Sacred Space: Can Tattoo Parlors Help the Church Reach Out?

One of my friends sent me this article on a Michigan pastor who opened a tattoo shop in his church. I hate to disappoint, but my response to this is not going to be about whether or not it is okay to get a tattoo. Rather, I thought that this pastor’s rationale for opening a tattoo parlor is far more interesting than the parlor itself. According to the article, the pastor is “doing everything he can to reach out to people who have never felt comfortable at a traditional house of worship.” Think about that for a moment. Do you really think that people have been avoiding traditional church because they were previously unable to obtain a tattoo in the same place where they hear sermons?

I find that highly unlikely. But to be fair to Pastor Bentley, evangelicals do this sort of thing quite often. They may not actually put tattoo parlors on the grounds, but they will change the dress code, change the music, and change the decorum of the auditorium in order to make the place a bit more culturally appealing. Am I saying that the pastor who dons cool glasses, sports a soul-patch, and wears avant-garde t-shirts is doing the same thing as Pastor Bentley? Yes, I am saying that. They share the same motivation even if they do not share the same method. Isn’t that what the Cowboy Church does? They make cowboys comfortable by singing songs country/western style, and they have rodeos and such to make cowboys comfy. What’s the difference? Is it simply that the culture finds tattoos more distasteful than barrel racing?

In the interest of not becoming a total curmudgeon, I want to say that every church ought to concern themselves with making folks feel welcome. The church ought not despise tattoos, cowboy hats, or beatniks of any sort. But they should not be overly self-conscious of the fact that they don’t have a lot of those types in their midst, and they ought to consider the possibility that it isn’t their lack of cultural conformity to a certain group that is making them uncomfortable: It could actually be the gospel that is freaking people out.

Let me give an example. Suppose there is a mostly middle-class white church out there who realizes that they are not doing a very good job of reaching the young urban community. These mostly middle-aged folks astutely observe that the younger urbanites dress different, talk different, and listen to different music. In order to reach them, all these church people, even the grandpas, decide to wear hipper clothing, grow whispy goatees, and start listening to hip-hop music. Do you think that will make young urbanites feel more comfortable, or do you think it will simply make the church look ridiculous?

That’s what happens when the church forgets herself. We are not called to conform ourselves to every fashion that pop culture cooks up. We can’t, and we look foolish when we try. Instead of trying to cloak ourselves in the latest trend, we ought to be busy putting on the garb of holiness. That would include loving people who are different than we are, not necessarily looking like they do. I believe that love will draw more broken people than a tattoo parlor, don’t you?

About Brad Williams

Brad is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. Besides the incredible fact that he managed to persuade his wife to marry him, he is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard's Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.

  • Andrew Ray

    Very good article. I must admit that I was drawn in to reading this article because I am planning on getting my first tattoo in the next day or so. However, I was blessed to find out that this wasn’t an article about wether or not getting a tattoo is “sinful” or not, but about conforming the church to the world with the goal to attract more people. And as a result making the church look silly in the eyes of the people you are trying to reach. I believe the church is called to be different or set apart from the secular world. The Grace of Christ is what draws people to the church, not our own silly methods.

    This is a very good and interesting article by the Preacha Man. I was very surprised, impressed, and blessed by this article.

  • Jeremy Reeves

    I completely understand the difficulty of nuance within the limits of a 600 word article, but I think that you have missed some very important things, Brad. You set up the decision as though it is between pop-cultural preferences on the one hand and holiness on the other. The splash quote your editor chose is a great example: “Instead of trying to cloak ourselves in the latest trend, we ought to be busy putting on the garb of holiness”. But those are rarely (never?) the options we are faced with. Your photo in the “About the Author” section helps illustrate what I mean. When you chose the Nikes you are wearing (or whatever brand they are), you made a decision between Nike and Adidas, not between holiness and Adidas. When you chose the watch you are wearing, you chose between Timex and Casio, not holiness and Casio. The same is true regarding your sunglasses, t-shirt, socks, and shorts. And the same is true regarding decisions to wear “hipper clothing” and to don “whispy goatees”. What is possibly more important is that someone’s decision to not wear what you call hipper clothing and a whipsy goatee is just as much a pop-cultural decision. We can’t float above the fray, no matter how much we tell ourselves we can.
    Your example of the mostly middle-class white church serves to show just how important this issue is. You are right, the church might look ridiculous if each member completely changed their wardrobe and facial hair choices. But what you failed to recognize (or failed to mention) is that this church is composed of mostly middle-class white people because of a set of pop-cultural decisions they have already made. It is not that they are in danger of moving from holiness to pop-cultural preferences; it is the case that they are moving from one set of pop-cultural preferences to another. And there is nothing inherently unholy about that. So I would suggest close to the opposite of what you suggested: a church ought to be self-conscious about the pop-cultural decisions it has already made (many times without thinking) and consider how it is very possible those preferences that are excluding people. To automatically assume it is the gospel that is freaking people out is to ignore the real possibility that we ourselves need to change in order to reach those we currently exclude.

    -Jeremy

  • Jeremy Reeves

    This video helped me to divest me of the idea that I can float above the fray, and put my pop-cultural decisions in appropriate context.

    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7moay_the-devil-wears-prada-cerulean-swea_fun

    -Jeremy

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Jeremy,

    I disagree. Putting a tattoo parlor in a church is a dumb thing to do because it automatically excludes more people than it includes, and it completely misses the point of gospel proclamation.

  • Jeremy Reeves

    Brad,
    Thanks for responding to my comment. Its not entirely clear to me from your comment what in my comment you are disagreeing with. I took the point of your article to be that a church should not conform itself to pop-culture trends but should focus on preaching the gospel. My point is that every church has in some way already conformed itself to pop-culture trends, even (or especially) the churches who say they are not conforming themselves to pop-culture trends. The church that is primarily composed of people who wear suits and ties to worship and the church that is primarily composed of people who wear skinny jeans and faux-hawks to worship have both adopted certain pop-cultural preferences (that was the point of my linking to The Devil Wears Prada clip). No church can say “We are not going to concern ourselves with pop-culture trends; we are going to focus on gospel proclamation”, because every church (even or especially the middle-class white church in your example) has already adopted certain pop-culture preferences: the clothes they wear, the music they sing, the language they speak, the illustrations the pastor uses in his sermons, the time they meet for worship, the style of the building, the size and design of the worship bulletin, all of these are expressions of certain cultural preferences that we all hold, largely without knowing it, and these preferences attract a certain set of people who share those preferences. When we don’t recognize this fact, we tend to elevate our preferences above others’ and use them, even unknowingly, as tools of exclusion (this is just as true of people with tattoos as people without tattoos; having or not having a tattoo is not the point). When we begin to recognize that we unavoidably have certain cultural preferences, we can begin to be aware of how we allow those preferences to negatively shape our understanding of what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a Church. And we can make room for other cultural preferences both in our churches and in our hearts, and we can begin to reshape our cultural expressions so that we can, to the best of our ability, stop excluding people who don’t share our preferences. This certainly does something that you and I agree is a good thing: it gains a wider hearing for the gospel.
    It may be true that it is not a good idea to put a tattoo parlor in a church building, but not because a church should not concern itself with pop-cultural trends, that is, not for the reason you gave.

    Thanks again,
    Jeremy

  • Ben Pitseleh

    I think part of why we get things like this popping up as issues is because we forget what a Sunday service is. We have changed church service into being the church. That is not what it should be. We view Sunday as the go to time and place for people to grow their relationship with God (either by making a commitment to him or by strengthening our relationship with him). This is true to a certain extent, and I do not knock it completely, but I view Sunday services as a time for me to come together with like minded people (i.e. believers in Jesus Christ) to honor and worship our Lord. Yes, non believers are welcome. Yes, I want them to be comfortable. But in the end if they are not then that is not my concern. The service is for God, not them. If they are uncomfortable because they are “outsiders” who don’t think and act like Christians then that is normal. I am ok with that. Again, I don’t want them to be uncomfortable, but it is natural if they are to a certain extent.
    So do I dislike evangelism? Not at all. I think that should be done outside the church though (again, I am not arguing that it shouldn’t/can’t be done in church but that shouldn’t be the focus). Guess what, if I meet with people of the world in the world, that makes sense. If I can go into a tattoo parlor and strike up conversations or relationships that lead to show how I follow Christ then great. And surly they will be comfortable on common ground, doing life just as I am. That is where we should meet and discuss and explain our lives in Christ. If they are so prompted to dig deeper, the Bible, and studies and even church can follow. We don’t need to bring stuff into the church building to make it seem relevant. God is relevant. People are either open to that or they aren’t. If they aren’t, then they probably won’t be showing up to church to investigate deeper. Therefore, a tattoo parlor (or whatever we deem) is irrelevant to the equation.
    Oh, but what about the idiosyncrasies of churches? The music, the dress code, etc… That can be figured out by the life of the church. As people gather together, again, in shared belief and worship of our Lord, then that stuff can be decided easily as a culture. On a small scale, if a couple people showed up to my house to sing worship songs, I would ask what do you like? People would respond and we would pick songs based on the responses. It is the same thing on a larger scale. People will like what they like and the culture will progress it to be what it is. So if we were all cowboys, then country style songs seem appropriate.


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