Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Should a church try to be "culturally relevant"? Is culture bad? Should a church "embrace culture"? How does a church balance "culture" and "Scripture"?

Preliminary Points
There is great deal of sin being embraced by our current culture (such as immorality, immodesty, vulgar speech, irresponsibility, abortion, and violence). In fact, in every culture throughout history there has been a great deal of sin being practiced, promoted and endorsed. No society is ever "sinless". However, just because a particular behavior, idea or practice is popular in current culture, does not necessarily mean it is always sinful. Some popular ideas are neither right nor wrong and some might even be good.

We often have the tendency to shy away from anything that is popular in our current culture for the fear that by embracing one of the actions of our current culture, that we must by proxy, be endorsing all of it. At times we create our own specific “congregational/church culture” and assume that anything outside of our particular “culture” must not be right. We must be careful to not create walls and boundaries that God did not create. 

Culture is not the enemy... SIN IS! The church is designed to mold and shape itself with current cultural practices that are not sinful, in an attempt to better reach those in the culture where it exists. It is true that doctrine cannot be compromised in an attempt to be “culturally relevant”, however, many of our expediences and practices can be changed in a way to make them more culturally viable. 

Some Ideas
Modern American culture is very technology oriented. A church in an urban American city must embrace and use current technology if it wants to be relevant. On the other hand, a rural church in Kenya would not be culturally relevant if it had free wifi, plasma screens and an interactive online presence. 

Dress and the organization of worship activities is another way in which a congregation can be culturally relevant. Without rejecting Biblical standards of modesty a congregation should not dress in way that might put up a barrier in reaching the lost. The dress of a congregation in a wealthy Southern community is going to need to be different from the dress of a church in a college town on the West Coast. A suit and tie would be very out of place in a church in the Hawaiian Islands, as would a flowered shirt, shorts and flip-flops in a large congregation in a wealthy suburb of Nashville.

The type of singing in worship is one way in which the church has a history of being culturally relevant. God has only authorized vocal singing in worship, however, the style of the singing must be relevant to the particular culture of the congregation. In the early years of the church, chanting, repetition and responsive singing was culturally relevant. In the first half of the 20th century, 4 part harmony with multiple verses and a chorus was culturally relevant. Now, the norm is the more simple and repetitive “Praise Songs” which are often nothing more than just verses set to music. Each one of these styles of singing are pleasing to God, but are also different and relevant to the their current culture. 

Preaching styles and sermon length need to be culturally relevant. The Gospel is always culturally relevant, but the delivery and style of the message must mirror the current trends in a particular culture in order to be the most effective. The style of preaching in a congregation that is predominantly African American will often differ from an elderly White congregation. The style and length of a lesson delivered in a lecture hall before Graduate students may be longer and more in-depth than a lesson given in a congregation with a great number of parents with children who are struggling to be somewhat quiet for more than 15 minutes. In a culture of rapid facts and instant information, a series of shorter lessons with very specific conclusions and applications may be more relevant. The preacher must not only be a student of the word, but also a student of culture.

When a church meets on Sunday, how we structure our worship, how long we conduct Bible classes and in what format are all questions of “how can we best reach our community?". Just because a congregation has "always done it this way!", does not mean it is the only way, or the best way. Often times a traditional practice, due to repetition, subconsciously becomes a matter of doctrine in our minds. A church must always evaluate its practices and ask "is this action Scripturally binding our not?" If it is not a matter or Scripture, then it can be changed in order to be more effective. 

Some would try to soften the message or tolerate sin under the guise of being “culturally relevant”, but when that takes place, no one is reached with the Gospel! Culture is not the enemy. If we can change our methods in a way that makes us more effective without compromising the Message, we need to do it. The Apostle Paul wrote:
“...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” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23).
If a congregation is wise in their approach to outreach and practice they will find ways to be as culturally relevant as they can be without compromising the Truth. Tolerating sin under the guise of being "relevant" is wrong and will always be. Neglecting to teach the Truth in order to "reach more" is actually reaching less. Culture is not bad, the church needs to work to find ways to mold and shape its expedient actions and practices in ways to best reach the society in which it exists. 

By Cliff Sabroe