I’ve been hearing a lot about culture, relevance, and cesspools since last Sunday’s sermon. Let me affirm that I firmly believe that we as believers in Christ must be relevant to our culture. I also firmly believe if we are truly believers in Christ we are relevant to our culture. Relevancy is in the DNA of the true Christian. Allow me to offer a trite example: The owner’s manual for your 2007 Toyota Avalon will always be relevant to you as long as you drive that Avalon. The owner’s manual for your 1998 Mercedes C230 will not be helpful to you in figuring out the features of your Avalon and how they function or in repairing your Avalon when it malfunctions. The Avalon and Mercedes are both cars; they have similar parts and perform in similar ways, but only the Avalon manual will help you with the Avalon. Similarly the Word of God tells us how we are to function as humans, and it informs us how to repair our lives when they get broken or malfunction. The gospel–as it is revealed to us in God’s Word along with all the truth of God’s Word–is the only true help and true hope for humanity. Therefore, the Word of God will always be relevant to every person who ever lives. When we thoroughly know the Word of God and are living by and evangelizing by the truth it reveals about the human heart and human nature, we will be relevant.
I greatly appreciate Tim Keller and the attention he has brought to the importance of exegeting our culture. In his recent book on preaching Keller writes:
“Let It Go,” by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, was sung in the Disney move Frozen and won the 2013 Oscar for Best Original Song. It is both interesting and ironic to compare the sung speech of the character Elsa in Frozen with that of Martin Luther before the Holy Roman Emperor. Both say, “Here I stand.” But Luther meant he was free from fear and from other authorities because he was bound by the Word of God and its norms. Elsa speaks for the contemporary culture by saying she can be free only if there are no boundaries at all.
We can all affirm that “Let It Go” was/is ubiquitous. You can’t escape it: It will find you in your car, in the grocery store aisle, at the fast-food restaurant, at the mall; you can’t even escape it at your gym–at least I can’t! It is the kind of song that makes you curse the person who starts singing it because then it gets stuck in your head and you are stuck singing it for the rest of the day. It crosses generational boundaries: Grandparents sing it to their grandchildren to put them to sleep. The song not only reflects the culture, but its repeated message also has the potential to shape the thinking and acting of the multiple millions of people who hear it…”let it go!”
Insights like Keller’s can be very helpful evangelistically. Since you will be hard-pressed to find a person how hasn’t heard the song, you can ask a person in what ways, if any, they believe it describes their culture or their own attitude about life.
My questions are: How much time must we spend trying to be relevant? How deeply must we study the literature, music, and art of our culture to arrive at an understanding of the human heart that would allow us to speak into it in a relevant way? The over-emphasis on cultural relevance could render us mute. We could wrongly conclude that if we aren’t as culturally aware and astute as Tim Keller (and who among us is?) then perhaps we should keep our mouths shut and leave communicating the gospel “to the cultural experts.”
Yet I keep hearing words spoken in a garden a long time ago when the serpent craftily found his way into Eden:
Serpent: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”
Eve: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
Serpent: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
So Eve took the fruit, and you know the rest of that story.
Challenging authority, seeking to throw off authority, and attempting to be an authority unto yourself is literally the oldest story in the book…The Book. Our culture is not unique in this view.
Wise Solomon tells us, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)
It seems to me that Elsa’s “let it go” has always been the norm, and Martin Luther’s submission to God’s authority the anomaly. It isn’t really that we have experienced a culture shift. “Elsa” has always been a reality. In my generation Billy Joel belted out “I don’t care what you say anymore, this is my life, go ahead with your own life and leave me alone…you can speak your mind but not on my time.” To the generation before mine, their shining star Frank Sinatra crooned, “I did it my way.” We can have deep understanding about the heart of any generation simply by reading the first few pages of Scripture.
So I offer another quote to assist our thinking about relevance. This one is advice that the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave to the seminary students he was preparing for ministry:
We must be able to speak about our faith so that hands will be stretched out toward us faster than we can fill them…Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic….Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…..Trust the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!
When our lives testify to the truth of God’s Word and the powerful work of the gospel, our lives will always be relevant.
Perhaps the bigger question with which we should grapple is: Why do we believe we are or why are we irrelevant?” Many conclude that our trappings make us irrelevant. As a result, stained-glass windows, pews, pipe organs, and pulpits are removed from buildings while hymnals and the hymns they contain are left to collect dust an inch thick. That’s tragic since trappings don’t make us irrelevant. On the contrary, whenever our sanctuary is on tour, people flock to see the building, the stained glass, the pulpit carved from wood from the Black Forest in Germany. They are awed by the beautiful 1884 pipe organ.
We miss the point and have misdiagnosed the problem if we believe that removing these things, using PowerPoint, and installing stadium seating in blacked out auditoriums with a stage and no pulpit or podium will suddenly make us relevant to our culture.
Jesus has not made it difficult to be relevant. He said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34) He inspired the apostle John to write the same thing several times in his letters. He inspired the apostle Peter to command us to “love one another deeply and from the heart.” (I Peter 1:22) He inspired the apostle Paul to write, “For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you.” (II Corinthians 1:12) Clearly, being loving makes us relevant. Clearly, sacrificing for others makes us relevant. Clearly, being real makes us relevant…real in our worship…real in our relationships.
If we define relevant as “closely connected or appropriate to the matter at hand,” then we as believers in Christ will always be relevant because the gospel is always closely connected to the matter at hand; and the matter at hand is life–how to live life, what is the meaning of life, what makes life meaningful, what happens after life, etc.
People will never dismiss you as irrelevant when you have a genuine concern for them, when you ask and are interested in hearing about their life, and when you are willing to make sacrifices for them. You may take a pass on going to see Fifty Shades of Grey with them. While they may be angry about that for a while–maybe they won’t–but if so, your love for and genuine care about them will draw them back.
It isn’t being like the culture that will make us relevant and attractive to people; they can find other people like them anywhere. It is being unlike the culture while we live in the midst of it that makes us attractive to their lives in any moment. Of what true relevance is a Christian who is trying to be just like the world in order to be relevant to the world? That attempt is what will and should cause us to be dismissed as irrelevant.
Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, world famous 20th-century preacher who spoke weekly to overflow crowds, in writing about the Sermon on the Mount says it describes:
…the essential, utter difference between the Christian and the non-Christian…and as I see things at the present time, the first need in the Church is a clear understanding of this essential difference. It has become blurred; the world has come into the church, and the church has become world. The line is not as distinct as it was…We have been told that we have to make the church attractive to the man outside, and the idea is to become as much like him as we can….The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the revival comes. That must also be true of us as individuals. It should not be our ambition to be as much like everybody else as we can, though we happen to be Christian, but rather to be as different from everybody who is not a Christian as we can possibly be. Our ambition should be to be like Christ, the more like Him the better, and the more like Him we become, the more we shall be unlike everybody who is not a Christian.