Chaplain To The Culture?

One of the phrases I picked up in seminary for describing the church I did not want to lead was “Chaplain To The Culture.” To me, this term describes the anti-missional church, a church and denomination that views its role as providing religious goods and services to people without expecting any Christian commitment in return. Think clergy-led prayers before football games and come-one-come-all baptisms.

But a couple of recent youth events have me questioning the usefulness of that dig.

In the last two weeks I’ve facilitated or helped to facilitate groups of young people working together to challenge themselves and to make their communities better. I have no prior relationship to many of these students; they’re not part of our church membership and they’ve never come to a church program before. Yet it’s pretty clear to me that the work we’re doing with them is exposing them to things about themselves and their world that are valuable and enriching, even if we never see them again.

All the while they’re praying when we pray and talking with us about Jesus.

So I’m starting to wonder if being a chaplain to the culture in this way is so bad. So what if we’re not strategically recruiting those kids and their families into church membership or even orchestrating a conversion experience? So what if their only experience of church is a weekend camp with a high ropes course where they say grace before meals and compare the last paintball game to following Jesus?

The “goods” and “services” being provided are pretty darn good and valuable, it seems to me. Not only for the young people, but also for their parents. And also for the wider world in which they participate. If we get just a small opportunity to enhance these students lives (and, by extension, their whole relational network) through a program or event, then that’s valuable work. We shouldn’t pooh-pooh it as settling for functioning as the “Chaplain To The Culture.”

The real problem with that slight is that it sells chaplains short. Chaplains are not mechanical dispensers of blessings and religious kitch. Chaplains accompany people–most often complete strangers–through crises.

If the church, then, can accompany the culture and walk alongside, why wouldn’t we do that? Why would we view that as something less than “missional?”

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