Cultural Relevance vs. Cultural Literacy

How to Preach Real, Relevant, Relational and Revolutionary Sermons

Cultural Relevance vs. Cultural Literacy

There is a great fear in the Contemporary Christian Culture (well, the whole culture is based on fear. So this is one of the great fears) of not being relevant. The term relevant is always used but what is meant more specifically is not being culturally relevant.
Every body wants to be culturally relevant. Relevant worship, relevant preaching, relevant music. The consultants say that if you are not culturally relevant then you will not be able to reach the “young people.” Reaching the “young people” is what every Contemporary Christian Culture Church is obsessed with. The “young people” are generally understood to be anyone under sixty.
There is this embarrassment about just how old our faith is. It is, like so old, like thousands of years old. And the Christian church is so old. The buildings are so old; the songs are so old. And old is bad. Old is irrelevant.
So, the preacher gets an ear pierced and grows a goatee.
This my friend is a very hip and culturally relevant thing to do—cutting edge even—in 1985. This is the problem with making cultural relevance a priority. To speak to the “young people” on the cutting edge of popular culture, by imitating them is like chasing a wave on a bicycle. It keeps moving and then disappears and you are left trying to ride a bike underwater.
The “edge” keeps moving. The now is the then by the time you ever hear about it.
When applied to preaching the result is truly silly. I have actually read in Contemporary Christian Culture leadership magazines vocabulary lists of the current slang, with suggestions on how to use the terms in a sermon. You know, so you can relate to the “young people.”
I heard a sermon by a preacher that, I think, had just recently taken off his tie and bought a cordless mic., who I am sure read the same article. He held the Mic up to his mouth like and upside down ice cream cone and shouted into it, “What’s up Holmes boy!” A forty year old white guy. It was not a moment of cultural relevance. I thought he was shouting a greeting from Dr. Watson.
Karl Barth says a preacher should aim beyond the hills of relevance. You see our faith is old but it is also timeless. If a preacher preaches for the now, she limits the truth, makes it tiny and insignificant. Preach about Jesus.
Saying that, if Jesus returned today he would be in some warehouse with a pacifier in his mouth, a glow stick around his neck and dancing ‘til four a.m. downing energy drinks is not preaching about Jesus.
If you don’t even know what I am talking about, then you know what I have been talking about, and if you do then you know that it is a very cutting edge reference as I write this sometime before the end of the third millennium.
You should, maybe, know what I am talking about.
There is a difference between cultural relevance and cultural literacy. It is a good thing to understand popular culture. It is not such a good thing to imitate popular culture as a way to sell Jesus to people. Because, you know, that is how everyone sells every thing. The more you use the methods of Madison Avenue to position Jesus in the culture market, the more people come to see Jesus as just another culture product. And they take Jesus as seriously as they do any other product. People don’t usually give their lives to products. Products hardly ever reconcile the world to God and usher in the age of Jubilee.
Being culturally literate is just a part of being aware of the world you live in. It doesn’t mean you have to imitate it. To understand popular culture is helpful in understanding the context in which the Good News is being heard. In the same way understanding first century Palestinian culture is helpful for understand the context in which the Good News was first proclaimed by the apostles.
If you are a twenty-year-old urban hipster and happen to be a preacher, fine. Be you. If you are a forty-year-old suburbanite and happen to be a preacher, fine be you. If you are a rural Iowan just off the farm, beautiful. Be you. You are not bad and stupid and irrelevant. You are good. God likes you.

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One Response to Cultural Relevance vs. Cultural Literacy

  1. Rachel says:

    Love it preacher. Laughing (and crying) for those (including me in many non-pastor kind of ways) who need this.

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