Engaging Culture

What Christians Should Look For in 2016

Looking at the direction of the culture, the shape of trends, and the current challenges we face, here’s a handful of ideas to look for in 2016. I strongly recommend that you share this with pastors, ministry and nonprofit leaders you know, because from a media perspective, these are the critical areas that I believe we should focus our messages on in the coming year:

People will be looking for deep answers, not just “practical” advice.  The last 20 years has been a time of “practical” teaching in the church. It was based on the assumption (not always wrong) that people needed to look at the Bible for answers to everyday questions. But too many pastors started preaching shallow topics like “The 5 Keys to a Successful Marriage,” “3 Steps to God’s Healing Power,” or “The Secrets of a Better Prayer Life.” Many of those topics may have been helpful, but if you look at the Christian section at a typical bookstore, it doesn’t look much different than the secular self-help section. Our message has become Oprah in a “Christianized” package.

Colleges are getting the same message by the way. After the last 50 years of giving out “practical” diplomas in majors like Bakery Science, Bowling Management, and Gender Studies, they’re discovering that to really prepare students for life, it’s time to get back to a classical education.

Like those students, in 2016, your congregation will be looking for deeper answers. After all the self-help books, sermon DVDs, and small group resources have piled up the ceiling, people realize that life isn’t about easy answers or cheap grace. After all –

Where in the Bible does it say Christians should be living on Easy Street?

As a result, across the country, I’m seeing more and more pastors speaking for an hour or more on Sunday, and doing verse by verse in-depth teaching, and the crowds are coming in. So this year, I recommend you take people on a deeper journey. After all, while the Bible gives us plenty of practical information, it’s so much more. Don’t forget to teach the awesome power and mystery of our faith this year.

People will be looking for a LOCAL church.  One of the interesting business trends in 2016 will be the return of the local bookstore. After a decade of clicking all day, people miss the interaction of a local store experience. Plus, they finally understand that if you want to keep local stores, you have to buy there. As a result, local bookstores (and other stores) are experiencing a resurgence in cities and towns across America. I predict a similar feeling will happen in churches. So this is the year to promote your church as part of the local community. Instead of people driving 30 or more miles to a megachurch, they’ll be looking for a local congregation. That’s one reason large churches are aggressively planting local campuses. So this year, stop criticizing the big churches in your area, and start celebrating your local community. You’ll find more and more of your neighbors are looking for exactly that.

Polarized politics will be the perfect opportunity to offer a better way.  As the Left goes further left, and the Right goes further right, there are millions of people growing disenchanted with the answers government is offering. But to be that answer, we need to keep ourselves from being associated with a particular party. Encourage political participation, voting, and citizenship. Keep speaking truth to power. But to be the answer the culture is looking for, don’t align your pulpit with a political party. Start preaching the bigger answer they won’t find in politics.

This isn’t the time to soften our doctrine to become more attractive to the culture.  As Mary Eberstadt reveals in her book “How The West Really Lost God,” over the last 100 years, churches and denominations that have accommodated their theology to the culture have dramatically lost influence or disappeared completely. Don’t become a hardliner or jerk, but don’t be afraid to preach the truth. You’ll take heat, but ultimately, if you’re no more distinctive than the Kiwanis Club, then what’s the point?

It’s time to get serious about social media.  For all you late adopters, here’s a tip: The Internet isn’t going away. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms aren’t just about letting your friends know you’re at Starbucks, or showing them a picture of your lunch. When you take social media seriously, and look at it as a tool to speak positive things into people’s lives, it will change your perspective – and your impact. And no church or ministry is too small to make an impact online. People are following you for a reason, so in 2016, start saying (and preaching) things worth sharing. In the process you can have a remarkable influence on people – many of which you don’t even know.

Themes that will resonate with audiences in 2016:

Freedom in Christ.  The current administration is now the most prolific regulator of all time. Its 82,036 pages of new rules and regulations for 2016 has surpassed last year (which was close to that number.) The government’s answer to societal problems is usually more rules. It’s a common human trait, and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day did the same thing. As Theologian R.C. Sproul says:

“One commentator has called this practice of the Jews “regulation madness.” This is what happens when people who have a disposition to control others’ lives begin to chip away at their freedoms and accumulate power for themselves. This has happened in every society in every culture in the history of the world, but the Pharisees did it with a vengeance. When I was doing my doctoral work in Holland, one of the first idiomatic expressions I heard was “You have trespassed the law.” The Dutch people were governed to death. If I broke a pane of glass in my house, I had to get written permission to repair it from the federal government. That is the kind of culture the Pharisees created in ancient Israel. We have seen this in the Christian community again and again. In some groups, Christian piety is defined as refraining from wearing lipstick, dancing, going to movies, playing cards, and so forth, as if these activities had anything to do with the kingdom of God. In one sense, when these kinds of regulations are established, authentic righteousness is not simply obscured, it is discounted. After all, it is easier to refrain from wearing lipstick than from displaying pride. It is easier to stop going to movies than to start loving one’s enemies. We have all we can do to seek the righteousness that God’s law sets forth for us without worrying about petty issues. The Pharisees were absolutely majoring in minors. They had turned the supreme law of God into petty regulations, which obscured the majesty of the law of God.”

Preach freedom in Christ to a world desperate for it.

Overcoming Fear.  Terrorism, and the rhetoric surrounding it is creating the most fearful culture in our lifetime. This is a critical moment to remind people that God is in control – even in the most difficult situations. And this fear isn’t just the surface emotion people talk about, it’s also the deeper sense of angst that we carry like a burden. We worry about our kids, are fearful for our job, and are terrified about the safety of our country. In 2016, preach a message that will help people find comfort and confidence in God, and in doing so, they’ll share that message with friends.

Build better families.  Keep in mind that “the family” is one of the biggest hot button issues of our time. What all the people trying to re-define the family don’t seem to notice is that the more it’s re-defined, the more it continues to collapse. In a world where divorce, pre-marital sex, single motherhood, foster care, violence, abortion, and LGBT issues continue to be headlines, the single greatest impact we could make is to lead by example. If we lectured and condemned the outside culture less, and started making our own families stronger, the culture would notice. What if the Church became the one group in America that had the highest percentage of healthy, intact, loving families? I believe outsiders would be curious to find out why.

Finally, Share Joy:  Just listening to the presidential debates, you’ll see there isn’t much joy out there. I believe one of the most visible differences that should separate Christians from the non-believing culture is joy. I’m not talking here about simply having fun (although that helps), but I’m talking about a much deeper sense of joy. The kind the culture finds irrational, because in the times we live in, they can’t fathom its source. If we could become the people of joy the Bible talks about, trust me, in 2016, this culture will notice and start asking why.

This is a good list to start focusing on as you teach, broadcast, and share your message online. And I’m open to comments and suggestions about these and other ideas that would be particularly effective in today’s culture.

Any takers?

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  1. I shied away big time from the “3 ways” approach years ago. First, I’m not a psychologist. Second, it was easier using someone else’s work to shore up my sermon. Last year I spent almost the whole year on Freedom! and spent most of that talking about grace. It was life-changing for many. This year I am using “it is Written” as my theme and simply taking different “lists” or bunches (Beatitudes for example) and preaching them. My first series is Second Chances. I totally agree with you Phil that people are hungry for more than psychological, Oprah-like fluff.

  2. Thanks Phil for the great insight. I have felt exactly the same way – (though not thinking of it in terms of coming up on 2016), yet, I have felt sort of “forced” to write about “5 keys…” type of blog posts when I’m not that type of minister/blogger. I love the deep. Information is necessary but if information doesn’t provide transformation then it’s just that – information. Information produces more opinions, but transformation produces life.

    I appreciate your thoughts on this article and as a Pastor I will continue to get deep in the Word and my blog will transition into a haven of answers – not just my experience.

    1. Great point Alex. In small places like blogs and magazine articles, I don’t think the “5 Keys” idea is always bad. But when it comes to opportunities for more in depth writing and teaching, I say go deep… 🙂 Thanks for posting!

  3. Phil Cooke sir…another possible preaching topic. Closely related to Joy is Rest. In this “rat race” environment we live in, IF more people saw Healthy Families, a Strong Loving Community in the churches and people REALLY at REST in who they are, what they own, believe, drive and sleep in… I think “our” Christianity might become more attractive. “Come unto Me (Jesus) and I will give you REST!

    1. Funny you bring that up Gene. I’ve been thinking lately about the desert fathers from the early church years, and what they learned from periods of solitude. I agree with you that rest, is something we need to explore more…

  4. Well said Phil. Also letting people know that our best friend is Jesus. Only He can set us free through deliverance.

  5. Hi Phil, many good points! The main issue I see in the church is “ignorance.” This is the main reason Ro and I are launching a new show on BlogTalkRadio, “Think About it.” http://thinkaboutit.online

    Too many Christian have either NOT been taught the Word rightly, or have simply followed whatever the pastor believes and teaches… After all, he is the pastor, right? Wow, how dangerous is that?

    We’ll be talking about things most believers will NEVER hear about in their church. And yet, it is in the Bible. (Yeah, that does mean that most of them don’t really ever “study” the Book!)

    God’s best Phil,

  6. As I read through this, the blurbs about cheap grace and easy street jumps out at me. Cheap condemnation and unworthiness have been much more prolific than grace teaching. As far as easy street, heaven has streets of gold. We are no where near as easy as we should be. Trying to get Christians too accept more hardship in their lives as part of His mysterious plan is our undoing. Its not great preaching.

    1. Tell that to the Christians in the Middle East who are being beheaded. 🙂
      Preparing believers for hardship was a big part of the apostles teaching, and helped ready the Early Church for the persecution it faced. And while it’s quite different today in America, for those on the front lines of culture these days, life isn’t exactly a picnic.

      1. Good present day defeatist teaching with a smile… Or We could teach them a present day David anointing to do the beheading, or some angelic protection like Lot. Christ’s Luke 10:19 preaching would be a huge upgrade over headless hardship preaching. Teach them to be more Christ like as in John 10:18 that no one can take their life unless they allow it. You are right that trying to encourage this kind of victory is no picnic.

  7. A-A-MEN!!!!!!! I’m glad the Hollywood Prayer Network shared this in their newsletter, GREAT ADVICE! People are SICK TO DEATH of superficiality, the world needs BOLD believers for whom the Bible is REAL. I had someone at the church where I work say, “Kristen, you’re a prophet,” and I was like, “No, I just take the Bible seriously!” I know my life changed last year when I took seriously Matthew 28:18, where Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” If you really stop to think of the implications of that you will lose all fear of the stuff of this world. I did.

    One thing I’m going to do next week to encourage the deeper faith life for kids is to make a new puppet show, “On the Air with Octavia Octopus,” she’s a super cool, kinda’ crazy looking realistic octopus puppet we have, and it’s going to be like a radio show sort of, where I just read like a chapter of the Bible and intersperse it with comments to explain, and stuff like, “Oh, kids, isn’t that AWESOME when Jesus said this!” etc. I got the idea because we’ve been listening to a radio show, TruNews, via Youtube, on our Roku, which is so crazy, I NEVER thought I would listen to a radio show, much less via streaming TV! But times have changed, and people nowadays just want CONTENT, they don’t care about prettiness, that’s why youtube is so awesome!!

    And with so many people talking of EMP’s, the internet being cut off, and going back to ham radio, I thought, “Well, kids listen to Radio Disney, why not a Christian puppet radio show that’s based on just a Bible reading, where I explain the chapter, not just read it straight through?” So, I’m glad now that I had a lot of theology in college so I can explain the readings to kids. I did something similar with an ostrich puppet, Olivia’s Bible Readings, but that was video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OS7MtHBxMhI&list=PLDJXz5YILp7gFB4rzeT3Sqfvt2iNGKmtx&index=6

    And also, since the radio aspect is for kids, I plan on starting with video of the octopus puppet saying, “Ok kids, since ‘faith comes by HEARING, and HEARING by the Word of God,’ let’s close our eyes and put on our listening ears and HEAR God’s Word!!” And then I’ll probably have it fade to black, with just the chapter listed with a graphic of the puppet, so the visual isn’t a distraction from the kids ingesting God’s Word.

    So, I can’t wait to do this next week! My first one will be Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer: John 17, the most beautiful, personal, intimate chapter of the Bible–God talking to God! And I will also tell the story of how our son sweat blood when he was 3 and needed stitches, he got little tiny beads of bloody sweat on the bridge of his nose, he was crying so hard, to let kids know that yes, it really IS real that a person can sweat blood, but to remind the kids to never forget that Jesus felt every bit of the pain that night and next day, but that He did it for them….

  8. Refreshing, on point for 2016 (mho), and incredibly executable! I’m 50 yrs old, at 8 yrs old I made a decision to trust jesus as my Lord and Savior. What I have learned is by creating a platform of joyous and righteous examples for others to follow is the true way of changing others wrong behavior, even my own:-).

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