The Dangers of over-emphasizing Cultural Relevancy

The question that has not often been raised, and it seems to me is simply being dismissed in many of today’s discussions on cultural relevancy, is that of, “what will be the end result of spending so much time analyzing culture rather than seeking to spreading the word of God to the people of that culture?” I would like set down ten considerations on this subject and get your responses:

First, the pastors/theologians who have promoted the study of culture have themselves often been much more grounded in the Scriptures than those who follow their advice about studying culture. This will result in a culturally educated church and a biblically illiterate church (Sadly, this is not far from the truth already. Just ask any church member under the age of 30 if they have ever heard of Jeremiah’s sash!—which is found, incidentally, in Jeremiah 13.)

Second, the simple fact of the matter is that many in the Reformed church under the age of forty (and for that matter often times just under the age of fifty or sixty) have been seeped in culture most of their lives—a culture, I would remind you, out of which so many were graciously delivered. Can a culture be sinful? This seems certainly to be the conclusion of calling the culture in which we live “secular.” According to the definition of culture given above we must conclude that culture is comprised of more than just art, musical genres, and language. Culture, according to Wikipedia, includes human activity with its moral systems, behaviors, or habits. The conclusion that we can draw from this is that culture can be so seeped in sinful behavior that it becomes increasingly difficult to engage the culture with “cultural relevancy” without ourselves being led into sinful practice or without condoning, to some extent, sinful behavior. The danger is that we might forget the advice of the apostle Jude who said, “on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh (Jude 23, 24).” So often we don’t know where to draw the line between what is purely cultural and what is sinful. This is not always easy to achieve, but when we fervently study God’s word we are promised that “by reason of use we will be able to distinguish between good and evil (Heb. 5:14).”

Third, One does not have to spend long watching any channel on television, movie in the theatre or on DVD, listening to music, eating out in restaurants, or simply walking through clothing stores to see what the culture appreciates, runs after, and values. I have heard of Reformed seminaries teaching entire courses on cultural studies. This may be beneficial to a point but I hardly understand why one should have to watch Pulp Fiction in a seminary class. If culture is not sinful and if it is the environment in which we live then why do we have to study it in school. If “culture” is the environment in which we live then why do we have to study culture.

Fourth, When the apostle Paul said, I become all things to all people so that I might win some,” he did not mean, “I become just like everybody else in all their peculiar ways in order to win some.” Paul did not begin listening to the various musical genres of the groups at the Areopagus in order to “reach” them with the Gospel. While it is true that he did quote of one of their own poets, he did not dwell upon even the name of that poet or of any of his touring performances that month! This is a difficult area to address because we would acknowledge that God uses things of the culture as common talking points but we can be sure from the apostles ministries that they did not “make it their primary aim” to study the culture in order to be culturally relevant. Paul was familiar with what at least one of the Athenian poets had written, and he used this to minister the truth of the Gospel to the men at the Areopagus, but it is also fairly self-evident that he was not trying to gain acceptance with the men of the city–he was proclaming Jesus and the judgment to come to the people who heard him. Many times this is not the emphasis on our need to study culture. It seems to me that in many cases the desire to be “culturally relevant” is an attempt to avoid persecution (something which Paul never succombed to). The Apsotle Paul however tells us in Galatians that if we are doing anything to avoid the offense of the cross then we have been astranged from Christ.

Fifth, So often “cultural-analyzers” begin to adopt the sinful elements of culture and therefore become less distinctively Christ-like when they take to serious “analysis” of culture. We have forgotten what Martin Lloyd-Jones said in his book on the Sermon on the Mount, namely, ‘the world is most attracted to the church when the church is least like the world.” Also the converse truth, “the world is least attracted to the church when the church is most like the world.” Philip Ryken, in his book City on a Hill quotes a New York Times reporter who explains that the world has turned to the church in order to find out what they are and have found that there are no answers coming from the church because the church has become exactly like the world. There is a real danger of falling into worldliness while seeking to study the culture in order to reach the culture with the Gospel. This is just as true of analyzing culture as it is of analyzing false teaching. The Westminster Directory of Public Worship says, “In confutation of false doctrines, he (i.e. the minister of the Gospel) is neither to raise an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily: but, if the people be in danger of an error, he is to confute it soundly, and endeavor to satisfy their judgments and consciences against all objections.” I believe that the pastoral wisdom found in the statement above ought to be carefully considered. Why did the writers of the Directory of Public Worship say that a minister should not “raise an old heresy from the grave, nor mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily?” What they were getting at was that we should not unnecessarily bring up heresies because men and women are very prone to fall into the heresies—even when, and I would say especially when, ministers are seeking to guard against them. We have recently seen this in our own times with the reinterpretations of the Pauline doctrine of justification. When institutions set out to take a stand against a false teaching it is almost inevitable that some individuals at the school will be led astray by what they are being warned of.

Sixth, the product of cultural analysis is often trendy, theologically-inaccurate phrases or sociological conclusions. One of the most common trendy phrases among “culture-analyzers” is that well-known saying of St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel always, use words only when necessary.” While it is should be recognized that the apostle Peter did teach that a wife could win her husband without a word when he observed her chaste conduct accompanied by fear, It should be noted that what is normative for the spread of the Gospel is taught by Paul in Ephesians and Colossians when he said, Pray for me “that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel,” and “that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak.” When men appeal to the verse in 1 Peter they almost universally leave out the fact that the husbands which these believing wives are seeking to win are those who “do not obey the word.” It seems that they have heard the Gospel preached and now they must see it lived out.

Seventh, when Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'” I don’t think he meant everything that some of the “culture-analyzers” think that he meant. When the culture analyzers quote Kuyper and say that all of culture needs to be redeemed I know for sure that Kuyper obviously did not mean that we should start Christian strip clubs in order to minister to the sexually immoral.

Eighth, When Jesus told the disciples to be wise as serpent and gentle as doves I hardly think he meant “stop confronting people with the word of God and start having Christian rave parties, or Christian art exhibits, or whatever else might replace giving out the Gospel.” While it may be entirely appropriate to have Christian art exhibits we should stop saying that this is the way we preach the Gospel. I have seen paintings that are supposed to be expressions of the Gospel and my conclusion is that I either do not know the gospel or they are not representing it very well. John Stott writes: “Thus the followers of jesus are to be different – different from both the nominal church and the secular world, different from both the religious and the irreligious. The Sermon on the Mount is the most complete delineation anywhere in the New Testament of the Christian counter culture.”

Ninth, I have often heard the excuse, “How can we reach out to those hurting in culture if we are not submersed in or at least well versed in culture?” Well, I don’t think Jesus and the apostles had a very hard time with this. Throughout His earthly ministry our Lord ministered to a multitude of people in various regions of Israel—including Galilee of the Gentiles.

Tenth, There tends to be a level of human wisdom rather than inspired wisdom coming from the “cultural analyzers.” This is one of the chief concerns I have with the whole movement. I have many close friends who have become obsessed with discussions on studying culture rather than with edifying others with words from Scripture. Sometimes this observational wisdom comes in what sounds like good advise about how to maximize the spread of the Gospel. For instance, we are being told that we have to be in the cities in order to effect cultural Christianization. The logical defense set forth is, “if the cites are secular and the country-sides are Christian where’s the culture going? Its going secular. If the cities were Christian and the country-side is secular where’s the culture going? Its going Christian.” This is not necessarily true. In fact the same argument could then be made on a higher level. If Hollywood is Christian and the cities are secular then the cities would become Christian. So instead of planting churches in the Cities we should be focusing most of our attention on the centers of the music and movie industry. Sadly this is also the conclusion of so many “cultural analyzers.” Another mistake by the analysis offered above is that the country-sides cannot be preserved in the face of secular influence from the cities. What if it is God’s desire to send revival to one area of North America and not to the nearest major cities? Would we have to conclude that those country-side areas would not remain Christian because of the influence of the cities. In fact there is an opposite danger that is not often considered in this discussion. When Abraham and Lot separated, Abraham told his nephew to choose the place of his dwelling. Lot chose the lush, populated cities. These were the cities that God intended to destroy. Was Lot not seeking to change culture in these cities? He most certainly was. We are told in Genesis that the men of Sodom and Gomorrah came out and said to Lot, “Who made you a judge over us?” And the Scriptures tell us that righteous Lot’s soul was tormented by seeing and hearing the wicked deeds of the men of the city. I am certainly not saying that we should not plant churches in the city but we should realize that there we will endure persecution and at times have great difficulties there. There is no promise in Scripture that if all Christians moved into the cities we would then Christianize the country.

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