the baby and the bathwater


The culturally relevant Christ
April 18, 2009, 10:11 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The truths at the heart of our faith, revealed in the person and activity of Jesus Christ and recorded in the scriptures, are eternal, never changing and life giving. Whenever we seek ways of communicating these truths to the world we should never be tempted to water them down, tell only part, soften the blows for the sake of being perceived in a better light, because that will lead people into error. We should never be ashamed to speak of Christ crucified and all that means.

But we should always do our utmost to make sure that our own personal preferences, even our own humanity and desires, are not confused with these eternal truths. I may like radio 2 music in church: but that is a preference, not an eternal truth. I may like ‘Prayer Book’ liturgy, but that is a preference, not an eternal truth. I may like to dress up in a suit or wear a fancy hat on a Sunday morning, but that is a preference, not an eternal truth.

There is a phrase that is commonly used in churches – and has been for many years – that goes something like this: ‘When I go to church, I should just be myself’. So when I sing, I sing in a way that reflects where I am. When I talk to people about my faith, I use language that I understand the best. When I design a website, I use graphics that I like. Christians like this sort of language because it feels sort of ‘honest’ or ‘real’.

The trouble is that it is also mainly ‘wrong’.

OK, so I’m being deliberately controversial here – possibly too much so – but it is to make a point, and the point is this: our journey in faith is not so much about ‘being what we are’ but ‘becoming like Jesus’ as much as we possibly can. And if we focus our life and mission around ‘what we are like’ rather than ‘What Jesus is like (i.e. what we are supposed to become)’ then we will be in extreme danger of becoming too inward focused and ineffectual.

There are many churches up and down the country not-so-full-anymore of people who have confused their own preferences and likes for the identity of Jesus Christ. They keep trying to be ‘themselves’ and stop being transformed into the likeness of Christ. The status quo is maintained, but the life drains away. They keep using the language, design, music, liturgy that they love, but the people stop coming through the door. They have become ‘themselves’ but in doing so they have become ‘irrelevant’.

Jesus came into the world. He was the Son of God. He had complete intimacy with the Father. He knew almost everything that the Father knew. He had the whole power and knowledge and authority of the universe at his disposal. And yet when He started talking about the Kingdom he started to use stories and pictures and sayings.

Here is the King of Glory. His moment has arrived. His ministry on Earth starts. He has three years to change the face of the planet, and He chooses to tell a few stories.

Why was that?

Maybe it was because it was His preference. Maybe it was the thing that made His own boat float the most. I don’t know about that. But I do believe it was because He understood his culture, and the language they understood and He realised this would be the best way of making the Kingdom accessible. The culture of the day was a story-telling culture, and because of this, Jesus taught in stories. The window that He put up so that people could look into the Kingdom life was a series of stories.

Our culture today is very different to what it was in Jesus day. It is very different to what it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, even 20 years ago when I was part of the ‘youth’ in the church. And so the language we have to use and the methods we have to employ to reach our culture have to be constantly refreshed. We can’t set up a board in the town centre with the words ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners’ and preach and expect the same results that our grandfathers achieved. We can’t use ‘Comic Sans’ font all the time and expect people to be engaged in the same was as our parents were. We can’t produce a photocopied A5 magazine and expect the world to sit up and take notice any more.

The truths of our faith will never change. But because our culture changes, the window we need to provide for people to see those truths, that faith, is changing all the time. If we ignore that, we become irrelevant. And whether you like the word ‘brand’ or not, if we say we are ‘Christ centred’ as a church, then we also need to be ‘culturally relevant’ as a church.

Because He is.

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4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Neil, that’s a fantastic point about being like Jesus vs being like ‘me’. I’d never thought of it like that before. I think our culture is so much about our own personal preference, and self-expression that we come so introspective and self-centred. Although the very nature of being culturally aware requires us to take this into consideration, as a leader especially it is important to point towards Jesus, not to our personal feelings. I think that excessive inward-thinking is one of the main causes of the rise in depression and related illnesses in recent times.

I guess anyone involved in Worship/Music ministry has had times when they’ve not really been in the best frame of mind for leading worship in front of people, but worship isn’t just about how we feel at the time, it’s about acknowledging the truth about who God is and what’s he’s done in our lives.

On another note, I think that storytelling is still a widely-used and very effective preaching technique. When I think of some of the best know preachers today in our ‘flavour’ or church…people like Nicky Gumbel, Bill Johnson, Brian Houston etc, one thing they all seem to have in common is an incredible ability to tell stories which are interesting, whitty, relevant, contain the right amount of information and make a thought-provoking point.

Comment by Chris Lang

Hi Neil,

This is really timely for a group of us in our church, who are seeking to influence the cultural relevance of what we do, why we do it and for whom we do it.

I read a really interesting chapter of a book recently (won’t promote it!), which talked about the “maps” we are using. Sometimes it appears that we’re still using the same old maps to navigate a landscape which changed many years ago. The old maps whilst maybe a good nod towards what went before, do not help us navigate the current terrain.

Without wanting to peddle a metaphor too hard, we do need to re-draw how we are reaching people, and come outside of our 2-hours-on-a-Sunday traditions in order to speak to the world in a language they can understand, without as you rightly state, watering down the gospel.

To start with a blank page however is too frightening for many, as preference and taste are much more comfortable at times than faith and trust. I guess this is where we must be courageous and pioneer a way forward that the church has maybe not carved out before.

And on the “comic sans” point, I wish it had been banned a long time ago. That patronising “its an MS font but quite informal really” style and message it communicates is just plain wrong. Check out http://bancomicsans.com/home.html.

Comment by Kev B

Sorry link didn’t work; http://bancomicsans.com/home.html

Comment by Kev B

Chris – great comments.
Kev – i didn’t realise that about Comic Sans…until recently I thought it was just me who hated it! Apparently there was also an April fools post by ‘Creative Review’ announcing that it would be the offiicial font of the olympics! some people fell for it too….

Comment by neilbennetts




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