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Engaging the Emerging Culture with Relevance
by Derek Elkins
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Lately it seems (and by “lately” I mean the last twenty to thirty years and not “of late” or any other nonsense) that we have been bombarded (and by “bombarded” I am referring strictly to the Middle-Ages use of the word which means to strike repeatedly about the head and neck by forty elderly monks wielding olive branches) with a barrage (and by…oh, never mind) …Apparently the demon of convoluted-ness has stuck his raspy, pointed head where it doesn’t belong. Let’s begin a fresh.

Lately it seems as if our Christianese has been overwhelmed (now, that’s a good term) with a variety of casual-sounding yet innocuous phrases designed at improving the reception between Christians and non-Christians. Words like “engage” and “relevant” and “emerging” and “pseudo-Christian” (Okay, I added that last one, but it’s gonna be a big, big hit someday) have been assaulting our senses in an attempt to get the older, die-in-the-wool Christians to start relating to the world around them. But where is the focus of this relevant revival, where is this attack aimed at by this battling brute of a bulbous breed? Why am I using enough adjectives to choke a small horse and why are my metaphors popping out like kids playing Mr. Potato Head with a watermelon?

You’ve got to admit that the last analogy was a little out there…

You’ve also got to admit that the Emerging Church has an interesting basis to rest its little head upon. Yes, we’ve got to engage people. Yes, we’ve got to be a relevant or we’ll just be an aging dinosaur that has since lost its purpose. But at what price do we sacrifice our ideals on the altar of sensibility and at what juncture do we abandon our thinking to adopt a newer approach? And for that matter, where are we relevant and how do we engage the culture? It’s not enough to yell at our troops, like a battle-hardened general or a half-enraged moose, that they need to engage the culture, we need to determine where our relevance is the most successful or needed and we need to determine in what arena we should be gladiators, like that one movie about that guy who was a gladiator…I forget the name.

It seems to me…and let’s not get into how all that works and why I should be the judge of normality, it seems to me that relevance and engaging the culture are good things. After all, didn’t Jesus engage the culture by eating at people’s houses, teaching them in boats, and sitting among them in large, mountainside gatherings? And wasn’t Jesus relevant when he held a dialogue (Man, I love that word. It’s like one of those old, philosophical words that have absolutely no relevance to anything but sounds really cool) with the Samaritan woman and with the tax collector and pretty much everyone He met? Jesus met them on their level and so should we. And, as for engaging the culture, we never find Jesus lodged away in a monastery brewing something interesting. Jesus was extremely relational in all of His dealings with people.

So, Jesus engaged the people, but did He engage the culture? He certainly spoke against the culture, but He didn’t really adopt anything from the culture into His “act” to relate better to the people. He spoke directly to needs, both spoken and unspoken. But I don’t think He ever thought to hold a mini-coliseum to attract unbelievers. Or maybe He could have tried a salvation sale (Twenty Percent Off! Everything Must Go!).

So, the ideas of relevance and engagement are certainly well…engaging, we’ve got to identify where and when and who needs to engage and be relevant. One particularly unwholesome idea that continues to creep its massive head into the picture like a mastodon roadkill is the perception that it is the church itself (Not the body of Christ, not the people, but the church service) that needs to be relevant and that needs to engage the culture. The idea that we need to make the church services relevant and that the service needs to relate to the culture is an interesting concept. I understand fully where they’re going with this one. If we interest the unbeliever, they will come back, hear the gospel and be saved. And where’s the harm in that? People are getting saved aren’t they and that’s the whole point of the gospel and the reason why Christ came and all that stuff, right?

Well, now we get to the juicy insides of the matter. Because, when the church service starts to be the focus and the drawing point instead of Christ alone, then we start to drive off into really deep waters. The problem with Christians pointing unbelievers to the church or for the church service to attract the unbeliever is that the unbeliever will naturally look for satisfaction or completeness in the program instead of in the Lord.

The church and its people will never be able to meet up to the expectations of being a savior. In fact, the people and the church service, upon not delivering the expected life-altering change, will be perceived as the ultimate letdown and ultimately as hypocritical. After all, didn’t they tell me that the church would solve all my problems? Didn’t they tell me that all I would have to do is attend one service and I would see the light? All I see are a bunch of mixed up people just like me who pretend like they have it all together. When we point unbelievers to the church service or to friendship in the people or anything else as the solution rather than pointing them to Jesus, those solutions will always fail to impress, fail to impart grace, and fail to bring salvation.

Some pointed to the church will see the church as an end unto itself. Their happiness will be made complete through their participation in fellowship, ownership and activity. Meanwhile, they will spiritually fade because their source of power is not in the Omnipotent One but in an increasingly fallible and imperfect church, pastor and church body.

We can’t point people to the church obviously. And we shouldn’t point people to the Pastor alone for guidance because that increases the distance between the laity (spectators) and the clergy (players), and it tends to remove personal responsibility in regards to sharing the gospel. And we can’t point people to the body of Christ because the body will never fully reflect the glory of God like Christ can.

There is no middleman between righteous God and sinful man and there can never be a middleman. The reason is that the middleman can become the focus instead of the Lord. The obvious conclusion is that we have inwardly-focused churches, tightly knit social clubs, and Pastor Superstars.

So, we’ve come a long way from engaging the culture and being relevant, but this is all relevant, so stay with me. The ones who need to be relevant are the people of God who are relating to their friends, family and neighbors the excellent news of salvation and forgiveness. If we start talking in Christianese, we may as well be speaking in a foreign language.

But what about the church service? Does it need to be relevant? Well, we certainly need to understand what the preacher is preaching about, so it needs to be down to earth and not so far out in the Stratosphere that we couldn’t understand the message even with a translator. And the message needs to factor in the current problems of our current age and not what the Knights of the Round Table had to deal with.

But, when we get down to Brass Tacks, which is something I never desire to get down to because they tend to hurt, how much influence does an hour or two service on Sundays really have on the rest of my week? It probably has (if we’re honest with ourselves and not lying as usual) as much influence as a good movie and maybe not even that much. The real relationship building between the Lord and ourselves happens when we step out in faith or when we take time out of our busy day to read the Bible and pray. This is not to say that I condemn the meeting of one another or that I think church services are cliché and have lived out their usefulness. But we need to give some serious thought into the idea that maybe there is a better way to go about engaging people. Maybe there is a better time and venue to be relevant. Maybe the church service isn’t as important as our relationships with other believers and unbelievers outside the holy walls of our sanctuary. Maybe the church service was never designed for unbelievers…maybe it was all for the believers.

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