The students in my class on media and the church were smiling, but it was easy to see that some were puzzled. A few were troubled. Why was it so important, someone had asked, for seminary students to learn how to analyze the secular news and entertainment media? Why should evangelicals worry about pop culture?

“Tell me a subject that seminary students worry about,” I said.

A master of divinity student in the front row quickly answered: “Discipleship.”

“What does discipleship mean?” I asked. “Pretend that I don’t speak fluent evangelical.”

His bottom line: He wanted his ministry to affect people’s views on the big issues of life: marriage, family, money, success, sex. “I want the faith to affect the way they behave, to change how they live,” he said.

I agreed. Discipleship will affect wallets, bedrooms, and pocket calendars. Then I pointed at the blackboard, where I had listed the major forms of today’s mass media: television, advertising, movies, the news media, popular music and video, magazines, and newsletters.

So the secular media, I joked, have no influence on how Americans view money, sex, marriage, divorce, children, jobs, life, death, eternity? The people in our pews, and the unchurched, are never influenced by the media as they face the “big issues”? And, I suppose, the people who run the media never ignore God. Right?

Lights came on.

Here’s the point of the story: When we train foreign missionaries, we assume they are heading for a foreign culture. We assume they must learn how it affects daily life, and in light of that culture, how to live the Christian faith and proclaim the Good News. Missionaries must be skilled observers who can debate other cultures.

Today, we must realize that America is a foreign culture, as far ...

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