Cultural Relevance by Mark Pfeifer

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RELEVANT! This word should win the prize for the most common Christian Buzzword of the Twenty-first Century. Cultural relevance has become a battle cry for some and a frustration for others. Are we expected to keep up with a culture that redefines itself every couple years? How much do we change to relate to a culture that has entered a post-Christian era? Should we be willing to sacrifice more or hold firm to our traditional standards and practices?

What do you think? One or the other?


I’m not sure, either. But here are some real life questions people keep asking and we need to answer:

  •   Is it OK to have a musician on the worship team that has not yet made a commitment to Christ?
  •  Is it OK to include into membership an unmarried couple that live together?
  •  Is it OK to have an openly gay person volunteer in the food pantry?
  •  Should we scrap all the church’s ancient traditions and replace them with contemporary symbols?
  •  Is it OK to preach about judgment and hell or should we talk more about God’s love and going to heaven?
  • Is it acceptable to enforce a code of conduct as a basis of participation in church membership?
  •   Is it OK to intentionally be entertaining to get people in the building?
  •  Is the Sunday morning service for attracting seekers or strengthening saints?
  • And how about that one dear saint that scares people when they pray, should we shut them up or just let them go?

In recent years pastors in America have consistently been told that they and their congregations need to be more relevant with culture in order to reach it.

That’s why many leaders are grappling with these questions. Following the advice of so- called experts and the examples of celebrity pastors, we’ve become cool, casual and consensual. First, we exchanged hymns for worship songs, giving Aunt Mabel and her organ the boot. Then we threw out old religious relics and modernized our worship space. Rules were restrictive and passé so we either changed them or replaced them with grace and freedom for everyone. Pastors needed a makeover so we got piercings and tattoos, started wearing jeans and plaid shirts, reintroduced Chuck Taylors, dumbed down the message, put the scriptures on the screens so people wouldn’t need Bibles, reinvented our language and became what the culture needed.

Or did we?

How’s this working out for us?

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After spending all this time and energy trying to be relevant, has the church gained ground or lost it? Has the church’s influence in the culture increased or decreased? In our attempts to become relevant, have we gained distinction or lost it? Has the church transformed culture or has the culture transformed the church? Have we blended in so well with the culture that we have finally become unnoticed and irrelevant chameleons?

But on the other hand… …the last thing we want to be is outdated, archaic and antiquated! Right? It’s happened before. We’ve seen it.

Ministers and their churches fade away, having refused to change and keep up with the times. Walking into their buildings and experiencing their services is like entering a time capsule. No one except the people who created that environment cares to experience it. It’s the land that time forgot – and so did the community around them! Nobody even notices they exist anymore. They are, dare I say, irrelevant.

This is why we must investigate this critical subject with honesty and objectivity.

How can we reach contemporary culture in a practical way while remaining securely tethered to Biblical truth?

This is the central question!


Let’s back up and ask where the idea of harmonizing the teachings of Christ with contemporary culture came from. Believe it or not, it came from Paul and the First Century Church. While the church was still an infantile offshoot of Judaism, led primarily by Jewish believers, a group of people began testing ways to make it more relevant to modern Greco-Roman culture.

Cultural Relevance in the City of Antioch…

Almost immediately as the gospel reached beyond the borders of Israel, cultural relevancy became an issue. It was in Antioch, a city settled by one of the four generals of Alexander the Great, where followers of Christ were first called Christians and cultural relevance got its start.

The church at Antioch was largely comprised of Gentile believers. In their midst, a Christian worldview began to percolate that included Jewish conservatism with Greek pragmatism. The result was a Spirit-filled church that looked for ways to expand and take the gospel to places it otherwise could not have gone. The church in Antioch quickly became the seedbed for a new progressive methodology that lent itself to Greco-Roman Culture. Originally invited by Barnabas for a visit, Paul the Apostle found a home in this vibrant community and made it the headquarters of his worldwide Gentile ministry.


Cultural Relevance and the Apostle Paul…  

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No other Jewish leader was able to shrink the gap between the church’s original Jewishness and its future in the Greco-Roman world like Paul. His upbringing in the cosmopolitan city of Tarsus exposed him to the nuances of Greco-Roman culture while his religious training in Jerusalem gave him the doctrinal foundations needed to formulate Christian theology and practice.

He comfortably navigated both worlds, eventually blending them into a single entity called the Church that stretched from the palaces of Rome to the temple in Jerusalem.

In describing his ability to be cross-cultural, Paul wrote in I Corinthians 9:19-23,

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.

Paul was able to use things familiar to the general public that made the new Christian message more palatable. In his book, “The Cities that Built the Bible,” former UCLA professor Dr. Robert R Cargill attributes a number of Paul’s sayings in scripture to Greek origins. For instance, he cites I Corinthians 15:33 where Paul says, “bad company corrupts good habits” as sounding strikingly similar to the words of Greek tragedian, Euripides who wrote in Fifth Century B.C., “Evil communication corrupts good manners.” Was this Paul’s way of using the familiar language of his audience to put forth the message of Jesus?

Cargill goes on to cite several examples where Paul uses phrases that sound almost identical to those of Plato.

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Like Philippians 1:21 where Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” is very close to Plato’s statement, “Now if death is like this, to die is gain.” Or when Paul says, “See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone” in I Thessalonians 5:15 sounds very close to Plato when he said, “Then we ought neither to requite wrong with wrong.” He also gives I Corinthians 9:24 as an example where Paul says, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.” These words are very similar to what Plato said in most famous work, the Republic, where he writes, “But the true runners when they have come to the goal receive the prizes and bear away the crown.”

Probably the best example of Paul using contemporary culture to reinforce his message was his speech at Mars Hill in Athens...

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©2018 Mark Pfeifer  /