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Gamaliel's Desk
Saturday, October 16, 2004
Cultural Relevance

One of the biggest lies to come out of what is being called the “Emergent Church” movement is the notion that the church must be “culturally relevant” if it wants to reach our postmodern generation. Their argument is that as the culture changes we need to adapt our methods of presenting the gospel and even our language to reach a generation of people who are unfamiliar with the Evangelical Christian subculture. This is an extension of the work pioneered by the likes of Francis Schaeffer and his L’Abris Fellowship who tried to reach long-haired hippie-style “Jesus People” with his watered-down version of the gospel. Schaeffer taught that we need to engage the culture by understanding where it is coming from and pointing out where it is going. Unfortunately, he never identified the destination as “Hell in a hand basket.” Some misguided and impressionable preachers took these ideas to heart like Bill Hybels of Willow Creek who helped create the “seeker-sensitive” church model and Rick Warren who pioneered his Purpose Driven™ model of the church. Since that time, cultural drift continues to shunt America from being a culture that valued Christian separation to one the late Mike Yaconelli has written about that tries to keep pace with this changing culture.

The notion that we need to respond to the culture around us is a heresy that is designed to foster compromise of the truth. Let me state first of all that this idea is exactly backwards from the facts. The True Church has never been influenced by the culture. The True Church should be influencing the culture by setting standards of holiness, good conduct, deportment and acceptable behavior. It is our God-given task to be the arbiters of Biblical interpretation with an eye to practical application. We are to be salt and light in a sin-darkened world, not “culturally relevant” as some have proclaimed. For us to allow the church to be influenced by the culture is to allow error and impurity to tarnish Christ’s spotless bride.

I have heard people tell me that we are already products of our culture. The language and methods that we use in communicating the gospel are already shaped by the culture in which we were raised. This is a deception from the devil. Our critics point to things like the altar call and the style of our music as inventions that have only come into the church in the past two hundred years or less. They say that the language we use in our services was heavily influenced by the culture of the post-war Baby Boom. I want to make it absolutely clear that our church is in no way influenced by the culture we are in and we do not hold to any beliefs that are strictly of cultural origin. At best we are “culturally neutral” in our Pharisee churches.

For example, total abstinence from alcoholic beverages is a timeless Biblical truth, not a cultural norm. The Prohibition Movement in America did not create or foster this doctrinal position as some suppose. It was merely an attempt by Christians to influence the country for good. The fact that so-called Christians in other countries enjoy an occasional alcoholic beverage only proves that they have abandoned the faith once delivered to the saints. Their lack of standards cannot be proved to be a testimony to the notion that consumption of alcoholic beverages is biblically acceptable. This evil is so pernicious that there are even Christians in our country who feel perfectly free to imbibe of spirits despite their claim to being saved.

Those who say that the Bible endorses consumption of alcohol as a beverage misunderstand Paul’s directive to Timothy. He was not saying that alcoholic consumption was permissible. He was advising young Timothy on a medical matter. Folks were so backward in ancient times that they did not have access to medicine like we have today. Paul’s advice was a prescription since wine was the only medicine available at that time. We should no more consider Paul’s advice a license to drink any more than a doctor’s prescription today is a license to take illegal drugs. They also claim that Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana but we all know that the wine he made was non-alcoholic, non-intoxicating wine that was better than anything they had ever tasted before.

Other matters where we have not wavered are in our musical tastes. We listen to the same songs that the church has listened to down through the ages. Our songs cross cultural barriers and come from a wide range of cultural milieus as well as racial and ethnic traditions. We sing the songs of the Wesley brothers from England and timeless songs from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. We even have a hymn or two from Germany and Finland in addition to our traditional American songs. So we are clearly racially and ethnically diverse in our Pharisee churches. This broad diversity of our cultural heritage helps us to transcend cultural boundaries and reach out to white people all over the English-speaking world regardless of ethnic origin or cultural background.

An even more pernicious error is adopting items from the surrounding culture into our worship. Some churches have gotten so bad about this that their music sounds like a popular radio station, their use of projectors looks like a movie house and their sermons sound more like motivational speeches than theological discourse. People aren’t even dressing for church any more like they used to. They look like they are dressed for a day at the park instead of a day of worship before an almighty God. How can people possibly offer up godly worship if they aren’t even dressed in their Sunday best? They may be pleased with themselves but I have no doubts that God is far from pleased with them. The last thing we should try to do is adopt the ways of our surrounding culture into how we conduct our worship services.

True Pharisee Churches today are uninfluenced by our surrounding culture. Our music, dress, conduct, language are all timeless verities of the truth contained in God’s word. We are not in the business of responding to the culture or trying to communicate to the culture. We are in the business of standing for the Truth of Pharisee culture in a sin darkened world. And if the surrounding culture considers us irrelevant, out of touch and out of step with their world, then that is their loss and is none of our concern. They are the ones accountable to God for failing to heed our message. Certainly we are not accountable for failing to communicate it in a way that they can understand. If their hearts were not so darkened by sin, then they would have no problems understanding us.

…as some of your own poets have said, “We are the offspring of God.”
Acts 14:28 (NIV)

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