Hindsight and Cultural Relevance

Much is said about cultural relevance among evangelicals. This is, of course, not new. As a new believer in my twenties I recall then “cutting edge” pastors speaking of cultural relevance. I recall them often being criticized by those older and grayer. That was in the 1980s and those pastors are now the graying figures of the SBC. And another generation now is speaking of the need to be culturally relevant.

The need for Christians to communicate effectively in the culture in which they live is self-evident. The extent to which being “culturally relevant” aids such communication is a matter of long-standing dispute. That may depend on what one means by “culturally relevant” and, more importantly, depends on possessing a well-formed theory of contextualization.

Those who know me understand that I think we do a pretty poor job of contextualization in the United States, either by being cultural gluttons or by being cultural anorexics. We either imbibe our culture uncritically, or we assume a separatist posture, either of which typically renders our witness ineffective. But I don’t intend to work all that out here. I do want to suggest a note of caution about the pursuit of cultural relevance: You may want to think about how you’ll look years later when you attempt cultural relevance today. This may give you some perspective on things, and may keep you from being “time-bound” in your rush to be relevant. There is something to be said, after all, for timelessness, especially when it comes to the gospel.

Some friends helped me think about this when we learned recently that Stryper is releasing a new album. I hope this goes well for them. That news reminded me of this. Which reminded me of cultural relevance and the benefit of hindsight. Yes, there is something to be said for timelessness.

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  1. Chad   •  

    Great Post. Lol, I love the links you connected too. A great illustration to show that cultural relevance is essential. It almost seems like a dilemma. An ever-changing culture and a timeless, life-changing message. Just what is the connecting point? I am reminded of a statement I heard years ago, “A genuine, Christian life is the first apologetic you will ever need.” (Anonymous)Maybe that is the start that we need, at least in America. Thanks for you post, Dr. Nelson.

  2. Cory Wilson   •  

    I think the key question this post raises is, “Does Dr. Nelson have a Stryper outfit stashed away in his closet?”

  3. Ed Gravely   •  

    I agree wholeheartedly. I am further concerned that many of the ideas we adopt or co-opt into the Church in the name of relevancy are partially or entirely incompatible with evangelical Christianity. This danger only increases my passion for a robust theological and liberal arts education for our Christian students. As C.S. Lewis said:

    “We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion . . . The scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours form the press and the microphone of his own age.”


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