This week I have had a couple of people ask “what do you mean by being culturally relevant?”. It’s a good question. For some the concern in such a phrase is that the church will be weak on certain things for the sake of not offending the culture. I understand this concern! You need only look around briefly to see churches that have compromised, whether it be on their stance on certain sins, the exclusivity of Christ as the way to God, or even a dismissal of certain essential elements of worship.
So to answer what do we mean by culturally relevant - let me first of all make clear two things we do not mean by being culturally relevant.
First we do not mean to say the bible needs to be made relevant. The bible could not be more relevant to our culture! From its opening pages it speaks of a people who reject God and his rule in favour of pursuing their own ’sovereignty’, their own truth, and their own standard of what is good and evil; and proclaims from the first page who the rescuer is - the word who brings light and life out of darkness. We don’t need to make the bible relevant, however, what we may have to do for many people is show how it is relevant. For someone who has never read the bible, probably never even been to church; for someone who is not familiar with the stories of the bible, never mind the gospel, we need to show them how and why the bible is relevant to them and their world. A world they assume is a million miles away from the world of the biblical writers. And so we need to do some teaching, and we need to consider how we present the bible, so that it is understood by the culture we are surrounded by.
Secondly we do not mean that our top priority is not to offend people, because the Gospel offends! We will be offensive - we just want to make sure it is in the right ways, and for the right reasons. We know that to eliminate the offence of the gospel is to preach a false gospel. However we do not want to offend in any other way! If people are going to reject the gospel, we want it to be because they cannot stomach the truth that they are fallen and sinful and deserving of Hell; because we are saying Jesus is the only way, and they cannot tolerate the exclusivity of that claim. We don’t want people rejecting the gospel because the steward on the door asked them to take their hat off in church, or because we are so bothered by their sexuality we never want to talk to them about anything else.
So what do we mean? Well, there are many things in the bible that are non-negotiable, but, arguably (and people do…) there are many things that are just not addressed in scripture. To use a ridiculous example we know, in light of one of God’s first actions after the fall, that we should wear clothes and cover up - but the bible says nothing to prescribe the colour or style of our clothes. Likewise, in our worship gatherings we know that singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs is a good thing to do, and should regularly be a part of our worship - but it makes no mention as to whether we should use instruments or not, and if so which ones we should use (although again many would argue until they are blue in the face that the organ is the only holy means of music…).
So - if God has not explicitly spoken on something in scripture, we should be very careful about making judgments about things that are, and are not allowed. And it allows for many different ways to do a lot of things, as individual christians, and as a church. So what should be the deciding factor? What is it that should help us decide what, out of a list of permitted options, we should do in any area of church life. I think Paul helps us think this through in 1Cor 9:
'For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.'
What is clear at the very least here, is that Paul changed the way he did things - in order to share the gospel. In a very real sense, Paul was ‘seeker sensitive’… he was sensitive to the culture and burdens of the people he was talking to. In certain ways he ‘became like them’ - and it is our conviction that our ministries must take a similar shape.
We must constantly be assessing how we do things, why we do them and how fruitful are they. If the answer is ‘this thing is not very fruitful, but the bible is clear we must do it that way’ - we don’t change it, we are not driven by pragmatism. But it is not wrong to consider what is pragmatic. If the answer to an evaluation is ‘this is not very fruitful, but the bible has nothing explicit to say on this issue’ - then change it quick! Within the bounds of biblical wisdom.
Basically what it comes down to is something Jonathan Stephen shared with me when I was looking around Union School of Theology before I applied. Talking about church he said, ‘you’ve got two buckets - bucket one is things that must never change; the gospel, inerrancy of scripture etc. would go in this one. But in your second bucket is, not things that can change, but things that must always change… much of church leadership is about working out which bucket everything goes into…’
There is a whole load of things in bucket one - but arguably, there is a whole lot more that goes in bucket two. We want to hold the things in bucket two very lightly. These are the things we think can, and should be different in every church. We (hopefully) wouldn’t require that a church in Malawi, or Brazil look exactly like a Church in Worthing! We would expect that their manner of dress and expression would be very different; we would expect that the way they meet unbelievers, and share the gospel with them would be different - and it would be wrong for us to impose the ‘Worthing’ model onto them. In the same way, why would we expect that a church in Halifax would look the same as a church in Devon? Or why would we think a church in the 21st century should be like one from the 18th or 19th?
We live in a post-christian culture, and so we need to cut out the ‘christianese’. We need to realise that no one shares our ‘values’ no one thinks anywhere near our worldview and they are not voluntarily walking into our dusty buildings on a Sunday morning. We need to get out there and get busy with the work of being culturally relevant, and yet completely distinctive! We need to be distinctive because of the message we proclaim, not because we wear socks and sandals…
Soli Deo Gloria!