This is Part 4 of a series. The previous parts to this series can be read here.
The next question that I would like to discuss is: “How important is cultural relevance, and is there a “silver bullet”?
In the last decade, the term “cultural relevance” has become quite a buzzword. Many churches and ministries have used the term to try to convince people to attend their church, conference, concert, etc. On the other hand, some have lambasted the term as a sure-fire sign that someone is a liberal compromiser. I would like to examine the meaning, the misuses, and the merits of the term to see how important cultural relevance is (or isn’t) in the writing of Gospel tracts.
The Meaning Of The Term
So, what exactly IS cultural relevance? Let’s take one word at a time, then put them together. Cultural means “relating to a certain culture”. Relevance means “the sensible or logical connection that one thing has with another.” So cultural relevance is “the sensible or logical connection that one thing has with a certain culture”. In other words, to be culturally relevant is to make a logical connection between an idea and a given audience. In means to show a certain group of people why an idea or product is right for them. If we are culturally relevant preachers of the Gospel, it simply means that we present our message in such a way that it connects with the people to whom we are ministering.
Taken at face value, the term “cultural relevance” is a perfectly legitimate and even a wise approach to ministry. After all, does anyone preach with the goal of making the message as disconnected and uninteresting as possible to his audience? Why then has the term become so repulsive to some fundamental Baptists? It might have something to do with the next point.
The Misuses Of The Term
Without a doubt, there have been misuses of the term. There are some who I believe have hijacked a noble term and a legitimate philosophy for uses that are contrary to Scripture. There are probably more misuses, but here are two which I have noticed.
1. Using “cultural relevance” as an excuse for dishonesty.
When we are telling a story from the Bible, we can try to make it relevant to a certain culture by focusing on a certain part of the story or by making a certain application, but we still must tell the story truthfully. Unfortunately, many people, especially those laboring in foreign cultures, will take tremendous liberties with a story under the guise of cultural relevance.
For example, a few years ago I was made aware of a ministry here in Cambodia which had hired a professional artist to draw flashcards of the main stories in the Bible which people could use while teaching. Over and over they kept calling this set of pictures culturally relevant. When I looked through their book, I didn’t see cultural relevance. I saw dishonesty. They were trying to take the stories of the Bible and make them all look as if they happened in Cambodia! In one picture Jesus and the disciples were all sitting around Khmer-style on top of traditional Khmer straw mats and wearing traditional Khmer scarves (kramas) around their waists. In the picture of Jesus’ crucifixion, there were ancient Khmer soldiers all standing at the foot of the cross. In the pictures of Lucifer’s revolt against God, the empty tomb, and other pictures involving angels, all the angels were the typical Khmer angels as seen on murals inside of the Buddhist temples. This is dishonest to the core!
Ultimately such tactics will discredit the message. There are myriad myths and legends in Cambodia. If you try to make the story of Jesus just like the rest of the myths and legends, that does not give MORE credibility to the message but LESS. People know that Jesus is not a figure in Cambodian history, so they will just assume that someone has adapted a nice story for Cambodian consumption. But the truth of the matter is that Jesus really DID live and walk on this earth. He did NOT wear a krama, and the soldiers who crucified Him were Romans, not Khmer. Jesus is a real, historical figure, and people should be told the truth about Him.
2. Using “cultural relevance” as an excuse for compromise and worldliness.
This is by far the bigger issue of the two. Many ministries are using the concept of cultural relevance as an excuse to jump into every kind of worldliness with both feet. In virtually any city in America and many cities around the world, you can get a free rock-n-roll concert by just sitting in on one of their church services. I recently heard of a woman in the U.S. who is holding church services in a bar. No…she’s not renting a bar. She’s inviting everybody who is interested in God but not church to just meet with at the bar, pull up a barstool, and knock back a few cold ones while she shares the Gospel. Her justification for such silliness? You guessed it! Cultural relevance. She claims that since this is who these people are that this is how you have to reach them.
One of the big problems with people who use cultural relevance as an excuse for compromise and worldliness is that they SAY they are just using these methods to REACH people, but in reality their carnal, flesh-based approach doesn’t end when the people “come to Jesus”. Oh, no. That’s just the beginning. They put the slogan “Come as you are” on the marquee, but what they really mean is “Come as you are and STAY as you are”, which is clearly not what God ever intended. I Peter 1:14-16 says, “As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation;” God commands us to NOT be conformed to this world. There is no excuse for compromise and worldliness. Not even cultural relevance. In his excellent book “Changed Into His Image”, Jim Berg says that you don’t make a difference by adding more of the same. If you want to MAKE a difference, you must BE different.
The Merits Of The Term
I alluded to this already while discussing the meaning of the term, but it bears repeating. Surely nobody has a goal of trying to be as irrelevant as possible to his audience! There is merit and validity to the idea of trying to be culturally relevant as long as we do not use the philosophy as an excuse to stray from Biblical truth. After all, Jesus Himself was culturally relevant when He dealt with people. When He dealt with Nicodemus He said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” When He dealt with the woman at the well He said, “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father”. When He dealt with the rich, young ruler He said, “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor”. Why didn’t He bring up Moses’ brazen serpent to the rich, young ruler? Why didn’t He tell the woman at the well to go sell her possessions and give the money to the poor? It’s because He was relating the Gospel to their circumstances and their backgrounds. That is cultural relevance.
The Apostle Paul was also culturally relevant when He was preaching to the citizens of Athens by quoting a secular poet that they would have known. Again, cultural relevance is legitimate when one is using it properly and protecting the integrity of the truth that is being taught.
Here are a couple of examples of what I consider to be the proper use of the concept of cultural relevance.
In Cambodia, a very common and friendly way to greet someone is with the question, “Where are you going?” (sounds something like “toe naa?”). To be honest, the American in me hates the question. I don’t really feel like answering that question every time I leave my house. Nevertheless, in the culture here, that is a perfectly valid, non-threatening, friendly way to begin a conversation with someone. One day the thought hit me…what a great opening question for a tract! I wrote a brief tract that focuses on the idea that every person’s soul has a final destination, and asked the question, “Where are you going?” In addition I had a Cambodian artist draw an everyday scene from Cambodian life that would really resonate with people here for the front of the tract. In America and perhaps other countries the question would get little attention and the picture would be considered very unimpressive. But here it is an attention grabber. They relate to the picture, and they relate to the question. That is cultural relevance.
Here’s another example of cultural relevance. There is a Khmer phrase that every Cambodian has heard since childhood, and they will fill in the blank without even thinking if you will vocalize the first half of the phrase. The phrase says, “Depend upon yourself”. In Khmer it sounds like this: “Kluen tepung kluen”. Since every person knows this phrase and it is so indicative of the Buddhist mindset, I use it a lot as I am witnessing. Using a phrase (and there are others too) from their own religion oftentimes will open a door to witness, because they have seen that you know something of their views and are willing to give their views a fair hearing.
One more example. In America it is doubtful that anyone would connect with a story about falling into a sewer. But in Cambodia? That’s another story! Children play along the edges of open sewers from the time they can walk, and sometimes sooner. People push their motorbikes across sewers on rickety little bridges all the time. Sewers are a part of the Cambodian landscape. Therefore, when we discuss sin we talk about falling into a sewer. Whether you get sewer water up to your ankles or up to your chest, you are still going to stink when you climb back out! This exact thing happened to the two sons of a fellow missionary here, and their incident has been used thousands of times to explain sin to Cambodian people. On the other hand, if you tried to tell a Khmer person that sin is like shooting a bow and arrow and hitting anything other than the “bull’s eye” of God’s perfection, they would likely say, “Well then I’m okay…I’ve never touched a bow and arrow in my life!”
I believe that it would be foolish to not strive to be relevant to the people to whom God has sent us to share the Gospel. This relevance should not only be in our preaching and in our conversations, but also in our printed material. In a future part to this series, I will share some of the different angles we have taken in our Gospel tracts in an effort to “speak their language”.
But I want to close this article with a question and a word of caution. The question: “Is there a “silver bullet”? The short answer: no! The word of caution: Don’t get your hopes up that someday you are going to write the perfect tract which will be irresistible to everyone who reads its magic words. I will confess that although I never would have said it out loud, I used to think like that. I would write a tract and then look at it, smile, and say, “That’s it!” I don’t think I’m the only one who’s ever done that either. Sometimes a new book, tract, comic book, film, or dvd will come out which is promoted as the answer to all the indifference to the Gospel around the world. In other words, it is promoted as a silver bullet. But the longer I am working with people, the more I realize that people are all different. And that is precisely the reason one tract doesn’t meet every need. We must pray to God for wisdom to share the Gospel in such a way that it is relevant to our audience, and we must press on and try new things when some people still don’t “get it”.