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19 October 2007

How to Be Culturally Irrelevant

Before I continue down the path of the cultural relevance of the Church, I want to qualify it all.

Just yesterday I said here that self-examination is a good thing. At our weekly rehearsal last night, I told our worship team in our devotional time that I think I've often been guilty of focusing on the "self" part more than the "examination" part. Similarly, when we (or I) talk about cultural relevance, it's an easy thing to push all the focus onto the "cultural" part instead of the part where we're "relevant."

The whole idea behind the Church being more culturally relevant (and I'm about to stop using that phrase because I'm already sick of it) is to present ourselves, as the Church and as Christ-following individuals, in a manner that shows that we identify with the hurts and the high points and the situations of the world around us, but that we have personally found a deeper meaning to life, and that that meaning is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ.

We can change all the appearances of our worship areas, from pews to lights to HD projectors, but all of that is just surface stuff. The relevance of Christ and the Church to the average person's everyday life is seen in each of us and in how we represent Him daily in our lives, not in how we adjust our appearance in the hope that we'll be seen in a certain way.

A quote from "The Relevant Church: A New Vision For Communities Of Faith" that hits the nail on the head: "The Church will be least relevant when it is caught in the act of reinventing itself to gain more friends."


Tony M said...

Nothing to add, just wanted to say that's a nice summary and very good wisdom regarding the subject. Still enjoying the blog!

Cecily said...

Forgive me, my blogging isn't nearly as articulate as yours, Dean -- and this comment is probably longer than your longest blog entry!

In simplest terms, isn't being "culturally relevant" nothing more than speaking the "language" of the people where you live? Or, more broadly, communicating with the people you are trying to reach in a manner that they can understand and respond to?

Communication is more than just words, although those are extremely important. For example, if I go to the Korean First Baptist Church, I am most likely going to encounter a language (words) I don't understand and, perhaps, customs with which I am uncomfortable (like removing shoes to enter the building – not saying they do this, but that is a common Korean custom). The strange language and music and customs which are foreign to me are perfectly, culturally relevant to the majority who attend that church. After all, it's designed to minister to a particular ethnic group; that is their "target audience."

Although many folks hate the word, being culturally relevant is as much about marketing as it is anything else. We may want our church to be all things to all people, but that's not realistic.

As a church, we have to decide who we are trying to reach. That's our "target audience." We have to look at our location, look at the people who surround us. Maybe we start by looking at the five mile radius around our church.

Who are the people living in that radius? Are they young? Middle age? Is it an aging population? Do they have kids? Are they young families or do they have teens? What is their educational background? Are most of them in white collar or blue collar jobs? What about their household income?

I know that it seems gauche to consider their income. But let's face it, another important aspect of being culturally relevant is knowing what the needs are (both the real needs and the felt needs) of those we are trying to reach. If we happen to be surrounded by a population that’s barely above the poverty line, then, our church better be offering programs to help those people, or we are in danger of being completely irrelevant.

Anyway, all those things – age, education, social status, income – these things are important when we are determining what “language” to speak to best reach those who surround us. That “language” includes the music we play, the visuals we use, and the topics we cover from the pulpit.

Clarification on that: We should NEVER dilute the message or just tickle their ears; all people, no matter their background, need to hear the saving message of God’s grace. However, we should recognize that a congregation struggling on the first tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is going to need to constant reassurance that Jesus cares for them as He cares for the lilies in the field and the birds in the air, even more; and a congregation of primarily upper middle class folks needs to be challenged to step outside their comfort zone and help those in need.

If we determined that our geographic area boasted a younger, technically-savvy generation, then our services ought to incorporate the types of music and visuals that will “speak” to that generation, which might include cutting edge graphics, theater lighting, rock-style music, and reading from the NIV or NLT. If our church is surrounded by mostly empty-nesters and elderly couples who were raised in a hymn-singing church (or even middle-aged “traditionalists”), then we would be wise to “speak” their language, which would probably include using the KJV or NKJV and singing from the hymnal.

As for seating – I don’t think seekers would be surprised to find pews in a church. Even someone who’s never been to church in their life knows that most churches have pews (we’ve seen them in the movies, for heaven’s sake!). I think the words here should be comfort and function.

Our pews at WHBC are comfier than most, for sure. However, if we had individual chairs (if that’s what you mean by “theater seating”), then we could reconfigure the seats to serve a variety of purposes. For example, we could create a middle aisle for a wedding! Or we could create a more intimate “in the round” style seating for a special event.

Personally, I think it’s wise stewardship to invest in chairs instead of pews, for the very reason that they can be repurposed in so many different ways. (Of course, it would not be wise stewardship to replace perfectly-good pews, like ours, with chairs, simply because we liked chairs better.)

I know, I know – seating isn’t really the issue. It’s culture vs. tradition. Although, I think that might be making the issue too black-and-white, trying to define it as culture vs. tradition.

I guess I’m assuming, too, that we’re looking at this from perspective of “How do we reach the unchurched?”, not “How do we keep our current worshipers happy?”.

Asking whether we are “culturally relevant” requires us to examine far more than the music we play or the seats we sit in. It’s so much bigger than that.

Ummm… am I off topic? :)

Cecily said...

An addendum:

You wrote: We can change all the appearances of our worship areas, from pews to lights to HD projectors, but all of that is just surface stuff. The relevance of Christ and the Church to the average person's everyday life is seen in each of us and in how we represent Him daily in our lives, not in how we adjust our appearance in the hope that we'll be seen in a certain way.

I think there are two levels of relevancy to consider.

1) Personal level: As you noted, if people can't see Christ and His relevancy to us (believers) as individuals, in our every day life, then it really doesn't matter what we do in the church worship setting, people won't see the need for change.

2) Corporate level, two points:

a) If we're an inward-looking church (i.e., all our programs and ministries are based on how they benefit those already in the church, as opposed to those outside the church), then, again, we're only going to be relevant to those who are already "buying in" to the message of Christ.

b) If we want to attract seekers to our church, to be a place where the unchurched can come and explore this idea of Christianity (and, really, isn't that supposed to be our primary call?), then we have to find a way to relate and communicate to those who don't know the "lingo" and culture of the "Church." I.e., we have to be culturally relevant to the generation of seekers we're trying to reach, whether those are college-aged young adults or middle aged moms and dads.

And the "lingo" of the church? (Think "Washed in the blood of the lamb that was slain.") I believe that's a topic worthy of another blog, Dean! :)

Jan Owen said...

I think that one element of being culturally relevant is for the church to choose to be "real". For instance, many unbelievers see Christians as people who don't live in the real world, don't have the same kind of problems, and have so ISOLATED themselves that they couldn't possibly RELATE to the real world. For instance, the church has pretty much shunned the issue of sex unless it was just to say "DON'T". We've sort of taken the path of ignoring this TOTALLY RELEVANT part of EVERYONE'S life!!!

I will argue - as a worship leader - that to use contemporary music simply allows people to worship God using language that is common and normal to them - both in vocabulary and in musical style. Whatever your opinion is, you must admit that modern worship songs allow us to express ourselves in a style that is more comfortable to us in 2007 than say...a Gregorian chant or singing in Latin, both used in the church in days gone by. We have obviously changed these traditions! (along with MANY other things, such as adding indoor plumbing and electricity)

For me, the issue of culturally relevant is more an issue of being authentic and "normal" rather than sounding so typically "preacherish" (new word!)and so far removed from humanity that we cannot relate to them and they cannot relate to us. Sometimes we've been guilty of presenting such a "holy" exterior that people cannot see us as mothers and fathers, employees, people that enjoy ballgames and music, travel and art, people who cry and laugh and yes, enjoy their sexual relationships with their spouse!

We are so busy defending ourselves from any possible contamination that we don't get out in the world to reach out and do any good.

That's my two cents worth. Great question!

christy said...

I would post my comments here, but you people are way to intelligent for me to contend with! I have posted my "thoughts" on my myspace page. If you need a good laugh or cry or whatever I guess you can check it out.

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