Cultural Relevance

Posted in body of Christ, christian habits, christian thought, cultural relevance by Nathan Creitz on November 7, 2008

Before I publish the second part of my book review on Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today by John Stott, I wanted to address a habit that I’ve seen percolating in the Church today. Stott suggests that for a preacher to be relevant, we must understand the Word and the world. We need to be “bridge-builders” with one foot in the ancient world and one foot in modern culture. Seminary teaches a lot about how to understand the context and culture in which the Bible was written. We learn Hebrew and Greek so that we can understand the historical, grammatical, and lexical data of the text.

But how do we get a better understanding of modern culture? How do we connect with people and share with them the truth of God’s love?

I think the answer is obvious but too many people think they know the answer and that the answer is to watch more movies, wear cool glasses and hats, sip frothy lattes, and immerse themselves in CNN and the New York Times. I love what Ed Stetzer had to say today. He said, “Seems like everyone wants to be missional but when they say “missional” they really mean “edgy,” “innovative,” or “contemporary.” We want to connect with the culture but we are going about it in the wrong way. 

Before I give THE answer to the question, “How can we better understand and connect with culture?”, let me first point out the pitfalls that many of my Christian brothers and sisters are falling into:

Watch What They Are Watching

Watch more movies, that’s the answer! Right? TV and movies can provide a glimpse into the thinking of the culture. Movies like Religulous show us how Christianity is perceived and points out some of our own faults as well. Movies like Napolean Dynamite generate a cult following that has glamorized the life of the nerd. TV shows like Friends and Sex in the City have influenced culture and have changed the way we think about sex and relationships. Pop culture influences general culture but that’s not all there is to it. 

Let me be clear: Watching more movies will not make Christianity more relevant to the world. Today, a guy named Nick quoted John Piper who encourages us to “turn off the television”. We are wasting our time watching hours and hours of TV and we are justifying it by saying we are trying to understand our culture. I’m not suggesting that movies don’t provide some insight and that we should throw away our TVs. My wife and I have Netflix and watch about one movie per week (which is probably a lot by some standards). I watch a couple of news videos online about five days a week (that way I don’t have to watch the stories that are of no interest to me) and we might watch one or two shows a week on TV. Our TV is probably used a grand total of 4 hours per week. We don’t even have cable. 

I’m not asking for a pat on the back. I said all of that to say that I like what Erwin McManus says about being a connoisseur of information rather than a consumer. In an age of information and sensory overload we have to limit our intake to a few choice servings so that we don’t get so saturated with information that we can’t make sense of it all. My wife and I try to spend time with friends, play games, go for walks, etc. rather than just let the TV do all of our entertainment. That way, we don’t have to make excuses for the amount of time that we waste on TV by saying “we’re trying to understand the culture better.” I’ll never understand culture better if I just let culture happen on the screen in front of me.

Understand What They Are Thinking

Another way people try to get a pulse on the culture is by studying philosophy and world-views. This is of definite interest to me as a thinking Christian and enjoy reading and discussing this stuff all the time. I like to study other religions and compare and contrast that with the Bible as an exercise in discipline. I try to engage my mind and the minds of others as I read both Christian thinkers and secular philosophers. But this isn’t the answer either.

Is it helpful to understand postmodernism and how it differs from modernism? Is it helpful to study the various generations (millenials, boomers, busters, etc.) and how they act and think? Is it helpful to compare world-views and study various religions? Should we have an understanding of politics and global interconnectivity? Yes is the answer to all of those questions. These are helpful things to know but they are not necessary for understanding culture. A follower of Jesus can relevantly reach out to the culture without ever hearing the term “postmodern” much less study it and be an expert on it. A person can engage culture and never think through the characteristics of a postmodern world-view. 

Condemn What They Are Doing

One other way people try and engage culture is by yelling at them. I don’t see Jesus holding any signs by the side of the road cursing people for their sin. Yet, there are people who don’t care to watch the “devil’s box” or try and understand what the culture is thinking. They would rather “engage” culture by simply bashing a 50 pound King James Bible over their heads and condemn them all to hell. Many of these “Christians” seem to have little concern about what people need. They prefer to keep the world at arms length and believe they are holy and blameless and are doing God’s work by shouting at people about their doom. Is there ever a time when we should confront someone on an issue that we know is displeasing to God? Yes, but I believe the best way to do that is in the context of a relationship, which brings us to THE way to understand and connect with culture:

Share Your Life With Them

If you are a thinking Christian and you are concerned about the ethos of the Church (that is, the habits and the way of life of God’s family and the character and reputation that we have with those outside the Church) then you have probably already intuitively guessed the right way to understand the culture around us. It’s simple: Share your life with them! That’s right, you have to know people. The best way to understand culture is to build relationships with your neighbors and co-workers. Go to parties, participate in school activities. Don’t do it with some ulterior motive to win them to Christ. Simply get to know them. Enjoy the relationship. Don’t try and perform or convert. Be yourself. Listen to their hopes and fears and dreams and convictions. Share with them your hopes and fears and dreams and convictions. Be a friend. Laugh and cry with them.

Colossians 4:5 says, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.” Stop wasting your time “brushing up” on culture through stuffy books and pointless movies. Plant your foot firmly in the Word of God and the other foot firmly in the world in which you live. Live out your convictions and your faith but don’t push people away. Think Christianly about your relationships. Relationships take time and people want to know that you care about them and not just about getting another convert for Jesus.

It’s interesting that In Luke 10 Jesus says we should love our neighbor as ourselves. When asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. A person from a different culture and a different world-view helps a man who is in need. He sacrifices his time, money, and maybe even reputation by helping this man. When the religious leaders pass by on the other side, it is the Good Samaritan who stops and helps. Jesus spent a lot of time with “tax collectors and sinners” and he was rejected by religious leaders as a result. He did it, not to understand them or to be like them, but to love them and to develop a relationship with them. Shouldn’t we do the same? Let’s determine how we should act and what habits we should form by what Jesus said and did. How did he become relevant to culture?

Jesus was relevant because he was relational. Share your life with others. Love God and Love People. This is the WAY we should LIVE.

Related Post: What is ChurchETHOS?

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2 Responses

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  1. Will Humes said, on November 7, 2008 at 11.07 am

    Thanks for this thoughtful and useful post.

  2. Tim said, on November 8, 2008 at 5.49 pm

    I agree. I think living culturally relevantly basically means just be a friend to your neighbor. It doesn’t mean you have to watch all the new movies, wear certain clothes, or talk shop. It means you are there for your neighbors when it counts, without trying to relate everything in yours and their life back to Christianity. Doing so makes us seem unreal, like we don’t understand anything in life outside the influence of the church. That doesn’t mean we have to dumb ourselves down. If theres anything we could learn from this last election it is painting yourself as the average Joe, makes you seem ignorant and unqualified to be a leader.

    Love your neighbor, be there for them, and when opportunities arise, real opportunities, share the gospel.

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