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Being Cultural and Counter-Cultural at the Same Time

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<p>Andy Stokes. Andre Sommersell. Ryan Hoag. All pro football players, none famous. But they each share the distinction of being named “Mr. Irrelevant.”</p>
<p>This dubious title is given to the last player selected in the annual NFL Draft. As one might guess, the moniker arose because the last pick in the draft often fails to make the final roster, making the selection irrelevant to the team.</p>
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They even have an award, called the Lowsman Trophy (that’s the opposite of the Heisman Trophy). Instead of the famous running back with extended arm, this trophy features a shocked player dropping the ball.

Most of the time the player chosen has no real pro football career to speak of. But occasionally Mr. Irrelevant does something notable. Marty Moore, MI 94, played in a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots and has had a 10-year career. Conversely, some of the highest players chosen in the draft, such as quarterback Ryan Leaf, are famous more for their flameouts than their on-field productivity. In other words, the NFL draft is one large gamble, with little correlation between draft order and performance. Yet teams continue to covet high draft status, wanting  “relevant” selections that will have an immediate and long-term impact.

The idea of relevancy can get a little confused, in both pro football and in ministry. In the church, some circles strongly emphasize it, while others are stridently opposed to the concept of being “relevant.” On one hand, there is an entire ministry magazine called Relevant. You might guess their opinion. It reflects the relevancy concerns of the seeker movement that has been popular since the 1980s. On the other hand, some might say the recent movement called Emergent could be appropriately named Irrelevant, with its emphasis on stepping away from pop culture awareness and its search for new, authentic expressions of faith.

A church that I work closely with experiences the tension of the “relevancy” debate on a regular basis. The pastor is highly interested in relevance. His desire is to break down barriers that prevent people from encountering Jesus. He likes to use language such as, “Our church is a place where you can use ‘fun’ and ‘church’ in the same sentence. He also says the people of the congregation are far from perfect, but they’re ‘real.’ The understated theology is that God is present in the places where we live, as sinful as we may be. This is the essence of the Incarnation. It could be said that the pastor’s focus is on the human Jesus – the one who hung out with sinners and tax collectors.

The worship leader, however, is highly interested in what he usually describes as “deeper” worship. He says that his goal is to create a worship environment that enables people to glorify God and know God’s presence. In worship, he uses language such as, “Let’s enter into a time of worship,” and, “Let’s give honor and respect to God today.” The understated theology is that we as sinful people must cleanse ourselves through faith in Jesus to experience the presence of a God who is without sin and wholly Other. This is the doctrine of sanctification, or to be made holy and set apart for God. It could be said that his focus is on the divine Jesus – the one who became transfigured on the mountaintop.

These may seem like fairly opposite goals and beliefs. In some ways, they are. But these two points of view are not mutually exclusive and can (and I believe should) coexist in the way the Gospel is communicated. For my church, it has on occasion created tension. But his church is better off for it. Because of the Pastor’s and worship leader’s unique personalities and passions, the Christian paradox of being cultural and yet counter-cultural at the same time remains present in this church community.

When a congregation experiences this paradox, it is in a very real way reflecting an ancient tension. At the Council of Chalcedon, in the year 451, the church confessed Jesus as truly man, truly God. Two natures that are in perfect unity. This belief is about as universal as it gets in the Christian Church.

The thing is, although we confess it with our mouths, we often don’t show it in our actions. Many churches can’t handle the tension, and end up focusing on the human side (being “in the world,” or relevant), or the divine side (being “not of this world,” or irrelevant). As RC Sproul states,

When we think about the Incarnation, we don’t want to get the two natures mixed up and think that Jesus had a deified human nature or a humanized divine nature. We can distinguish them, but we can’t tear them apart because they exist in perfect unity.

If the two natures – human and divine – are equally present in Jesus, this means the challenge for those in ministry is to always hold the two in tension. To not get so engrossed in connection that discipleship is lost, or not to get so engrossed in discipleship that the door closes to the world. As a user named Dave commented in our reading section the other day,

We use relevance to the culture to form relationships and do effective evangelism. Then, we build a counter-culture in which people become holy. There is a tension here. I notice that some churches only do cultural relevance. Others only do counter-culture. I so want to hold these in tension. I want to be cultural enough to attract and communicate effectively. I want to be counter-cultural enough to annoy people out of complacency and into submission to Christ – the sanctifying work in their lives.

In other words, to maintain cultural relevancy even as we strive to create a culture different than the culture at large.

At the church where we got our start in ministry, Ginghamsburg, we experienced a period in which the effort to be relevant surpassed the effort to create a thriving counter culture. We were doing a great job of using cultural language and images to attract people, but the back door was almost as big as the front door. Many people left, or stayed mired in their human condition, because in our rapid growth we didn’t yet have discipleship programs to match evangelistic programs. Ginghamsburg has since shifted the focus of their ministry to an attempt to do both at the same time – to speak with a relevant voice while simultaneously emphasizing discipleship and counter cultural living. The church body has grown both spiritually and numerically because of these efforts.

The focus on relevancy without the balance of creating a counter culture unfortunately has happened a lot in the church, especially during the “seeker” period of the 80s and 90s. Out of these movements a newer emphasis on what some call “believer” worship has emerged. Taken from the classic tension, the emphasis on the human Jesus is now shifting back toward the divine Jesus.

The use of visual media gets caught in the undertow when it is closely associated with relevant worship and is seen as primarily a tool for outreach. Images are not only for outreach purposes. It is true that biblical truth can be expressed in ways that are potentially more enlightening through images relevant to our culture, when compared to images that have long established meanings in the church.

But contrary to what some demonstrate, images may be used for devotion as well. Any single association is false, just as any would be for the printed word. Both are merely mediums for creating an experience of God in worship and are equally valid. This means images are good for worship that strives to be relevant and also good for worship that strives to make disciples. the languages of image, music and spoken word have resonance in both cultural connection and counter-cultural discipleship.

This marriage of the human and divine languages creates an awareness of the Spirit that believers and non-believers alike can find hope and meaning in. The nets are cast much wider when we balance the use of these two powerful communication forms for both outreach and discipleship. It is when we exclude one purpose or the other that the catch is greatly reduced.

If Jesus is both human and divine, and if our goal is to proclaim the Word and make disciples, then we need to be willing to stay near the human Jesus even as we are drawn to the divine Jesus. If we follow the lead of Jesus’ ministry on earth, we’ll find ourselves striving to communicate in a relevant way through stories and parables that relate to people living in this time. We need to learn how to remain relevant even as we create a counter-culture separate and apart from the world.

11 Comments so far »

  1. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on April 2, 2006 @ 9:26 am

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  2. MD Turner said,

    Wrote on April 5, 2006 @ 9:51 am

    How funny is it that I was just discussing this with my pastor last night? We were looking at plans for “Holy Week”, including Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Maundy Thursday, we will have a foot washing in our church. Being a fairly “contemporary” church, this will be a new concept for most, and will be a stumbling block to many, who will decide not to attend because it will seem just plain weird. Some of the religious traditions seen in liturgical churches seem to be saying, “It does not matter if worship is relevant. We provide the services and people may attend or not attend, but we are carrying out what we believe God has called us to do.” I understand the underlying belief…that in the words of Peter, we are to please God, not man. I also feel very torn that where we are may be way ahead of where our people are. People often have to be lead along step by step. Some things that we introduce in worship are leaps beyond the level of maturity, and I don’t mean age. I have seen people in their senior age firmly set on hymns because that is what they like, not because the message means anything to them. (Others love the deeper message contained in the hymns and hate the seeming shallow message in choruses!) Torn is the word, but I think it is okay to be torn. It makes us spend more time on our knees, seeking God’s guidance rather than thinking we have got it all figured out, and thereby sinking into mediocrity.

  3. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on April 5, 2006 @ 10:37 am

    The reference to Peter is relevant (haha). Peter and Paul, as two leaders of the early church, exemplified this debate well in Acts 15, which is a great illustration of this discussion. There the big argument was over Jewish law applied to newly converted Gentiles. Paul and others wanted to be more culturally accommodating while others were more interested in making followers abandon their old cultural practices and take on new religious ones. Good thing he won the argument too or our faith would probably have a much smaller scope today.

    We think this illustrates the paradox perfectly.

    It also implies the problem with the counter-cultural viewpoint. Yes, the way of the cross is narrow and few become disciples. Yet narrowness can become inaccessibility with the human tendency to glorify our individual pathway to God. To paraphrase Paul, what is the narrow way for one may not be for another. Christian history is littered with separatist groups, from monastaries to denominations, that find personal holiness in removing from culture, but ultimately die off. This is a radical idea, but we see this in a way as selfish. For a congregation to be truly engaged with culture is for a congregation to be missional. It is doing things that as a believer one might not really want to do for the sake of mission, of proclaiming Jesus. It is easier to focus on personal holiness than to be engaged in society because in the former, all we have to worry about is ourselves.

    The problem with the cultural viewpoint comes, and we think this happens often, when the struggle of the counter-cultural life is minimized. In these congregations the emphasis is placed too much on accessibility and in the process the way of the Cross is lost. This is ultimately self-defeating, as a congregation can draw people to Jesus but is incapable of closing the deal, so to speak.

  4. Jay Mason said,

    Wrote on April 18, 2006 @ 11:49 am

    We try to help congregations walk this line every week. Some are better suited for it and other lost there relevance 50 to 100 years ago.

  5. Jim Galbreath said,

    Wrote on April 18, 2006 @ 5:14 pm

    For me, the word “relevant” is loaded with too much baggage, so I try to recast it in terms of “openess” and “connection.” As pastor, I strive to be open to the experiences of people around me, rather than forcing them into my preconceptions. As preacher, I try to connect with the lives of the people with whom I am sharing the Gospel hope, instead of trying to force them to wear a particular pair of theological wading boots.
    Some weeks that openess is more successful, and that connection more solid, than it is other weeks. And sometimes, the openess and connection are both great, but the issue is simply not as profound as it is other weeks. So my growing edge is to try pushing that openess and connection deeper into the heart of people’s soul needs. Out of that struggle to discern God’s leading come images, metaphors, and words that are “relevant,” not because of their pop culture status or traditional use, but because they connect the thirstiest places in questing human spirits with the most nourishing and refreshing Living Water.

  6. Steve Ormond said,

    Wrote on April 19, 2006 @ 7:08 am

    As a layperson involved in leadership, I have a few thoughts on this subject:
    1. Whatever is done must, of necessity, be the kind of worship that can be “produced” (sorry) week in and week out without burnout. I have begun to realize that some of the value of doing things the way that they have always been done is the very fact that the participants can spend more energy on worshipping the Lord, rather than worrying about and producing the latest and newest thing.
    2. The participants must be taught that worship is not about us, it’s about the Lord of the Universe and about others. Whenever I’m tempted to think that what I believe are my needs should be fulfilled in worship, I’m reminded that Jesus was not worrying about meeting his needs while hanging on the cross, rather he was meeting His father’s needs and the needs of others. If we are to emulate Jesus, the question should always be: Is this worship pleasing to God and are others being fed? In this light, worship’s relevancy could be a mere distraction or it could be the heart of the matter, since God’s purposes are always relevant and Man’s purposes often are not.
    3. The word “relevant” cannot stand on its own. It is an adjective used to describe something else. The question is always “Relevant to what?” Whether dead or alive, worship is always relevant to something, either relevant to ancient traditions, liturgy, old folks, young folks, hip hop culture, rock and roll culture, professionals, workers, farmers, etc. It is never irrelevant. While we may not like the focus of its relevance in a given church or tradition, it is not correct to describe any worship as irrelevant. I believe that we should move toward relevancy for God and for the others who we encounter who need to hear the good news and experience the liberating joy of true worship. Maybe that’s what is implied by the general use the term “relevant,” but I worry about its use because often it seems to be another way of emphasizing my needs over those of God and others.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  7. Robert M. Grigg Jr said,

    Wrote on April 19, 2006 @ 8:57 am

    I am impressed with the sensitive hearts of all the commentators. I found the article refreshing even though I am doing battle in what I consider a much more legalistic setting than most. Most of my membership would not even consider the discussion worth having.I am thankful for your thoughtful and loving probing of the edges of what it means to be ‘missional’. Thanks bg

  8. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on April 19, 2006 @ 10:06 am

    Steve,

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. We wanted to add some of our thoughts to your thoughts.

    On point 1.

    We?Äôd agree that going overboard can make burnout happen pretty quick. But we?Äôd also say that we?Äôve seen many times over that a week where less ?Äúproduction?Äù (making it an easy week for producers) makes it harder for people to make connections and engage in heartfelt worship. It takes time and energy to make the message/media/music connect, and not putting in that time means worship that may be more foreign (or disconnected) to worshipers.

    Think about it in the context of music. Regardless of song choice, if a musician doesn?Äôt practice, learn the chords, and internalize the song, then present it in a way that people can participate, when ?Äúpraise and worship?Äù time begins, the song will likely not be very worshipful. The same is true for writing messages, dramas, and creating media. If we just slap something together, using the ?Äúlet?Äôs just let worship happen?Äù mentality, it likely will not be worship, but a series of confusing activities ranging from spoken word to song.

    The “way things have always been done” worship is simpler to produce in lots of ways simply because it’s been done a lot, so the production difficulties have been worked out.

    On point 2.

    This is an interesting point, as on one hand you make the point that worship is missional but on another hand decide that it’s not. It’s gotta be both, as the article discusses. Worship is both upward and outward, and since the missional component cannot be ignored we have to be sensitive to it.

    Your thought makes us wonder, how do we know if something is pleasing to God? Is it the worshipful feeling we get? If so, then we run the risk of doing what you warn against, by making it “about us,” as we define worship to be ?Äúworshipful?Äù by whatever that means in our minds. Biblically, Jesus was very relevant (or connectional) in the culture he lived in. He used what he had around him as a way to help people experience truth. We in the church often want to retreat from culture, creating our own clothing, bookstores, music etc. This isn?Äôt all bad, but there has to be a balance. Which is of course the point of the article.

    On Point 3.

    Definitely, we agree that the word “relevant” has some baggage. In fact, Jim’s point (#5) has resonance with us. We are not fans of the word, but wrtoe the article in some ways because the word continues to float around so much.

    The fact is, though, worship cannot exist without a cultural context. We just have to decide what context we want. You cannot remove yourself from the context entirely. This is like congregations that histroically wanted to remove themselves from denominational affiliation and ended up creating a “denomination” called “non-denominational.”

    If we acknowledge that there’s a cultural context, we just have to ask, which? The further away we get from when a certain worship model was created the more its impact begins to fade. Unless we?Äôre really sold out on the countercultural viewpoint these worship models created for previous time (50?Äôs liturgy) don?Äôt connect very well. So it could be said by someone who doesn?Äôt have a church history that this stuff is irrelevant.

    Keep posting! We love the discussion.

  9. Beth Galbreath said,

    Wrote on April 26, 2006 @ 6:07 pm

    My, my…I remember this exact discussion happening in 1970 at Garrett Theological Seminary, in the middle of the seminary’s relevance-imposed meltdown into irrelevance (to be fair, campuses everywhere were melting in the same fires). I’ve recently completed a master’s in spiritual formation and evangelism at the same seminary because, thankfully, many folks in the Church (and Garrett) have discovered that what’s needed is a balance, which God provides by grace if we listen. I believe great things lie ahead for the Church – if we can keep up the pace.

  10. Midnight Oil Productions | Reading | Archive » Identifying Your Team?Äôs Purpose said,

    Wrote on August 20, 2007 @ 4:40 pm

    […] Being Cultural and Counter-Cultural at the Same Time1,063 Views […]

  11. Traci Henegar said,

    Wrote on January 28, 2009 @ 6:26 am

    Len and Jason–our Worship team really struggles with this issue, so I appreciate the thought-provoking article. Will take to our next design meeting!

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