"The moment we make up our minds that we are going on with this determination to exalt God over all we step out of the world's parade. We shall find ourselves out of adjustment to the ways of the world, and increasingly so as we make progress in the holy way."
– A.W. Tozer ~ The Pursuit of God
Which of the following questions is the correct question to ask?
Should Christians try to be relevant to culture? – If any of these questions is inappropriate, it is this one. And yet, this is the only one of these three questions Christians today seem bothered to ask. It is a silly question for Christians, in many respects, because it is actually nothing more than reactionary and passively aggressive. This question places culture at the forefront and Christians as lesser, responsive agents. This question allows culture to be the significant shaping force for Christian action and lifestyle. This is a question that breeds anxiety and inferiority for Christians in Western culture. It leads to reactionary alignments and allegiances and allowances. And yet, it is the question that we Christians continue to ask. In recent years I have tried my best to avoid directly answering this question in order to not give its asking any more justification. (The questions below stem from that avoidance.)
Are Christians relevant to culture? — Is this, then, the question we should be asking?Well, this is an interesting, but inappropriate, question from two perspectives. First, from a cultural viewpoint, this question poses whether or not Christians should be considered in the shaping of cultural norms and practices. Many people in the West today would answer this question with a resounding "no". Many people see Christians as irrelevant (or antiquated or senseless) to the discussion concerning the 'enlightened' progression of society. If the Christians would just be quiet (or silenced) then culture wouldn't have to 'tolerate' their misalignment any longer. Second, from a Christian viewpoint, this question poses whether or not there is even any connectivity possible with culture. This, like the other perspective, is a negative-based worldview. It begins with antagonism. The ignorant irony in this question, however, is that the very asking of it reveals a Christian embeddedness within it. The culture 'around us' informs the very language in which we pose the question, the reasoning-structure by which we answer the question, and the physical-infrastructure of the lifestyle (our foods, families, education, transportation, business, etc) within which the question is influenced. To begin with a proposition that Christians and culture are intrinsically opposed is a foundation for self-righteousness and bigotry towards opposing viewpoints (two things for which Christians have been accused in recent years).
Is culture relevant to Christians? Of the three, I think this is the better question. Christians are to be allegiant to Christ above all. So the question that shapes our action and lifestyle in this world then concerns the relevancy of culture to Christ. If Christ, after all, is supreme, then it is the precarious nature of culture that is called into question. The dependent relevancy of culture to Christians, then is uniquely defined in the subject of Christ operating in this world. And the answer to that question is freeing, engaging, and altruistic. From Christ's perspective, people within any culture are to be loved and are worthy of the respect of love and are worth the cost of love ("For God so loved the world he gave his only Son…"; "As you go, make disciples of all nations…"). Because of Christ's love, then, culture becomes extremely important to the day-to-day action and lifestyle of Christ's followers.
With all of this in mind, Christianity, then, is irrelevant to culture. While Christianity has shaped much of the bedrock of Western thought and values, culture has proven itself in recent years to be actually quite unconcerned and uncommitted to its players. Culture bends to the dominant forces, good or bad, of history, uncaring towards the oppressors or the oppressed. Culture, like a wind changing course, inevitably, treats all people or movements as inconsequential. Any question, especially asked by a Christian, that positions Christianity as subjected within culture is a fundamentally skewed question and actually sets up Christians for illegitimacy within a society.
But culture, on the other hand, is relevant to Christians because Christians are remarkably concerned and remarkably committed to people in any given society. Cultural settings are the framework within which the Gospel is lived and shared. Culture is the mode by which Christians communicate the true life of Christ.
I suppose Christians could argue that we deserve a voice in culture, that we have an important part to play, or that we are relevant to the discussions of direction and values of our nation or city. Such an argument may be a 'relevant' one. But the expected outcome of that argument is dramatically different depending on the foundational question from which the Christian is perceiving culture.
If we are consumed by becoming 'relevant' to culture, then we will always succumb to selfish clamoring. No, we need to reorient our perspective to the vision of God for the sake of others. "Whatever we do," 2 Corinthians 5:14 indicates, "it is because Christ's love controls us." Paul goes on to remind the Corinthians that as followers of Jesus "we have stopped evaluating others by what the world thinks about them." In other words, Christians perceive the world as God does… which allows us to see the internal value of each person, the redemption potential in each society, and the inherent burden of each age to conform itself to Christ. "And God has given us the task of reconciling people to him… this is the wonderful message he has given us to tell others. We are Christ's ambassadors" (2 Cor 5:16-20).
The Christian moves in culture, therefore, with the passionate mission, the tremendous confidence and the unrelenting humility of Jesus.