Thursday, October 25, 2007

Subculture or Counterculture: Is Church Relevant?

    ...This raises the missional question as to whether the church exists simply as a subculture or a counterculture or whether it can become truly cross-cultural in the sense of crossing into the broader culture through proclaiming the good news within that cultural context. [From Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures, by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K Bolger.]
We KNOW that the gospel is relevant. Jesus is still relevant. But are most modern churches relevant to society?

Sometimes we get the two confused. We think Obviously, all our churches are relevant. Because Jesus is still relevant!

Jesus immersed himself in first century Jewish society. He took on the culture and practices -- he became accessible, he became one of us. Yet sometimes we believe that our churches should stand totally apart from the culture. Should they? Should churches really be countercultural?

I haven't read much of the book that I quoted above, honestly. But some of the parts I've skimmed have made me think. Missionaries immerse themselves in the societies in which they live. Yet sometimes we criticize local churches that become too much "like the world." We like our traditions. We think that just because the world is in a constant state of change, the church doesn't necessarily need to change the way it functions.

This book mentions that the church occupied a central position within Western societies for more than 1600 years. But that has recently changed. Within the last 100 years, cultural shifts have created a post-Christian society. "The church as an institution has lost its privileged position and increasingly occupies a place on the margins of society alongside other recreational and non-profit organizations."

Most people don't go to church anymore.

And, though this is a big assumption, I believe that the vast majority of the minority that DOES go to church, does just that. They go to church. They don't go to WORSHIP. They don't consider themselves to really be the church. It's a building to go to on Sunday mornings.

The message of Jesus doesn't need to change. Our need for God doesn't change. But that doesn't mean that what church IS, and how church is done, can't change.

So how should it change?

We use the word community a lot to talk about what we think the church needs to be. Most of us truly believe that people long for relationships -- they long for an intimate community. The thing is, on the surface, that's not always true. People isolate themselves in their suburban homes because they want to. They avoid seeking out those relationships because, sometimes, it can be uncomfortable.

I talked to someone the other day who said she hated when people talked to her that she didn't know. Friendly people bothered her. She just wanted to be left alone, because she thought that any stranger that talked to her was going to be full of fake, insincere bullsh**.

So that takes us to the next set of words we like to use. Honesty. Vulnerability. Transparency. The church needs to rid itself of the faux smiles we automatically put on when we walk in the door. It needs to get real.

Are these things true? I don't know. Probably. An intimate community of honest people is nice. But that's not the gospel. That's not the message of Jesus. That's a self-help group, which is exactly what we're trying to avoid.

Obviously we need to show the love of Jesus. We need to be more outwardly-focused, yet at the same time developing true relationships within. Maybe the church DOES need to be countercultural. Surely, it needs to be different. Yet it still needs to understand our society, and be willing to change.

Once again, I have more questions than answers.

Should the church cross into the broader culture? How? Does the church need to change its "business model"?


void77 said... turns up nothing about relevance when searching in the New Testament (NAS) for “church”, “body”, “set apart”, or “apart.” I kind of thought it would, actually, but it didn’t.

But the idea of relevance to me seems to be more “seeker” oriented than anything else. Somehow we think we have to be “relevant” to “attract” the “lost” so they can “become” “saved.” So, in our efforts to be “relevant,” we begin to role-play with the world, gradually slipping deeper and deeper into they’re “culture” with the notion that we’ll be able to “pull them out” of the horrible situation they are in. “Relevancy” to me sounds more like an undercover drug bust or some big bait-and-switch that we’re trying to pull off.

“Relevancy” does not equate to “honesty.” If you’re honest with who you are as a person, and you happen to be in line with today’s cultural view, and all that, guess what…you’re “relevant.” But if not, then, you’re “not-relevant” to the main-culture. But at least your HONEST. AUTHENTIC. REAL. But to me, this is purely a personal thing… I don’t think it really applies to the church. And here’s why …

The question of relevancy to me swims very closely to the purpose of church discussions. So, Google says the number one hit for “purpose of church” is here ( . According to the thesis statement paragraph, church is primarily for four things:

1) teaching Biblical doctrine
2) providing place of fellowship for believers
3) observing the Lord’s supper
4) praying

It then goes on to describe and support these four ideas. Then, talks about feeding the poor, helping orphans, etc.

I think too often, we talk about these “goals” and use “relevancy” as a “means-to-an-end.” Problem is, we become transparent and lost in the muck so we never reach our goals. And as a church, we focus on the big items – like feeding the poor and helping widows – and ignore the growth and preparation – the equipping – that is needed to exist in the world (see items 1 through 4) and accomplish said goals! But, boy, it sure does feel good! And our billboards look great !! We must be doing something right. (sarcasm)

So, anyway, I’ve just rambled a whole bunch. But basically, ‘relevancy’ is too close to the other ugly word ‘relative.’ What is relevant to one “culture” will be “irrelevant” to another anyway. We should probably quit worrying about what everyone else thinks and just do the stuff that Jesus wanted us to do. Could it be that simple?

Robotface Shumway (Big Doofus) said...

I think you just used an entire year's worth of quotation marks. But I still liked your comment, void77.

If the church is based on the New Testament model of the church, then it doesn't matter if it's considered relevant or not. Jesus mixed in with the people, to be sure, but that doesn't mean that the body of Christ held their meetings in such a way. On top of that, Jesus upset a lot of people by doing the things He did.

Perhaps you're over-thinking this whole thing.

void77 said...

hehe...the quotes were there for scott's enjoyment!

scott said...

I think I need to restate what I mean by "relevant."

The impression I got from what I read in a few pages of that book was that the authors were saying that the church hasn't kept up with culture. It hasn't cared about culture. It makes no effort to understand and know the 21st century society we live in. And I think that, for "church" (there's those darn quotes again) as a whole, that's pretty spot-on.

Church is becoming obsolete. We can talk about how seeker-oriented the church needs to be, but that's really just talking about specific church services. I think, obviously, the church as a whole needs to be "seeker oriented." I'd just prefer to call it accessible.

We joke about the emerging mode being a "conversation," not a denomination. And we talk about bar churches. Block parties. Barbecues. The key is meeting people where they are, rather than just inviting them to "church".

And to meet people where they are, you have to understand the culture you live in.

How 'bout them apples?

Robotface Shumway (Big Doofus) said...

Scott, you're not the first person to ask the question, "Is the church relevant?" in the past 2000 years. But I say that the church is relevant because it's the bride of Christ. Sure, we may mess things up now and then, but the church should be different.

Now, I DO believe that Christians should be aware of the culture around them. You know, there was a guy that was saying that about 30 years ago. Who was that guy? Oh, yeah...IT WAS FRANCIS SCHAEFFER. But since joe has already exposed him as a lightweight with a poor epistemology, I guess we'll have to ignore him.

Maybe you guys should skip Starbucks for a few months.

Joe B said...

RoboShum, just 'cause Scott has gone off the reservation doesn't mean we can't linger over our weekly cup of Java. In fact, you should come down so we can slap a welcoming embrace on you.

Oh, yeah... and """""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""" !

Joe B said...

I guess I think of "relevant" as the opposite of "pointless", more or less.

The church absolutely should be different from the world, yea and amen. But not just for the sake of being odd. Read I Jn 2:1-17 and see that the "don't be worldly" admonition is an admonition to LOVE.

THAT is why the World sucks and the Kingdom rocks. It is Love.
It has nothing to do with tattoos or roman collars or stained glass or Passion CD's. Nada.

We cannot sanctify ourselves by wearing denim jumpers or ugly shoes. But loving can result in some pretty uncool atmosphere. It can result in crippled people and poor, ignorant people and obnoxious people cluttering up the place. Greasy haired fundamentalists and horn-rimmed tech-nerds. Old deaf men and young pierced boys and fat girls...are they relevant?

Let love be sincere...he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.

Joe B said...

A note about the word "relevant", compliments of The word is from medieval latin, the present participle of relevare: to take up, to lift up, to grasp. It came to be a legal term in 15th century english for "to take possession of" property. Entered general language around 1800.

To be relevant, it seems, is to "get it." Neat.

Joe B said...

I think I saw Schaeffer at Starbucks last Monday. He was wearing a turtleneck and Calvin's.