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!"