Is the Church Supposed to Be Culturally Relevant?
Relevant! This word should win the prize for the most common Christian Buzzword of the Twenty-first Century. Cultural relevance has become a battle cry for some and a frustration for others. Are we expected to keep up with a culture that redefines itself every couple years? How much do we change to relate to a culture that has entered a post-Christian era? Should we be willing to sacrifice more or hold firm to our traditional standards and practices?
What do you think?
One or the other?
I’m not sure, either. But here are some real life questions people keep asking:
- Is it OK to have a musician on the worship team that has not yet made a commitment to Christ?
- Is it OK to include into membership an unmarried couple that live together?
- Is it OK to have an openly gay person volunteer in the food pantry?
- Should we scrap all the church’s ancient traditions and replace them with contemporary symbols?
- Is it OK to preach about judgment and hell or should we talk more about God’s love and going to heaven?
- Is it acceptable to enforce a code of conduct as a basis of participation in church membership?
- Is it OK to intentionally be entertaining to get people in the building?
- Is the Sunday morning service for attracting seekers or strengthening saints?
- And how about that one dear saint that scares people when they pray, should we shut them up or just let them go?
In recent years pastors in America have consistently been told that they and their congregations need to be more relevant with culture in order to reach it. That’s why many leaders are grappling with these questions. Following the advice of so-called experts and the examples of celebrity pastors, we’ve become cool, casual and consensual. First, we exchanged hymns for worship songs, giving Aunt Mabel and her organ the boot. Then we threw out old religious relics and modernized our worship space. Rules were restrictive and passé so we either changed them or replaced them with grace and freedom for everyone. Pastors needed a makeover so we got piercings and tattoos, started wearing jeans and plaid shirts, reintroduced Chuck Taylors, dumbed down the message, put the scriptures on the screens so people wouldn’t need Bibles, reinvented our language and became what the culture needed.
Or did we?
How’s this working out for us?
After spending all this time and energy trying to be relevant, has the church gained ground or lost it? Has the church’s influence in the culture increased or decreased? In our attempts to become relevant, have we gained distinction or lost it? Has the church transformed culture or has the culture transformed the church? Have we blended in so well with the culture that we have finally become unnoticed and irrelevant chameleons?
But on the other hand, the last thing we want to be is outdated, archaic and antiquated! Right? It’s happened before. We’ve seen it. Ministers and their churches fade away, having refused to change and keep up with the times. Walking into their buildings and experiencing their services is like entering a time capsule. No one except the people who created that environment cares to experience it. It’s the land that time forgot – and so did the community around them! Nobody even notices they exist anymore. They are, dare I say, irrelevant.
This is why we must investigate this critical subject with honesty and objectivity.
How can we reach contemporary culture in a practical way while remaining securely tethered to Biblical truth?
This is the central question!
WHERE CULTURAL RELEVANCY GOT ITS START
Let’s back up and ask where the idea of harmonizing the teachings of Christ with contemporary culture came from. Believe it or not, it came from Paul and the First Century Church. While the church was still an infantile offshoot of Judaism, led primarily by Jewish believers, a group of people began testing ways to make it more relevant to modern Greco-Roman culture.
Cultural Relevance in the City of Antioch
Almost immediately as the gospel reached beyond the borders of Israel, cultural relevancy became an issue. It was in Antioch, a city settled by one of the four generals of Alexander the Great, where followers of Christ were first called Christians and cultural relevance got its start.
The church at Antioch was largely comprised of Gentile believers. In their midst, a Christian worldview began to percolate that included Jewish conservatism with Greek pragmatism. The result was a Spirit-filled church that looked for ways to expand and take the gospel to places it otherwise could not have gone. The church in Antioch quickly became the seedbed for a new progressive methodology that lent itself to Greco-Roman Culture. Originally invited by Barnabas for a visit, Paul the Apostle found a home in this vibrant community and made it the headquarters of his worldwide Gentile ministry.
Cultural Relevance and the Apostle Paul
No other Jewish leader was able to shrink the gap between the church’s original Jewishness and its future in the Greco-Roman world like Paul. His upbringing in the cosmopolitan city of Tarsus exposed him to the nuances of Greco-Roman culture while his religious training in Jerusalem gave him the doctrinal foundations needed to formulate Christian theology and practice. He comfortably navigated both worlds, eventually blending them into a single entity called the Church that stretched from the palaces of Rome to the temple in Jerusalem.
In describing his ability to be cross-cultural, Paul wrote in I Corinthians 9:19-23, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.”
Paul was able to use things familiar to the general public that made the new Christian message more palatable. In his book, “The Cities that Built the Bible,” former UCLA professor Dr. Robert R Cargill attributes a number of Paul’s sayings in scripture to Greek origins. For instance, he cites I Corinthians 15:33 where Paul says, “bad company corrupts good habits” as sounding strikingly similar to the words of Greek tragedian, Euripides who wrote in Fifth Century B.C., “Evil communication corrupts good manners.” Was this Paul’s way of using the familiar language of his audience to put forth the message of Jesus?
Cargill goes on to cite several examples where Paul uses phrases that sound almost identical to those of Plato. Like Philippians 1:21 where Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” is very close to Plato’s statement, “Now if death is like this, to die is gain.” Or when Paul says, “See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone” in I Thessalonians 5:15 sounds very close to Plato when he said, “Then we ought neither to requite wrong with wrong.” He also gives I Corinthians 9:24 as an example where Paul says, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.” These words are very similar to what Plato said in most famous work, the Republic, where he writes, “But the true runners when they have come to the goal receive the prizes and bear away the crown.”
Probably the best example of Paul using contemporary culture to reinforce his message was his speech at Mars Hill in Athens. He openly quotes Greek poets in saying, “For in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring (Acts 17:28).’” According to Dr. Cargill, this is a direct quote from the poet Aratus of Soli who wrote some 300 years earlier, “For we are also His offspring.”
There’s no doubt that Paul intentionally became relevant to the contemporary culture of his day, knowing that he had to bring the message of Jesus to non-Jewish people in a way they could understand it. Doing this, Paul impacted the entirety of the Roman Empire with the Gospel. He brought Judeo-Christian ethics into the Greco-Roman world so thoroughly that it became the foundational moral tenet of Western Cavitation. One cannot argue with his success.
Cultural Relevance in The Enlightenment
Even though Paul succeeded in his mission, the challenge of the church to remain relevant to various cultures continued. The next great challenge came during the Enlightenment. After Gutenberg invented the printing press, an increasingly literate population in Europe began questioning many of the church’s traditions and practices. At the same time, individual nations began to form greater independent identities apart from their inclusion in the crumbling Holy Roman Empire. As a result, nations were quick to embrace the new message of the Reformers and break ties with the Vatican. This created a cultural shift in Europe that imposed on the church, both Protestant and Catholic, a greater need for cultural relevance. Now, the gospel had to accommodate many cultures in specific nations of Europe. Great Britain among all the European Empires may have been the best at embracing this change and positioning the church to capitalize on it. As they colonized the world with British culture, the practices of the Church of England were established along with it.
Cultural Relevance in The Industrial Revolution
The next great challenge to the church’s cultural relevance took place a century after the Enlightenment. The Industrial Revolution in the Nineteenth Century impacted nations, cities, communities, families and individual workers like no other social force in history. Its impact on Western Culture cannot be overstated.
Until the Industrial Revolution, local church practices had not changed much over the 1,900 years of church history. While the Reformers brought new doctrinal changes to the church, the liturgies, traditions and worship services were all basically as they had been for fifteen centuries. But as the Industrial Revolution made populations more mobile, cities more populated and people more economically stable, the seeds of the church’s change were planted.
During this time, average congregations grew in size, being financially supported by the new middle class. No longer associated with the nations that supported them, churches became more indigenous, more focused on their local community. This meant that churches became more self-sustaining and less reliant on government funding and control of wealthy families. Church services and sermons became more populist and appealing to the public as a result. Or, to use our own phraseology, they became more culturally relevant. No longer overshadowed by centralized governments, local churches were free to cater to the popular interests of the people.
Cultural Relevance in the Age of Mass Media
While previous cultural forces that impacted the church took centuries to unfold, after the Industrial Revolution, these changes came in the span of decades and even years. The seeds of populism in the church planted in the late Nineteenth Century came to full bloom in a mere 50 years later in the mid Twentieth Century. At that time, mass media was changing the landscape of America and many pastors found themselves attaining celebrity status. Evangelistic crusades and healing revivals drew masses of people watching in person while many more thousands were tuning in on radio or watching on television. The era of Christian celebrity was born.
In the wake of such populism dominating the church, local churches had to scramble to meet the demand of people who wanted to see local productions that matched those they were seeing in coliseums or on TV. Flamboyancy replaced intellectualism in the pulpit while music leaders felt the pressure to produce musical extravaganzas on a weekly basis. With an increasing diet of easily accessible televised talent, many churches felt the pressure to be more entertainment-driven to keep pace with society’s demands. The Golden Age of Television and Movies was shaping the American culture and the church along with it. Being culturally relevant was directly associated with one’s ability to mimic the glamour that was being portrayed on television and movie screens across America.
Cultural Relevance in the Cultural Revolution
Cultural relevance then went into hyper-drive as we entered the Sixties. During this time, the most cataclysmic cultural shift in modern times took place. This is when pop culture, as we know it, was born. And the church began feeling the immense pressure to conform to it almost immediately.
In the book, God’s Forever Family, author Larry Eskridge examines the extreme impact that young Christians had on the church at that time. Before then, youth culture did not exist in the church. Families came to church together and listened to the same sermons and sang the same songs. But after the 1960’s, contemporary Christian music was born, modern praise and worship took shape, youth groups and children’s church came into being, church decor changed, service structure was reformed and casual come-as-you-are dress became popular. According to Eskridge, these were all direct influences of the Jesus People Movement that arose from the Sixties and came of age in the 1970’s.
Cultural Relevance in the Twenty-first Century
Fast-forward to today - the Twenty-first Century. As the culture in America continued to morph and change with greater rapidity, Madison Avenue Advertising agencies are fueling the change and banking on the results. During the last five decades, mass advertising has become a psychological art form (catch a few episodes of Madmen on Netflix to see how it all began). Consumerism has exploded as hairstyles, clothing designs, car body types and music styles morph and change yearly to keep consumers buying. As Heidi Klum used to famously declare on Project Runway, “One day you’re in, the next day you’re out.” And she’s right! Our entire economy rests upon the discontentment of the American consumer and fueling this dissatisfaction is a nonstop advertising industry designed to keep us purchasing.
American’s ability to stick with anything too long has disappeared. The messaging and packaging from everything from breakfast cereals to politics has to be constantly evolving in order to hold the public’s attention. We have a collective case of ADD. Today, millions of voices are vying for our attention as the shared boredom of American citizens has reached epidemic proportion. This has resulted in an incessant search for what is new and fashionable. Driven by social unhappiness, Americans have become obsessed with the newest clothes, coolest devices, nicest cars, greatest friends, trendiest spouses and hippest churches in the world.
What has driven American culture for decades is now driving the church. Pastors and congregations feel the pressure to keep up with the entertainment industry of American with only a fraction of the budget. We devour the pages of People Magazine trying to find who’s hot and who’s not so we can mimic them. We keep up with fashion tabloids so we know how to dress. We scour the Internet to find what’s trending for our next sermon title. We visit the hottest clubs in town so we know how to decorate our sanctuaries. Sadly, by the time we figure out what’s trending and make the necessary changes to accommodate it, the culture has shifted again and we start the process all over.
So how far is too far?
Should we try to be relevant in this fashion?
Is there a better way?
What’s your opinion?
Join the conversation!