That is the #1 question asked by pastors today.
I used to ask that question a lot. I take an entire chapter of The Grasshopper Myth to tell how pursuing the answer to it nearly killed me and my church.
I don’t ask that question any more.
For a while I shifted from that question to asking what is surely the #2 question asked by pastors today. Namely, “How do I make my church culturally relevant?”
I don’t ask that question any more either.
No, I don’t want my church to wallow in some old-time, glory days of the past that probably never really were that glorious. But the latest buzzword of cultural relevance may not be the best alternative to that.
The Problem with Being Culturally Relevant
Chasing cultural relevance reminds me of an episode from the bygone TV sitcom Third Rock from the Sun, in which the aliens decided that the best way for them to blend in with earth culture was to do whatever was most popular.
They watched only the highest-rated TV shows, wore the best-selling clothes, ate at the most popular restaurants, etc. They didn’t do what they enjoyed, only what was popular. As a result, they became bland and bored. By the end of the episode they decided that being themselves was better than blending in.
Trying to be culturally relevant is turning us into followers instead of leaders. And it makes our churches look a little too much the same in the ways we ought to be different.
Chasing cultural relevance can give us a false sense of success because it can be learned by reading the right books and watching a couple of the latest TV shows. But thinking I know the youth of my community because I read a book on postmodernism and watched an episode of Catfish on MTV is a delusion. (No I’m not recommending it or linking to it.)
If Not Cultural Relevance, Then What?
I’ve had this discomfort with cultural relevance for a while now, but I haven’t talked or written about it because I didn’t know what to replace it with – or at least I didn’t know what to call what I wanted to replace it with.
Now I do.
A couple weeks ago I had a great talk with someone I’ve just met, named Mark Collins. Mark works with the Western Ontario District of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. He also pastors a Small Church on the edge of a First Nations Community.
We were talking about the advantages and challenges of Small Churches when he said “We need to stop worrying about being culturally relevant and start being contextually real.”
Contextually real. That’s it!
Thank you for the “aha” moment, Mark.
The Irrelevance of Being Culturally Relevant
Ministry, especially Small Church ministry, is not about relevance, it’s about reality. And it’s not about the culture, it’s about our context. It’s about living my real life in the context of other people’s real lives.
How have we missed this simple reality? And why would we want to replace it with being culturally relevant?
Here are a few possible reasons:
- Cultural relevance is cool. Contextual reality isn’t.
- Cultural relevance is broad. Contextual reality is narrow.
- Cultural relevance is generic. Contextual reality is personal.
- Cultural relevance follows trends. Contextual reality listens to people.
- Cultural relevance has answers. Contextual reality asks questions.
- Cultural relevance creates outsiders. Contextual reality invites outsiders in.
- Cultural relevance celebrates success. Contextual reality recognizes our hurts.
- Cultural relevance can happen at a distance. Contextual reality means getting our hands dirty.
Cultural relevance is more comfortable for a lot of us. It helps us feel like we’re in charge of something. That we have a few things figured out in a world that has grown increasingly difficult to understand.
Contextual reality, on the other hand, is anything but comfortable. It puts us in charge of nothing. And it often raises more questions than it answers.
But contextual reality has one advantage.
It. Is. Real.
Jesus Was Contextually Real
Jesus never gave one moment’s thought to being relevant to his culture. Not to the Jewish culture he lived in, to the Roman culture that was subjugating them, or to the Greek culture that framed their thinking.
Jesus was real. And he adapted to the reality of whatever context he found himself in. One city at a time, one crowd at a time, one person at a time. And he did it without ever betraying his core reality.
So maybe instead of asking “what’s cool?”, “what’s relevant?” or even “what’s new?” our churches ought to be asking people “what reality are you living in?”
Dealing with people rather than trends takes a little longer. But it’s worth it. And I’ve come to believe it’s the only way we can really earn people’s trust so that they’ll allow us to share the deeper reality that’s only found in Jesus. A reality that fits any context. And any culture.
So what do you think? Do you have any other illustrations of the differences between being culturally relevant and being contextually real?
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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