especially in light of your later statement that “the gospel is relevant to all people at all times.” I feel like I want to disagree with the first statement, but agree with the latter. Could you help me understand how those two aren’t contradictory?

      Also, your statement, “the cultural context in which you present the truth-nugget of the gospel determines much in how it is received,” seems problematic to me. Maybe I’ll understand better once I get your answer to the above question. But if I’m understanding you correctly, I would say that cultural context doesn’t determine the reception of the Gospel. What determines reception of the Gospel, instead, is the sovereign grace of God giving light to blinded and darkened minds (2Cor 4:3-6). This is, of course, assuming that the Gospel is communicated faithfully, i.e., that what is presented is actually the Gospel.

      It is naive to pretend that all Western culture is identical. Foreign missionaries are not the the only people who encounter cultural differences.

      I think we would all agree with this. But the question is whether those sub-cultural differences are great enough to make communication impossible — or at least, great enough to make the Gospel not-understandable. I don’t believe that’s the case.

      …to step outside of our own cultural context in order to present the gospel as relateably and understandably as possible to all people.

      I want to give a hearty, “Amen!” to presenting the gospel as understandably as possible to all people. But I don’t think it’s always necessary to step outside of our own cultural context to do that. Or perhaps it’s better to say: I don’t think our presentation of the Gospel should be so shackled and defined by our cultural context that we need to change cultural contexts to faithfully present the Gospel. I think we can present the Gospel in a way that transcends many cultural nuances, such that I can go to those different houses here in Los Angeles and, as long as I know their language (or bring an interpreter!), present the same Gospel faithfully to each of them.

      It is indeed naive to think that we can take the same canned presentation to homeless people and suburbanites, recite it at them, and expect a revival. But those cautioning us against chasing cultural relevance aren’t advocating that. We listen to people, hear their needs/problems, discern their idols, and show them how the implications of the Lordship of Christ cuts across every aspect of their lives. But because the guy on skid row and the guy in Beverly Hills share the common problem of sin, and share the common solution of repentance faith in Christ, my message won’t have to sound as different as some might think.

      I suppose the bottom line is: we shouldn’t spend all of our energy trying to find the perfectly adapted presentation for this subculture and that interest group. I don’t want to preach a message that has to change from zip code to zip code. We should be spending our energy on learning how to present the Gospel so purely (i.e., as it is, according to Scripture), that we can present our message to anyone who has fallen in Adam and needs redemption in Christ.

      And since this post does feature John Piper in a superman costume, I want to share a helpful 4-minute video of him doing a better job of explaining what I’m trying to say. I’d be interested to know what you think of it.

  • Steve

    Drove down Plummer past Farralone in Chatsworth this morning and prayed for you guys.

  • hmmm…but would you do the same thing in Japan? Would you just say, “Well, I’m inevitably part of my culture, so I’ll just preach the gospel in English and build a church with pews and an organ”? I highly doubt so. I appreciate Piper, but I think he’s really over-simplifying here and missing some key things about culture. Although it’s not as essential as preaching the gospel itself, we must get into their mindset and adapt to their way of thinking (with limits, of course). There’s much to be said, but I just don’t think that principle works, especially in foreign contexts.

    • Hi Jonathan,

      I hope Clint will reply and confirm, but I suspect that neither he nor Piper were speaking to a missionary context (or “foreign context,” as you say). His answer to Clint’s question was at a pastor’s Q&A in the context of ministering to their own congregations. I think the way his comments would apply to ministering in Japan would be to tell a Japanese pastor the same thing he told the South African pastors. Does that make sense?

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