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Should Missionaries ‘Turn Off the Television’ and Video Games?

“Turn off the television. Shut down your video games”? But serious missionaries must engage their neighbors’ culture.
| Jan 29, 2019 | No comments |

Missionaries must not waste their time on superficial things, John Piper warns in this Jan. 14 message on world missions.

There is no way forward in world missions without martyrs. We didn’t urge you to come to this conference to make your life easier. But to make your life count.

Don’t waste it on superficial things. Grow deep. Get ready to die well. Give yourself unreservedly to what really matters. Take hold of life, which is life indeed. Turn off the television. Shut down your video games. Why should mere man choreograph your emotions?1

Piper recommends aspiring missionaries spend more time with God’s word and with “radical Christians.”

Few Christians would disagree with that recommendation. To be sure, many Christians do waste time on television and video games.

But I think I would (carefully!) disagree with Piper here. Time permits a brief exploration why.2

1. ‘TV’ is an outdated label, and games aren’t always superficial

Piper’s own message is available in video form. So are many other Desiring God resources. These are not “superficial” TV.

Neither are many other “television” stories that a Christian can engage critically.

“Watch later”?

Anyway, “television” is already an almost antiquated word. It’s being supplanted by the internet. Which includes social media, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, and beyond.

Meanwhile, it’s almost a cliche among Christians to say “popular pastor condemns video games.” In response, bemused Christians often state that many games are no longer “superficial” by any rational standard.

Even if they were, can’t even missionaries enjoy Sabbath-style rest?

2. Popular culture isn’t just from ‘mere man’; God gave us culture-making gifts.

For this, I can e-cycle my remarks from an earlier article:

What if the Christian speaker then only says things like, “You need to love Jesus more than your entertainment”? That may challenge the rank popular culture idolater. But it does nothing to challenge the person who already truly wants to love Jesus first, and secondly enjoys, say, gaming or anime in time-consuming, fandom-forming ways.

For either group, Christians who only warn against popular culture (when they speak of it at all) simply show they don’t take the topic seriously enough.

In fact, in some ways they are treating the topic of popular culture just as carelessly as the unthinking Christian who’s a TV or video-game junkie. . . .

Why not discuss popular culture—human stories and songs—in terms of human creativity being a gift from God? The way some pastors talk, popular culture is some alien (even if “harmless”) thing unrelated to God. But if God gives this gift (of popular culture-creation), then He, not us, defines the terms of how the gift is best used—to glorify Him, to guard against idolatry, and to make sure we get the most joy out of using the gift in the ways He has prescribed.3

3. Serious Christian missionaries must engage people’s cultures.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Piper had in mind a cliched picture: A young Christian, listless and mission-less, sits alone in a darkened room. His only light is the almighty, flickering screen.

This does not reflect many Christians I know. They take their missionary calling seriously. They understand this includes their calling to engage the culture of people they serve.

I know one missionary in the Czech Republic, in a university setting. He connects with secularized students by exploring TV shows and films together. Another missionary serves in Japan. To learn his way around this media-rich nation, he’ll be aware of the nation’s TV and movies.

Every Christian is a missionary wherever we live, work, and raise our families.

Even Christian parents are called to be missionaries to their own children. I dare any parent to try their daunting task without also engaging with their children’s popular culture. Even if they shelter their children, they’re either permitting uniquely evangelical popular culture, or else letting children create their own shared culture.

If you love Christ, and love your children, you’ll meet them where they live—in their popular cultures.

And if you love Christ, and love your world, including other nations, you’ll meet your neighbors where they live—in their popular culture.

4. Finally, Jesus and the apostles engaged people’s cultures.

Sound familiar? It should. Jesus himself met people where they lived.

As an incarnate man, Jesus could not have shared parables unless he knew about the culture of parable-sharing.

Similarly, the apostle Paul could not have affirmed and subverted the Athenians’ heathen religions unless he knew their culture. That included his awareness of their “unknown god,” their idols, and their mixed-up poetry (Acts 17).

Desiring God and its godly leaders know this truth. They’ve also internalized it. That’s why we find these resources linked in popular social media, see these sermons in video, and hear these truths in languages we can understand. Thank God for this kind of engagement!

From there, it’s very simple to connect these truths to a better view of Christians and popular culture. That doesn’t mean just “superficial” TV and video games. It also includes social media, YouTube channels, Christian radio, and beyond.

  1. John Piper, “Make Your Life Count: The Greatest Missions Letter Ever Written,” Desiring God, Jan. 14, 2019.
  2. I may discuss this further in a longer followup article.
  3. E. Stephen Burnett, “Christians, Please Stop Warning Against Human Popular Culture Until You Know What It’s For,” Speculative Faith, Nov. 9, 2017.
E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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