The famous preacher, Dwight L. Moody, once rightly said of the Church, "The boat belongs in the water of the world. But, if the water gets in the boat, it sinks." Albeit an important principle, his admonishment tells seafarers neither how to sail nor how to stay dry. Some within the Christian community contend that we can further the Church’s purpose in this world by becoming more relevant—that is, by tactfully engaging non-believers with various artistic and communication strategies prevalent in the contemporary cultural milieu. Others argue that such efforts inevitably water down the Gospel of Jesus and only compromise our mission. Siding with the advocates of relevance, both personally and vocationally as a Christian songwriter and performing artist, I want to share some thoughts on the nature and importance of our endeavor.
[THE NATURE OF RELEVANCE]
Relevance is based on the important concept of common ground. Without some form of common ground between people, there is no basis for communication or relationships. Common ground serves as a starting point from which people can begin to experience and make sense of the world together. It closes the "us-them" gap while inhibiting that divisive "we-they" mentality. When we meet people who seem to have nothing significant in common with us, we naturally infer that they cannot understand who we are or how we see the world. Worse yet, if we get the impression that they are intentionally trying to avoid having anything in common with us, we turn our backs to the apparent elitism. By being culturally relevant to non-believers, we can establish a common frame of reference from which we can begin to look toward God with them as we reflect God to them.
Our relevance demonstrates that we can speak their language. When you cannot speak a given people’s language, you can only talk at them and not with them. On the flip side of the coin, the greater your fluency in their language, the greater your ability to make sense to them. The community of "new creations in Christ" must become meaningful to those for whom concepts like "being born again" and "living by the power of the Holy Spirit" have no internal, experiential significance or reference point. What better way than by communicating who we are through various dialects of modern culture?
[THE PLACE OF RELEVANCE]
We can distinguish between trying to make the Gospel culturally relevant on the one hand and trying to make ourselves culturally relevant on the other. The former is something of a misnomer. We are not out to conform the Gospel. The Gospel ceases to be the Gospel when we neglect or misconstrue any of its content in some culturally adaptive effort. Rather, we adapt ourselves. We tactfully use our artistic and communicative abilities to convey ourselves as real people in the midst of our being "aliens in this world." People who are wholly other can seem unreal or illusory. Once a non-believer sees that the messenger is somehow authentic, he or she is then in a better position to take the message seriously. Our personal relevance creates an initial context in which the gospel, which enters later, has room to breathe.
We sometimes forget that people do not come to Christ in a vacuum. They are first drawn by God’s relentless and loving pursuit of them through their various life experiences. Consider Jesus’ parable of the soils. The seed produced nothing significant when sown in soil that was rocky, thorny, or along the side of the road. When sown in good soil, however, the seed yielded a crop, "some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty." The question for us is, "How did the soil get to be that way in the first place?" I would argue that God prepared that good soil previous to sowing the seed upon it. I would argue that our being relevant can be a method by which God may soften and nourish much of the hard, barren soil of unbelieving hearts amidst today’s cultural landscape.
[THE DANGER OF RELEVANCE]
Criticisms of our attempts to be culturally relevant are not entirely invalid. Our expedition is a dangerous one. Sometimes we neglect our whole mission; the means becomes our end. We sail in circles, relishing in the voyage and forgetting our destination. We consume ourselves almost entirely with becoming culturally excellent and slough off our original motivation. However, when we use our gifts and talents in a relevant manner and "to the glory of God," guarding ourselves from our own estranging tendencies, we can welcome the community of non-believers in a common language, on a common ground and with the power of God’s pursuit of each one of their lives. God’s Spirit, not our being relevant, may harvest the fruit. But our being relevant, in submission to God’s Spirit, serves to first ripen that fruit.
[Shane Moe is the guitar player of 38th Parallel. He graduated with a liberal studies degree and down the road plans to pursue graduate studies in philosophy and theology with the intent of being a professor.]
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