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Emerge or Submerge


Is “cultural relevance” an effective and theologically sound wineskin for the emergent church or is it moving Christianity toward oblivion?


Editor Introduction: Postmodernism, The Church, and The Future

Postmodernism, The Church, and The Future
A Pneuma Review discussion about how the church should respond to postmodernism

I remember right where I was sitting. The 5 of us gathered in the coffee shop were the executive team of a para-church ministry that was really interested in re-inventing itself for ministry in a postmodern world. We were in the midst of hammering through an evolving manifesto intended to shape our future. We reaffirmed our new mission statement and it was time to declare our core values as a ministry. It was an invigorating discussion as we described the way our values would be what would make or break us. We had some rich debate over whether to use Christological versus theological, discipleship versus disciplemaking, and so on as we deliberated over these most important issues for our future. But all in all, we had wide agreement in articulating the values we knew were latent within us and were now being pounded out on paper. Soon into this process, I suggested “Cultural Relevance” as an important addition to the list we were compiling. I knew it was nearly stating the obvious among a group of friends who have given our lives to ministering to the emerging generation and to engaging the church with culture. And I received nods and affirmation from everyone except my friend and colleague, Luke. In fact, not only did Luke not give nodding ascent, he went into a fifteen-minute diatribe on why “cultural relevance” was not one of the values to which he wanted to tie his line for the future.

At first I thought he just needed another shot of espresso. I mean as much as Luke has been a mentor to me for several years, there was no way he was going to talk me out of the essential role of cultural relevance for effective ministry. In fact, for a second I was having a déjà vu with my days growing up in fundamentalism. The ills of attending movies, using playing cards, and listening to rock music were all flashing in front of me as I remembered the countless messages on “Flee the world!” Worse yet, I have given countless hours over the last few years exposing the colonialist insensitivities of so many Western missions endeavors. The importance of cultural relevance isn’t something I had just thrown into our discussion on a whim. I have invested all kinds of energy in trying to understand why it is so important to study culture and engage it accordingly. So I initially concluded this was just one of those areas where I would have to “agree to disagree” with Luke. But his passion and resolve to talk this through started me down the road of rethinking my position on “cultural relevance” and contextualization.

Clearly I was not the one going out on a limb in suggesting “Cultural Relevance” as a core value. You don’t have to look far to find endless numbers of documents from emergent ministries that site “cultural relevance” as one of their core values. In fact, Google “cultural relevance/church” and you get something like 185,000 results in .28 seconds. Change the terms to “cultural relevance/youth ministry” and there are 156,000 results in .19 seconds. Okay—so that’s not exactly scholarly research but I don’t think any of us need much statistical data to know that “cultural relevance” is a driving value in youth ministry, the emergent movement, and the American evangelical movement as a whole.

How am I using the term “cultural relevance?” Mittelberg’s (2000) use of the term in his book Building a Contagious Church, is similar to how “cultural relevance” is used throughout mainstream evangelicalism. In describing a church service for GenXers, Middleburg writes,

I walked into a crowded gymnasium. I was handed a bag of popcorn on the way in, along with a program that said “Axis at the Movies.” The atmosphere was dark, noisy, energetic, and filled with edgy music pouring through the high-powered sound system. Soon the stage lights came on and the music kicked in at an even higher decibel level for the portion of the service labeled in the program, “Band Jam.” In fast-moving sequence, youthful men and women stood up front and greeted us, led us in a few upbeat worship songs, performed a true-to-life drama, and showed clips from the recent movie “The X-Files.” Then a casually dressed teacher got up and presented an honest, hard-hitting message about how we can all search for truth–and find it–in the Bible and ultimately in Christ Himself.
It was one of the most relevant events I’d ever seen.

Why? Because this was a ministry designed to reach people in their 20s—from Gen-X—who grew up with these kinds of media and communications, and who needed to hear biblical teachings in language they could understand.

Relevancy is a relative concept. Different audiences, different events. Both well designed for the people they were intended to reach, and for the intensity-level of evangelism they were trying to execute. The message didn’t change, but the methods certainly did.

It’s the basic missionary principle of contextualization. As our church puts it in our list of core values: “We believe that the church should be culturally relevant while remaining doctrinally pure” (p. 344).

Cultural relevance, as I’m using it, is simply learning the cultural realities of the contexts where we minister and mirroring those cultural threads in our ministries. When we embrace “cultural-relevance,” we take on a Mittelberg-like assumption that says “We offer a timeless, transferable message with relevant methods.” My interest is in exploring the theological and sociological validity of embracing cultural relevancy for effective ministry to the emerging generation in the church. In order to explore this, I’ve used three case studies—The evangelical church at large throughout the U.S., the evangelical church in China, and the so-called “emergent church” in the U.S. These case studies are broad, however I wanted to examine these larger movements as a way to gain understanding on how emerging ministries should treat the issue of cultural relevance and contextualizing to the postmodern context. I have provided analysis of each movement and have concluded with some suggestions for emergent ministries as it pertains to cultural relevance.


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Category: Ministry, Winter 2007

About the Author: David Livermore, Ph.D., is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership. He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Prior to leading the Cultural Intelligence Center, Dave spent 20 years in leadership positions with a variety of non-profit organizations around the world including serving as executive director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. Author of several books, including Leading with Cultural Intelligence, which was named a best-seller in business by The Washington Post. Facebook Twitter: @DavidLivermore

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