Thursday, May 9, 2013

Cultural Relevance


The following is an article written by Ed Stetzer a few years.  It is an article regarding cultural relevance with regard to the church...that is still culturally relevant. It is a bit lengthy, but hang with it -- it is worth it.  :-)

Blessings, Don

The scriptures are relevant to this and every culture. They do not need updating, correcting, or revisioning. On the contrary, what needs revisioning is our understanding and obedience to God’s word as we live out His mission in context. When we live a humble orthodoxy and humble missiology, we will be salt and light in contemporary culture—a biblically-faithful, culturally-relevant, counter culture. 

On the one hand, the church can be so focused on cultural relevance that it loses its distinctive message. Don’t think it won’t happen—it has happened to countless churches and denominations. On the other hand, it can decide that culture does not matter. That leads to a church whose message is indiscernible and obscure to those who are “outside.” Let me propose an alternative: our churches need to be biblically faithful, culturally relevant, counter-culture communities.  Not everyone buys into what I’ve just said. Whole ministries exist just to tell you not to pay attention to culture. To them, a virtuous church is one that is culturally irrelevant. In their view, a mark of holiness is not just being disconnected from sin but also being disconnected from sinners and the culture they share with us every day.

Preaching against culture is like preaching against someone’s house—it is just where they live. The house has good in it and bad in it. Overall, culture can be a mess—but (to mix metaphors) it is the water in which we swim and the lens through which we see the world. And the gospel needs to come, inhabit, and change that and every culture (or house).  Preaching against culture is not the pattern of the New Testament church (see Dean Fleming’s Contextualization in the New Testament), the historic church (see Ruth Tucker’s From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya), or today’s church (see Breaking the Missional Code).

Culture clearly does matter! For 2000 years, missionaries have courageously sought to take the message and make it understandable. Through these two millennia, changing cultures have impacted the church and its missional strategies. Conversely, in many cases, the church has also impacted culture. The reason ministry models have to change is because they have an unchanging message that must be conveyed in a changing world. That message is Christ, the gospel, and the Scriptures. Jude 3 says that we are to “contend for the faith once delivered for the saints.” That’s essential.

But, the Bible also clearly gives us a mandate to make the message understandable. We do more than just translate it into a language. We also have to translate it into a culture. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23, “I have become all things to all men.” Why? Because the message needs to be contextualized. The “how” of ministry is, in many ways, determined by the “who, when, and where” of culture. That’s also essential.  We have to both contend and contextualize. This brings a balanced focus in our proclamation and practice. When we contend for the gospel, we remain biblically faithful. When we contextualize, we communicate the message effectively. When we contend and contextualize, our churches are biblically faithful, culturally relevant, counter culture communities.

Those who preach against culture are often unaware that they live in one. But the dynamic culture around them is often not the culture of their church. What they yearn for is typically not a scriptural culture, but rather a nostalgic religious culture of days past. The irony of this is that every church is culturally relevant. It is simply a matter of whether the culture of the church is in any way similar to the culture of its community or only meaningful to itself.

Contextualizing does not mean that your church needs to look like Northpoint (Atlanta) or Mosaic (LA). It may mean something very different, and a culturally relevant church in your community may look very different from culturally relevant churches in other communities. Yet, many of us miss that. Why? Because too many leaders pastor their churches in their heads and not in their communities. But the truth is, if you can’t pastor the people God has given you (not the ones He’s given Andy Stanley or Erwin McManus), then you don’t love them. John Knox said, “Give me Scotland or I die.” He had a passion for the people of Scotland. We need to have the same passion for the people where we are, and to love them and their culture (though parts of every culture should make you uneasy and call for a biblical critique—see Acts 17 and my message from The Resurgence conference).  The alternative to this kind of passion is “community lust” and “demographic envy.” Lots of pastors are lusting for someone else’s community. They want a church that is culturally relevant to Los Angeles, Seattle, or New York even though they live in Des Moines, Iowa. But that’s not the answer.

Biblically FaithfulBefore anything else, the church and its ministry must be biblically faithful. A lot of great conferences on creativity and ministry are helpful. But, we need to remember that our purpose is to apply that creativity in biblically and culturally relevant ways. The reason we engage culture is not to be cool, trendy, contemporary, or cutting edge—words that have become idols to us—but so that those who live in culture can hear the message of Jesus. That message is more than just “come to Christ,” it involves how we live and structure our lives, and it matters deeply. Our churches should share the gospel message wherever they are and whatever their cultural context. They should be known as people who love God’s Word and seek to live differently because of it.

Culturally RelevantChurches that are biblically faithful to Gods mission will work to relate to people in culture. We who are Christians should look similar to, but not be identical to, our culture. If we dont, people will assume that being a Christian simply means being different—dressing differently, listening to different music styles, and voting the same way. They’ll confuse Christianity with a change of clothes, music, and political party registration. That means that Christians should use language, dress, and live life in the “house” of culture, while living differently because they are in the family of God.

Counter CultureJesus said that we should be in the world but not of the world. Many churches today do just the opposite. They are “of” the world but not “in” it. We must teach people to look similar to the world, but live differently. Most churches in the U.S. today do just the opposite.  For example, born—again Christians divorce at a higher rate than the unchurched, while many of their church services feel like a trip to a museum. It’s like going back to a time when culture was more “holy” and divorce was unheard of. Today, we’ve kept the museum culture but jettisoned the biblical morality—the wrong choice. Rather, Christians should be counter culture—in family life, values, finances, and every other aspect of their lives. They should reflect their culture while living in contrast to that culture.

Why, if we have the timeless truth of the gospel, do we need to concern ourselves with culturally relevant ministry? Because if we don’t, the message of the gospel gets confused with the cultures of old. The unchurched think that Christianity is a retrograde culture rather than a living faith. Our job is to remove the “extra” stumbling blocks of culture without removing the essential stumbling block of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:23). Unfortunately, the stumbling block of the cross has too often been replaced by the stumbling block of the church. Most people aren’t being recruited by other religions; they are being confused by the practice of ours.

The easy route is to go to a conference, read a book, and create a great church “in your head”—a cutting edge, cool, trendy, and contemporary church. But the biblical route is found in Paul’s activities in Acts 17. Wander through your Athens. Look at the cultural idols. Let this break your heart and burden your mind. Let godly passion drive you to say “Give me Athens or I die.” Then confidently take the gospel to those who’ll see its uncluttered message, trust its validity, and receive its Savior—Jesus Christ.

Ed Stetzer serves as the Missiologist and Senior Director of the Center for Missional Research at the North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, GA and co-pastor of Lake Ridge Church in suburban Atlanta. His most recent books are Breaking the Missional Code (w/ David Putman, 2006) and Planting Missional Churches (2006).  

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