(Lisa Robinson)

Every Sunday morning, I am transported to another place in time. There are no contemporary aesthetics, only architecture and relics that scream “church”. The pastor does not stand on a stage with cool graphics flashing in the background and deliver his sermon from a little round cafe table or no table at all. He stands behind a big wooden pulpit, you know the kind that churches used to use. The music consists of a blend of hymns (sung classic style) and more contemporary songs…well contemporary for 40 years ago. There’s no big screens to follow along, only hymn books and our worship guide. And there is an organ! When the pastor preaches, he does not bring up props or gimmicks and try to make the message cool. He exposits from a carefully selected text and preaches the word. He’ll use personal anecdotes only sparingly as it assists in the explanation of the text.

Now admittedly, I am new to the church. But I’ve been at this type of church before – small and seemingly unappealing to contemporary sensibilities (some differences in affiliation).  Yet, these two churches are probably the best I’ve encountered for progress in the faith. Why? Because I believe the focus is where it needed to be – on feeding the faith of God’s gathered people through gospel-centered preaching, rich biblical studies and the provoking of genuine fellowship. It hit me a couple of weeks ago that if someone who is accustomed to cool, hip, “culturally relevant” churches were to come into these folds, they might be turned off and wonder why the church is so far behind. There might be the question of how these kind of churches will attract people to them since they don’t have any symbolism of contemporary culture.

Tim’s video on not competing with the Superbowl plucked at some strings that have been bothering me for some time, which is this observation: there seems to be this prevailing mindset that if we don’t make the church culturally relevant that we might lose people. It can become the driving force. Buildings must look aesthetically pleasing. There must be the latest technology flashing cool graphics. Sancturaries…oops I mean worship centers must situate people comfortably and look modern. Preaching is designed to connect people through language and stories that appeal to our human sensibilities. Topical preaching is designed to show people how to cope with life in ways that are relevant, preaching relevant topics as one my friends said today on Facebook “series about raising children, spiritual disciples that I fail at, character improvement that I can’t muster up, a new series about erasing world poverty, based on the latest book that the pastor is reading.”

I’m going to suggest that when cultural relevance becomes a priority something gets lost in translation.  It does raise the question of the purpose of our gatherings and how much the church should accommodate seeker sensitivity. After all, isn’t it better to attract people on where they are? Well, I wrote about that here about designing ministry and liturgy around seeker sensitivity. No doubt, there will be seekers who come into our gatherings. But the church is designed for the believer so that they grow in the faith and experience genuine fellowship. It’s also important to see the church as an embassy vs a service provider, which I wrote about here. That takes clear articulation of the gospel-centered messages that provoke the heart to strengthen in faith. If one is truly converted it will necessarily change affections. That would lead to an interest in learning about the God they have now placed their trust and what that means for faith and practice.That means our churches should have a greater concern of faithfulness to the Christian message than faithfulness to cultural relevance.

Now to be clear, I am not opposed to having nice looking buildings, fancy technology or a great sounding band. But it is problematic when that becomes the impetus that drives what we do, especially with the goal to attract people. And I’m particularly disturbed when it affects preaching with the reasoning that people need cultural relevance. Then churches can become competitive to fill their flock and capitulate to the latest marketing technique.  Rather, if the goal is to attract people to the beauty of Christ and the proclamation of the gospel, then it seems there would be an impetus to remove any distraction to that message and just preach the word, point to Christ and tell people through his word what that means for them. I’m thinking that this would be better without reducing it to hip sound bytes or minimal messages to make their lives better.

Well to be fair, certainly there are those who enter into the fold not having had a previous churched background. I get that. But new believers need to be introduced to the language of faith and worship that is distinctly Christian without the priority of making it appealing. I fear that when we make everything we do ministry wise on appeal that the new or returning-to-church believer becomes conditioned to cultural relevance instead of language of faith. Taken too far, their multiplication may not be based on a sound message of faith but “come see how cool my church is”.

In RetroChristianity, Michael Svigel statement here rings true;

For too long evangelicals have been trying to update the church. Today they have tamed it by removing its offensive counter-cultural equivalents. The result is not an improvement to the church, but a weakening of it. (146)

So in response to the opening questioning? I would have to say no and in fact, it may not be the best thing at all.

    76 replies to "Do We Really Need to be Culturally Relevant?"

    • david carlson


      Oh, I agree that you are not. But it is clear that a number of commenters are coming from that background

    • Airien

      “Are you suggesting, Adam, that having some service on Sunday Night is some Biblical requirement and that if you choose NOT to have one every once in a while that you are listening to the World and not God?”

      What he’s OBVIOUSLY saying is that putting the stupid bowl higher in priority than church is both obviously the wrong thing to do and shows just how un-serious people are about their religion. There’s no way you didn’t understand that from his post, which means you’ve decided to play dumb on purpose because… why? Maybe you like trolling Christians?

    • Daniel Eaton

      But using that logic, ANYTHING you do during ANY hour on Sunday is a priority over church. Care to defend that? If a church decides to have Tuesday afternoon services and, one Tuesday a year, cancels it (or holds it at a different time) because they are also a voting precinct, that doesn’t mean that they are putting politics over God. And why? Because there is no legalistic mandate that you have services on Tuesday afternoons. There are PLENTY of times that you can go worship at different churches during the week. Between 4 churches that I know of, there are FIFTEEN different services during the week. So it isn’t as if going to church ceases to be an option if one or more of them cuts that number down a bit. But instead of addressing that issue in a logical manner, we resort to ad hominem suggestions. Seriously?

    • stevez

      Wow, I have never been labeled a “fundy” you hurt my feelings. Okay I will concede my Corinthian point was a bit weak (okay very)- it was too early in the morning -never do exegesis before 9.

      But…. I, like Lisa will defer to my more eloquent brother from down under.

      BTW why are you so angry about this subject?

      And as far as my lack of logic as you see it, 1 Corinthians 1:23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,

      My point is I don’t see how to make foolishness palatable to the masses without losing somethig in translation.

      THere are plenty of churches out there attempting to do that, the one I shepherd is just not one of them – not my calling. If it is yours go for it – just back up your reasoning with SCRIPTURE.

    • stevez

      Oh, and i might as well get in a little more trouble while I am at it. Your point about the church no longer going and telling but instead inviting to church, maybe we should still be doing that, rather than leaving it to the JW’s and LDS. Maybe??

    • stevez

      This is why I don’t post often, sorry if I sound angry as well, what is tongue and cheek in my head comes off as arrogant and mean in text.

    • mbaker

      Jesus railed against this very thing in his day. And it didn’t have a thing against “fundy” preaching, at least according to some of the comments here, but instead He was changing the word of God to suit the popular culture of the day. if we are to call ourselves any different, and indeed BE any different in our modern day presentation of God’s gospel then we need to ask ourselves why we we are even more special than the Pharisees.

    • mbaker

      I meant not Christ’s preaching and changing to the popular culture of the day.

    • z

      Some of these comments talk about Christians and Seekers as two distinct homogeneous groups that are fundamentally at odds with one another, as though Seekers demand a watered-down, entertainment-focused, no-sacraments service, while Christians demand a dry, expert-level, very sacramental service. In reality, I think there is a wide range of very different people coming to church at very different places in their walk with Christ, and the church should try to be relevant to all of them.

      There’s not a one-size-fits-all style, and sometimes it seems like we think style is the same as message. Most of the “Seekers” I’ve known were interested in coming to church to understand Christianity better, which meant to participate in a “real” Christian service that talked to and catered to the needs of Christians. And I’ve known many seekers who were interested in the church precisely because they liked the formality and sense of tradition of older-style services. On the other hand, I know many long-time Christians who know almost nothing about the Bible or even the basics of Christianity and who don’t know why the church does what it does. So why can’t a particular service accommodate a diverse group of people? It’s not very had to offer a couple words explaining what you are doing and to present the Gospel without dumbing down anything else you’re doing.

    • […] expand on a couple of articles related to the nature and purpose of the local assembly. In my latest post at Parchment and Pen, I questioned the need for cultural relevance to pull off what we do on Sundays. While I am not […]

    • Daniel Eaton

      Steve, just because I see no Scriptural support for our cultural trappings as being more Biblical than some other approach doesn’t mean I’m angry about it. 🙂 Does a smiley make it better? 😉 I agree with you that the cross IS a stumbling block to many that find it offensive. And the need for repentance can be offensive. Preaching against certain sins can be offensive. But that doesn’t mean the WE need to be offensive in how we present those things. We can do it in love. And that includes explaining something to someone in a way that they can understand it. It’s no different from having different methods in the 4-yr old Sunday School or “Children’s Church” than what we offer in the Senior Adults class. We meet people where they are with what they need. When *I* look back at the examples in the NT, I see Christ and Paul (in particular) taking the message to a lot of people that were not invited into the local temple because of their ethnicity or careers. Yet if you practice that model and teach on love and forgiveness instead of some 17-week study on tithing, you’re seen as “shallow” and not “making disciples” like you allegedly should. Now I agree that we need to make disciples with “meaty” sermons, but we should not do that at the expense of ALSO preaching/reaching the lost with the “milk” of the Word as well. Besides, a lot of those fundy churches that I grew up in NEEDED a lot more of those love/grace/mercy sermons.

    • Daniel Eaton

      BTW, if you are interested in reading a blog I wrote about this topic, check out theologica.ning.com/profiles/blogs/2124612:BlogPost:53473. Basically, I believe that the seeker-friendly church and the tradition-friendly church reach two different subcultures. The idea that we should focus on one to the exclusion of the other is something that I don’t see Christ modeling for us. I see him providing for the different needs of different people. The more traditional church has no problem doing that if your difference is based on age or gender, but not really based on sub-culture or level of spiritual maturity. As I’ve pointed out a number of times here, I see no reason why the church cannot reach THOSE people as well, and do so in the one hour a week that they are most likely to attend.

    • […] Lisa Robinson raises the question, Do We Really Need to Be Culturally Relevant? […]

    • Sylvia

      Finally someone who gets it! Excellent Post, Michael. This positivity Churchianity is drowning out the message of Christ. When we have “Preachers” who don’t like to be called that and opening their “Worship” services with AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” as its introduction, then I think it’s gone too far! Blending in with the Culture at Church is making Church irrelevant. Why would someone come to seek anything in a Church acting the same way as any other place? Aren’t we to stand out in the World? If the message of Christ is not at Church, then what’s the point of it?

    • Brian

      Nonbelievers are not stupid. If they check out a church and don’t understand something that was said during the sermon they will either ask someone or find out the answer some other way. This is a reason why I think the case that some make for the need to contextualize is a bit exaggerated. Missionaries should contextualize when they go to a culture different than theirs, where there are clear language and culture barriers. But do pastors need to contextualize for people living in the U.S. who understand english and for the most part are exposed to or in the same culture? I think the case for contextualization is exaggerated.

    • Daniel Eaton

      Why would the “not stupid” choose to go to a church that leaves them with a lot of questions versus one that uses their language and explains things simply? Are they supposed to make a list during all the songs and the sermon of the words and statements that they don’t understand and stand up at the end and ask them? They must not only be “not stupid”, but an extraordinary extrovert to expect that from them.

      As far as “contextualization” not being needed in the US because we all speak English goes, that sounds like someone that hasn’t traveled in a lot of the different sub-cultures here. It isn’t just a case of base language, but the era of that language that we speak and sing in, the arcane words we often use, and the whole dictionary of church words that we tend to use that the person that is new to our “faith tradition” would have an issue understanding. It could be something as simple as referring to “your testimony”, referring to someone as “Brother Smith”, or some theological term that isn’t in the average person on the street’s every day vocabulary. Like it or not, the traditional church in America is a totally different sub-culture with a different language than what you hear and see at a ball game or coffee shop. On the one hand, we make a big deal over being different from the world, but then we expect them to become like us in order to understand us. That’s backwards. We should communicate the message in a way that THEY understand and THEN expect them to change and become more like us.

    • Mike O

      @Dan Eaton is absolutely right – Christianity is a sub-culture in America. We need to treat America as much as a mission field as we do foreign countries. Culturally relevant churches do that.

    • Mike O

      @Daniel I just read what you posted in #12 on this page (62?) and couldn’t agree more. There is no reason different types of churches can’t co-exist as long as they are preaching a Christ-centered message. Different audiences need different delivery methods – why force them into a mold that a) doesn’t fit, and b) Jesus didn’t require?

      The assumption of those who are anti-relevance church is that if you are culturally relevant, you are *not* preaching a Christ centered message. While that may be true of many culturally relevant churches, it is also an indictment of churches of a more traditional bent. But there ARE churches that preach Christ in a culturally relevant way – even using AC/DC as an opener. I’ve seen it.

      What I see here is people taking sides, comparing their best with the other sides’ worst. I don’t see Daniel doing that, I see him placing appropriate value on both.

    • Mike O

      Continuing down the path of “nonbelievers are not stupid” … well, actually, some are. There are “stupid” people everywhere. Either that or a) there are NO stupid people, or b) ALL the stupid people are Christians. 🙂

      We all know there ARE stupid people, and we also know that not all stupid people are Christians.

      But in all seriousness, there are a LOT of nonbelievers that are uneducated, unstable, mentally deficient in a medical sense, etc. What do we say to them, “go to hell?”

      The bottom line is, there ARE stupid people who are nonbelievers. And they should have a shot at Jesus, too. I say that tongue-in-cheek, but my point is still valid. Even if they were *only* for stupid people (which they aren’t), culturally relevant churches would still have their place. You would have just defined it.

      I’m sure my point will be missed … oh, well. I guess not everyone is as smart as me 🙂

    • william

      What I have found tending to be the case is this, the more modern and lets be honest, geared toward ‘youth culture’ a church’s services are, the less correct you find the doctrine and understanding of scripture. I have been to loads, I grew up in them. They gave me nothing but a workout and the need of a shower.
      All flash, no cash. Seed on shallow soil etc.
      I have left that having grown up a bit (I hope) and feel that my experience has very little positive to say about those types of church. I had nearly no understanding of what the bible actually says on most stuff and just ‘winged’ it. I now prefer more traditional churches, not because of the style but because substance wins over style. It really ought not to be the case. I SHOULD be able to go into a Church and hear decent (if you want rock on a Sunday morning) music and an even better sermon, but I haven’t found a single one yet. Either a rock concert followed by a vacuous motivational talk, or a pipe organ with expert preaching.
      You have to go with the great sermon.

    • william

      @ Dan Eaton
      The problem I have is that I have not seen what you are talking about. I have been to loads, and all they left me with was a poor understanding of anything Biblical and I paid dearly. Very dearly.
      Dancing is fun, but it really doesn’t edify anyone. I would love to see the type of Church you are talking about. It should perhaps be explained to people that they need to gain some understanding at some point and that their current level of education is not enough. I had to learn the hard way.
      I don’t believe such a church exists, if it does, tell me where to find it.

    • Daniel Eaton

      I’ve been to bad ones as well. Went to one that taught a self-help “sermon” that didn’t reference the Bible a single time. But we can’t conflate their message with method any more than we can the more “traditional” church that spouts a lot of churchy words and takes a lot of verses out of context to preach some agenda that has very poor theological footing. I’ve been to those as well. To me, the “sermon” that doesn’t mention the Bible is JUST as bad as the one abuses the Bible. But I don’t throw out the Bible just because some people abuse it.

    • mbaker

      You know after being in the hyper-charismatic movement this business of culturally relevancy has been a big one for me too.

      Yet, i realize it has been going since Paul’s day, in one form or another, since he said this in Philliphians 1:15:

      “Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. 1:16 The latter do so from love because they know that I am placed here for the defense of the gospel. 1:17 The former proclaim Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, because they think they can cause trouble for me in my imprisonment. 1:18 What is the result? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.”

      When I first read that, I thought, what? That is hard but we must remember while we may not always agree with the methods, it is the true message of the gospel that counts.

      I may not like the music or the other things going on, but if they are preaching the gospel, then we can’t allow ourselves to be distracted because we don’t with the how of it, as long as the truth is being proclaimed.

    • […] my post last week on cultural relevance, I’ve encountered some really cool posts that seemed to have come out of the […]

    • william

      “His becoming all things to all men was with regard to theologically and spiritually inconsequential societal norms.”

      Yes I agree totally, and as we see, the sins of the culture truly indeed become the sins of the church when you don’t watch out. I see people all the time in church with little or no clue how things work doctrinally who believe that Christ is not the only way and other issues too.
      Talking about traditional church being too ‘stiff’ as some people seem to think on here, I respond – when you have church congregations in the charismatic end of the universal church banging rain sticks on the floor and screaming in ‘tongues’, spontaneously dancing the conga, baaa-ing and clucking ‘in the spirit’, which of the two is more exclusive? Which is the more relevant to the ‘seeker’? I feel that at least in a traditional setting people know where they stand.
      I went to a charismatic church where the above events took place one sunday (and many others), unfortunately I took my cousin along who’s father, a baptist minister had just left home. My cousin has not been in to ANY church since.
      I can’t blame him, I never went back there either. They split in half a few months later after decades of relative success and one half called themselves ‘Unity’ without apparently seeing the irony.
      I have been to three charismatic churches and each one split in half for different reasons leaving many of the congregation (seed on shallow soil) without any faith left at all. I won’t go into the reasons for brevity’s sake, but I don’t often see this in traditional situations. People seem more mature and able to submit to authority, willing to listen and not overexcited, and dare I say it? even more reverent?
      I’m really not having a pop at people who want a rock concert on Sunday morning, I used to be in a metal band, seriously. I know that in theory you could have a good lively praise and worship session followed by great expository preaching, I just…

    • Mark

      One thing Lisa is bringing out is the importance of recognizing the importance of what the gathering of the saints is about: it’s about that. The ministry of the pastor-teacher is one that is about strengthening the saints. There’s much to be said on living intentionally and living culturally relevant lives (that was Paul’s talk on “…to the Jew I became a Jew…). However, our gathering is not a crusade. Our gathering is a meeting around our savior go glorify God through Him and to be strengthened. The local church is not an organization that exists to get a task done, she is a living and breathing organism that Christ Himself as her head!!! Let’s worship like that’s the case.

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