Thursday, January 31, 2013

Relevant or Subversive?

There has been a catch phrase in the modern church for a generation now that is always sure to stir up some emotions, rally some, offend others, and always start a long dorm room discussion among Christian College students. What is it?

Cultural Relevance.

This thought has led to thousands of sermons about Paul in the book of Acts preaching on Mars Hill quoting the pagan poets Aratus and Epimenides in Acts 17:28 as proof that Christians need to be connected to the culture in order to spread the Gospel. After all, we must speak a language that the people understand and relate to, right?

On the other hand there are those who will run to Paul's statement to the Corinthians about only knowing Christ and him crucified and nothing else. After all, the Gospel is relevant enough, right?

What if both are right and both wrong because they have missed the point of the Gospel? When the church's focus is on being culturally relevant, this is often the result:

The goal of the church seems to turn into an endless pursuit of trying to impress an unbelieving world by trying to look and act as much like the world as possible. 

Instead of discussing the nature of the culture we are in and worrying about being relevant to a culture that neither understands nor worships God, maybe we should start having a discussion about the very nature of the Gospel. What is that nature?


Yes, Subversion. The Gospel is about subverting culture, which requires understanding the nature of the culture we live in, and how the Gospel would change it in light of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the reality of the coming Kingdom of God.

This is exactly what Jesus, Paul, Peter and every other successful preacher of the Gospel has understood and practiced. Jesus entered a culture and was well acquainted with it. He understood the culture all too well and then taught with statements like "You have heard it said 'love your friend, and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you." Jesus was being culturally relevant by stating a commonly held, popular belief of his day and then he subverted it to God's purposes. He refused to embrace it. In fact, he demolished it in favor of the ways of God. 

Paul did the same thing with his sermon on Mars Hill. He wasn't embracing the pagan culture, he used it to demolish the polytheistic culture that grieved him so badly. Sure, the people recognized what he was saying, but it wasn't so that he could feed them something that was already killing them. Rather, it was for the purpose of destroying the foundation of their polytheistic culture in light of the knowledge of the One True God who created Heaven and Earth and sent His Son to die for the sins of the world. 

Subversion. It is what we are all about. And yes, it is going to make some people, very, very angry. The Church isn't going to look cool. The Church will be at odds with the world powers just as it has been for almost 2000 years.

Get over it. 

If you want to serve God and His Kingdom, you must understand that we are not called to cultural relevance, but to Kingdom Relevance. God's Kingdom that is. 

Take for example Jesus' introduction to the sermon on the mount, or really the whole sermon for that point beginning in Matthew 5. 

Blessed are the poor in Spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the Pure in Heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted. 

Everything in that list is turning popular concepts in his culture upside down. He is subverting the value system, politics, economics, and philosophies that were prevalent in his day. Sure, it was relevant alright. Why? Because it was (and is) the complete opposite of everything that people naturally pursue, believe, and practice. 

Subversion. It is the nature of the Gospel and God's Kingdom.

So what does this have to do with today? Oh, let me count the ways.

1. The Worship wars. Enough already. We live in a culture of consumerism and the more we cater to desires and styles that "speak" to people who are driven by consumerism, the more the Gospel is going to be lost and the Spirit of God ignored. We must, MUST stop worrying about our own entertainment and learn what it means to worship in Spirit and in Truth. That is, Worship GOD. Not fulfill my own desires for a killer praise band, a guitarist that can shred my face off, and a worship set that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy or a worship style that reminds me of what I remember as a child back in the "good ole days." The whole argument about style is nothing more than consumers fighting over what they want. This is not SPIRIT AND TRUTH. Worship is to be subversive to consumerism, selfishness, and personal desires. Worship is about God, not me. If the unbelieving world is comfortable with our worship of God, then I can assure, something is wrong with the way we are worshiping God. 

2. The self help craze. 3 Minutes to a better you because every day is Friday during your best life now. Our culture is infatuated with self-improvement, personal appearance, personal peace, and personal prosperity. Guess what, not the Gospel's concern. Jesus did not come to die on the cross so you could have a nice house and be happy according to cultural standards. Yet, we see self-help books line the shelves at Christian stores. Our music is more about our feelings than the power of God or the Gospel truth. Jesus and the Gospel are so subversive to these ideas that many Christians won't even hear it today. Jesus said "Deny Yourself, take up your cross and follow me." He did not say "Come to me and I will make your life work out." The Gospel requires that I get over myself. If my faith is not leading me to become less worried about myself, then I am not serving God, because God will subvert that part of you and me. John the Baptist said it best "He must increase, and I must decrease."

These are just two examples, albeit major ones, in our culture today. The fact of the matter is simple. The Gospel is subversive. The Gospel will make you uncomfortable. God will not tell you everything is okay, if everything is not okay. The Spirit will convict you and make you feel bad about the sin in your life. God is not interested in a person steeped in sin having a good self-esteem. 

The Church cannot focus on being culturally relevant while at the same time trying to be subversive. You will be one or the other. If you truly understand the Gospel, then it will lead to reject much of the culture we live in and start living in light of the Truth of God's word. That is, once you can get over yourself. 

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