There is so much blah, blah, blah, blah about Christians being relevant in today’s culture. The desire to be cool, liked, etc. among some in the Christian universe sometimes gets very silly. I want to make a few distinctions that may help those wanting to connect the gospel of Jesus with others…so we are not weird cultural aliens from the 1920s nor are we turn coat punks denying the faith in order to be “with it”
First, one needs to look at the word “relevant.”
By relevance, usually what one means is being able to connect with the world around you in a way that as culturally and socially acceptable. However, what sometimes happens is that people become trend followers, jumping from the new, to the hip, to the new hip-hip new.
We need to be more like the world around us so people will want to “come in” – so they would be attracted to what is going on with the Christians. Problem is it can all be pretty inauthentic – and to be honest it can get quite weird. Many times if relevance becomes the only all encompassing goal, syncretism and worldliness usually are following the parade. The spirit or soul of the world around us can capture the hearts of people so much that we really do not long for the realization of the Kingdom of God.
Simon Weil rightly said “He who marries himself to the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.” The Scriptures also warn us from getting too much in bed with the world. When we get married to the world – we quickly realize we have married a whore, a union which can turn out to be enmity, hatred towards God.
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.So what should we do? First, we have to realize that culture matters. The language of the people, the forms of a people, the art, entertainment, literature, technology, relationships, patterns of family, of a people really matter. There are no people who do not live in culture. Jesus himself became incarnate into a culture – that was Jewish, in a Hellenized world, under the rule of the Roman Empire…James 4:4 (ESV)
So rather than a people trying to be “relevant to” a culture – we seek a more excellent way. We desire to bring a gospel driven, kingdom culture to bear within and through the cultures of the world. This leads us to a slightly different idea than sprinting on the tread mill running after the gods of relevance. A principle long discussed with those in cross cultural mission - that of contextualizaton…
Culture is simply the learned design or pattern of living for a particular group of folks. It is learned, it is the air we breathe, and the water we swim in…it is the life we live. We all live in culture…and we need to realize that most of culture is not antithetical to the theological truths and ethical implications of the gospel. As much as we may not like it God is not absolutely opposed to NASCAR or Football (or Soccer her in America). As much as we may not like it…biblically, it really doesn’t matter if you use chop sticks to eat rice, or a knife and fork to eat Spam. Blue grass music or hip hop (yes, both can have eeeevil lyrics, but they also can sing to sweet Jesus as well), wear blue jeans or saris to church.
So the goal is not to create goofy Christian subculture, but to embrace aspects of culture and live modestly there. In fact, Christians should not ask converts to leave nonsinful aspects of culture to “come out” into whatever sub culture they have created (like a culture where wine at communion will make people “stumble”). Many times we create culture that is not at all biblical and call people to that rather than to Jesus. Thou shalt not dance? Uh, I’m still looking for verses on that one.
I recently listened to a message by Ed Stetzer about viewing culture as a follower of Jesus. Quoting Robert McQuilkin, three paths were highlighted which I will paraphrase the best I can:
- Much of culture we can receive – there is a good thing to the old saying “when in Rome” – not the sinful stuff of Rome, but living in that world. The apostle said he wanted to “become all things to all men so by all possible means we might save same…I do this for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor 9). For the sake of the gospel missionaries in China eat with Chinese people in a chinese way…this is not controversial, but it makes some a bit nervous. Thinking if you have an electric guitar in church, or don’t wear a Western European inspired suit and tie in church, it is somehow worldly.
- Some of culture should be redeemed. For example, our culture may be a perverted culture in relationship to sexuality. But that does not mean sex is bad – sex in our culture needs redemption, not rejection. It needs the context of covenant not “with whoever consents.” The same might be said for good, dark, beer – it needs the redemption of moderation not the excess of drunkenness.
- Finally, some things of culture must be absolutely rejected. There are some aspects of culture that are sinful and evil and cannot be adapted or redeemed. We repent of this and change. This is true in cross cultural missions, where missionaries rightly opposed such cultural practices as sati, or child sacrifice. It is true for the church in culture today. We simply do not have “current hookers reaching hookers for Jesus” or “Misogynist Wife Beaters for Christ” or "Crack dealers dealing so they can witness to drug addicts" – it is on issues of sin where Christians have to hold the lines of biblical truth and not waver – even where there is extreme cultural pressure to punt. “We’re queer, we’re here, get used to it” – no, we love you, but we can not applaud. We weep with you and love you – but we cannot go the distance to be welcoming and "affirming". We will welcome, but we cannot celebrate. Certain elements in culture are challenged, rebuked, and must be changed in the light of the gospel. We all need to repent of our cultural junk…including Christian cultural junk that is neither Christian, nor in the Scriptures.
[Gospel + Church – Culture = Separatist Fundamentalism]
[Church + Culture – Gospel = Syncretistic Worldly Theological Liberalism]
The equation which is a difficult balance would be:
Gospel + Church + Culture = Reformission (missional and faithful, reaching out without selling out)
Another author, Os Guinness echoes a similar call in his book Prophetic Untimeliness – which is to seek relevance with faithfulness – sound easy? It is not. Not for sinful human beings at least. There will always be a great need for wisdom and the leading of the Spirit and the Word.
In that book Guinness recommends a great course for our age. We must be prophetic to be able to call people to a different life, a different Kingdom, and a different God. If we become captured by the world we loose our voice to call people to repentance and faith – to follow Jesus rather than the gods of our making. We need to be untimely in that though we live in culture now, we speak a message from the eternal God. The Word of God speaks from outside human experience, into our lives in culture and confronts us, shakes us, challenges and redeems us by grace. We then love differently, we care differently, and we suffer for others for the sake of Jesus.
This sort of path keeps us on mission in culture, yet faithful to God and the Scriptures. Sometimes we need a course correction either side. We are too worldly and are loosing faithfulness or we are too inflexible in things which are cultural that we become dead people who hold right beliefs but are not on mission…
Some of us are joyfully "Not of the world" but need to "get into life with people" for the gospel. Some of us are too "in the world" and need to be called out.
It is my prayer that I can be utterly faithful and utterly faithful to reach out to people in a way that connects. This ain’t easy – in fact we need wisdom to walk this path.