cultural relevance

August 4, 2004 | 5 Comments

Been thinking and reading a lot about cultural relevance the past few months, and what exactly that means. A conversation over lunch with a good friend helped me sort out some thoughts on the subject.

Though cultural relevance is a widely used term, it seems to me that we don’t all mean the same thing by it. From my conversation and study, I see two different thought pattern’s that can be used to define this term.

The first pattern is what I will call embracing the culture. This is where we, as Jesus followers, study the culture with the intent of adopting it for our own purposes. We try to present the message of Jesus in packaging that makes it look very much like what people see all around in the world they live in. This perhaps can be summed up in this term: "People who like Abercrombie & Fitch will listen to me talk about Jesus if I am wearing Abercrombie & Fitch." (The fact that I first typed "Ambercrombie & Fitch" shows how irrelevant I must be.) Of course, there are many ways people try to do this besides just clothing. The danger in this is that we can seem no different than anyone else, except for the fact that we have a few extra words in our vocabulary, or we are just really cheesy and lame. This same principle happens in Judaism, and Douglas Rushkoff presents a great question in Nothing Sacred*: "Mightn’t spirituality best be a relief from the endless pursuit of cool instead of a celebration of its most intimidating features?"

The second option, which I favor, I will call engaging the culture. In this form of cultural relevance, we understand that we not are trying to bring Jesus into the world, but that he is already at work there. We participate, where appropriate, in the culture to see where and how Jesus is already at work. We then use this to point others toward Jesus. The obvious, and oft-used, example of this is found in Acts 17 as Paul uses their own beliefs to show the members of the Areopagus how God has been at work among them for centuries. (For an excellent study of the background of this story, see the first chapter or so of Eternity in Their Hearts by Don Richardson.) As Jesus followers, we know that God is at work everywhere, though it may be beneath the surface and not apparent to those who aren’t aware of his work. His work is, so to speak, subversive. It is our job to know him well enough to see his work as it happens and reveal it to those who experience it. In a recent sermon, Ron Martoia stated that he thinks God is at work more outside the church than he is inside. That might be too strong for many, but we certainly make a mistake if we think God is somehow limited to only being at work within a five-foot radius of those who call themselves his followers.

*You: "Enough of Rushkoff already!"
Me: "Get off me! I told you there would probably be more last time I quoted him!"

  • guest

    Yes God works amongst those who are not his followers to bring them to him, and is certainly not present in all the church, but the danger I see in this belief that God is already at work in culture is simply this. Culture is full of problems and troubles that could easily place it on a par with sodom and gomorrah. eg drugs, alcohol, prostitution, violence, shootings, rape etc. Jesus came to transform all that, not just to make people feel comfortable that he is already there in it.

    I wonder sometimes though if when people talk of culture they are not talking about these realities and are more talking about things like movies and football. If that is the case, then we are talking about different things, but the culture that I live and work in needs transformation by God, and it may even be described as godless in many ways.


  • Lucy,
    Thanks for commenting — nice to have someone who doesn’t agree with all I have to say.

    I wholeheartedly agree that the culture(s) of this world need to be transformed by God. I believe that is in fact why we are here. My point is that God isn’t absent from them. We need to recognize where he is, and use that to reveal him.

    My neighbor has never really attended church in his life until recently. However, he does understand love for others and the value of it. Rather than try to show him areas of his life that are corrupt, I would say I am far better off acknowledging what values that he has which I agree with, and moving from there. He holds these values because he too is made in the image of God, and there are uncorrupted portions of that image that are still in him. Once we see where he (and others) are whole, we can begin the process of healing the other parts.

  • guest

    🙂 Yes I think we’re on common ground on that. In practice, displaying the love of Christ to that world is what brings people to Christ. Sometimes it’s approriate to confront people on certain things, but it has to be at God’s leading whatever we do.

    I just think it’s important for us to be clear about what are the real problems facing us and the world around us.


  • guest

    Like your thoughts here. I especially appreciated what you said about Jesus being already at work wherever we go. I just finished Robert Capon’s book, The Parables of the Kingdom. In it Capon discusses the significance of seed being sown in the whole field or the man buying the entire field, not just that around the treasure. The fact is that God is at work all over the world. Isn’t it great when we catch up?

  • Thanks for your comments. I can claim that very little of this thinking is original with me, but it certainly resonates with me! I’ve heard good stuff about Capon, though I haven’t read him yet. A few of his books are on my wish list. If you’ve read more than just that one, can you recommend a good one to start with?