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May 16, 2011
Meredith Whitmore
Reverence vs. Relevance ... at Church

Reverence vs. Relevance ... at Church

Not so long ago, within a 10-day period, I attended two churches with radically different styles. It was the same degree of difference that distinguishes sushi from pot roast or a fighter jet from a biplane.

In Southern California, the worship was a streamlined rock concert with professional vocalists, electric guitars, drum sets, smoke machines and special effects lighting. When the lead vocalist, er, music minister started tearing it up onstage, I actually wondered if I should have purchased a ticket. The congregation swayed in the aisles or wandered around the gymnasium-like room—maybe because they were otherwise packed like sardines on folding chairs. Ballerinas pirouetted while artists painted canvases. And when the highly sensory-oriented show had ended and the pastor wearing tattered jeans and a Billabong shirt had preached about effectively managing one's finances, I could choose from not one, but two coffee shops at which to purchase my pre-lunch latte. This was good because I needed caffeine—even at age 36, I was clearly closer to tapping into the retirement savings the pastor had mentioned than most of the thousand other urbanites in attendance.

In rural Oregon, however, church was a lot more Gaithers-geared—with folks firmly planted on pews. Sans smoky production with electric guitars, the volunteer praise team made a joyful noise, if you know what I mean, for the small congregation consisting of both the very young and those who were already collecting their pensions. Coffee came from a lone carafe in the tiny kitchen. The pastor wore slacks, a dress shirt and tie, and preached about God's work through Joseph's trials in Egypt.

I've been asking myself, and now I'll ask you, Was one of these churches more culturally relevant than the other?

Relevance, Smellevance
For ages the term cultural relevance has been used in political, educational and marketing contexts. It's been only in the last 20 or 30 years, though, that pastors—on a grand scale—have wrestled with it as well. And it's in an ecclesiastical setting, especially, that the phrase is controversial enough to amuse, confuse or rile, depending on the congregation and its leaders.

Many Christians use 1 Corinthians 9:22—Paul's becoming "all things to all men" reference—as the basis of their understanding of cultural relevance. But while this is a good place to start, it isn't the place to stop when implementing the concept. I recently watched an online video proving this assertion: It was a brief introduction to a Southern church's upcoming sermon series, and it caused my questions regarding what being cultural relevant really means to rev into overdrive.

The pastor seems to have had a decent intent: He wanted to address the secret sins we try to hide from others and God. But the execution of this theme was better positioned as an ad for a new Fox comedy than a church congregation. Flatulence jokes such as "Silent but deadly" and "He who smelt it dealt it" flashed across the screen. Voiced-over cutouts of famous Hollywood characters quipped, "I smell somethin' terrible" and "Did I do that?"

In trying to "become all things," it seems this congregation was living down to the culture around it rather than lifting it up to a higher level. It was as if the pastor was actually saying, "Our church is relevant, not preachy. We bring our message to your level."

And that "level" made me wonder how many Christians and churches have, in the name of relevance, been more influenced by Charlie Sheen than Oswald Chambers. And I hadn't yet encountered the Folsom, Calif., congregation that recently used a "Church Sucks" sign campaign to (somewhat ironically) invite the unchurched to their services. Nor had Mars Hill Bible Church (in Michigan) pastor Rob Bell published his new book challenging, among many other things, traditional Christian beliefs in such things as … hell.

It all seems to stem from a sincere desire to make the Gospel friendlier, fresher and more applicable in our postmodern, post-Christian era. And as American culture continues to slide away from its Judeo-Christian roots, the church is in a fight for relevance. But is being edgy or fun in order to attract audiences, Christian or not, always the answer?

Christian author, screenwriter and Pepperdine University professor Craig Detweiler told me, "We as a church are engaging in increasingly desperate ways to try to regain cultural capital. I find that many of our pastors are trying to make a one-hour worship experience feel like a 20-minute sitcom—when I would like my one-hour church experience to feel like seven days' worth of spiritual depth. And it's interesting, because in a secular culture of 'bigger, louder, faster,' we Christians have failed to realize our countercultural challenge, which I would say is to be slower, quieter and deeper. And I think that would make us far more attractive. I can get lots of entertainment all day long, but what I can't get is His quiet, His insight, His reflections. So, in a sense, the dumbing down or the flattening of our worship experience is exactly what we don't need in a time of marked superficiality across most cultural institutions."

Then what things do we need?

The Great Relater
Looking to Jesus as our ultimate example is the place to start and stop. He didn't fight culture. Neither did He embrace it. Rather, Jesus interacted with culture. He spoke the languages of His nation, wore the clothing, worked in a common trade and engaged with people where they were socially, emotionally and spiritually. He also used references and stories that people of the day understood.

Yet He remained untainted by the cultural and spiritual corruptness He was surrounded by—giving perfect hands and feet to the command to be in the world but not of it. He preached the Word of God, not the issue of the day, and He lived counterculturally while inviting others to join Him in holy community.

That's pretty heady stuff. And it feels like it's hard sometimes to draw parallels to our modern world of iPods, music videos, giant movie screens and stupid sitcoms. But the crux of His example is this: Jesus became all things to all men without being defiled by the way they lived, talked and entertained themselves.

In His ministry, Christ knew that true relevance means various things to different groups, and He interacted differently according to the group He was with. So shifting ministry style to remain relatable to an audience, culture and place is essential. But, as Detweiler also said, "The problem arises when we are chasing the spirit of the age rather than the Spirit of Christ—and a generation that demands relevance can easily fashion a false idol."

In our era, the spirit of the age might very well be "coolness." And hopefully the very word cool is still hip enough for me to make my point. Because it isn't hard to see the church's attempts to achieve coolness. Increasingly, sanctuaries are becoming more like mini-malls with coffee shops and Subway sandwiches and bookstores that advertise studies with titles such as The Gospel According to Harry Potter. Worship has become a major, star-studded production for many Christians. Self-help sermons and green movement agendas have increased exponentially from pulpits.

While there's little inherently wrong with learning how to help yourself or take care of our planet, more and more churches are serving up the issues du jour with such fervency and flair that they compete with or even drown out God's word. That's not cultural relevance. That's elevating the temporal above a timeless God, relegating Him to back burner status.

In the long run, will guitar solos, triple mochas, funny fart jokes or social justice commentary fill people's longing hearts? These things might help lead people to the place where God can quench their spiritual thirst or work through them, but they're supporting pieces, not anchors in the puzzle. Truly relevant is any church that remembers this.