Cultural Relevance: How to Engage Culture With Integrity

Me: "I've seen lots of movies. I must be relevant!". Hermione: "Huh?"

Is Christianity still relevant in a postmodern and pluralistic culture?

A lot of Christians pride themselves on how relevant they are. They do their best to understand and empathize with our culture.

Unfortunately, a lot of Christians are misguided in their attempts to become more relevant. They watch lots of movies, wear the right clothes, sip expensive lattes, and immerse themselves in CNN and the New York Times thinking they’ve cracked the cultural code.

I love what Ed Stetzer says about “being missional”. He said, “Seems like everyone wants to be missional but when they say “missional” they really mean “edgy,” “innovative,” or “contemporary.”

We should connect with our culture but how do we do so with Biblical and personal integrity? Let’s look at three ways we think we are connecting (but aren’t) and one way to truly connect.

Three ways you might think you are connecting with culture, but probably aren’t

1. You are watching what they are watching

Watch more movies, that’s the answer! Right? TV and movies are like windows into the minds of our neighbors. They must be gifts from God!

That might’ve been a bit sarcastic but pop culture does have some value. Movies like Religulous show us how Christianity is perceived (or caricatured) and points out some of our own faults. Movies like Napolean Dynamite generate a cult following. TV shows often influence the way our culture thinks about sex and relationships.

I love a good movie but I have to say that watching the same movies our neighbors are watching doesn’t automatically make us more relevant to the world. John Piper actually encourages us to turn off the television. We waste our time watching TV and then justify it by saying we are trying to understand our culture. I’m not suggesting that movies don’t provide some insight and that we should throw away our TVs.

What I am suggesting is that we stop using “relevance” to justify our gluttonous desire to be entertained. I want to be more of an information connoisseur (as Erwin McManus says) than a consumer. In an age of information and sensory overload we have to limit our intake to a few choice servings so that we don’t get so saturated with information and entertainment that we can’t make sense of it all.

I’ll never understand culture better if I just let culture happen on the screen in front of me.

2. You study what they are thinking

Another way people try to get a pulse on the culture is by studying philosophy and worldviews. This is of definite interest to me as a thinking Christian and I enjoy reading and discussing this stuff all the time. I like to study other religions and compare and contrast that with the Bible as an exercise in discipline. I try to engage my mind and the minds of others as I read both Christian thinkers and secular philosophers. But this isn’t the ultimate answer either.

Is it helpful to understand postmodernism and how it differs from modernism? Is it helpful to study the various generations (millenials, boomers, busters, etc.) and how they act and think? Is it helpful to compare worldviews and study various religions? Should we have an understanding of politics and global interconnectivity? Yes is the answer to all of those questions. These are helpful things to know but they are not necessary for understanding culture. A follower of Jesus can relevantly reach out to the culture without ever hearing the term “postmodern” much less study it and be an expert on it. A person can engage culture and never think through the characteristics of a postmodern world-view.

3. You condemn what they are doing

Finally, I see some people going the other way. Some people try and engage culture by yelling at them. I don’t see Jesus holding any signs by the side of the road cursing people for their sin. Yet, there are people who don’t care to watch the “devil’s box” or try and understand what the culture is thinking. They would rather “engage” culture by simply bashing a 50 pound King James Bible over their heads and condemn them all to hell.

Many seem to have little concern about what people need. They prefer to keep the world at arms length and believe they are holy and blameless and are doing God’s work by shouting at people about their doom. Is there ever a time when we should confront someone on an issue that we know is displeasing to God? Yes, but I believe the best way to do that is in the context of a relationship, which brings us to THE way to understand and connect with culture:

One way you can connect with others and maintain your integrity

Share Your Life With Them

If you are a thinking Christian and you are concerned about the way God’s family connects with others then you have probably already intuitively arrived at the right way to understand the culture around us.

It’s simple: Share your life with them!

That’s right, you have to know people. The best way to understand culture is to build relationships with your neighbors and co-workers. Go to parties, participate in school activities. Don’t do it with some ulterior motive to win them to Christ. Simply get to know them. Enjoy the relationship. Don’t try and perform or convert. Be yourself. Listen to their hopes and fears and dreams and convictions. Share with them your hopes and fears and dreams and convictions. Be a friend. Laugh and cry with them.

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.” Colossians 4:5-6

Stop wasting your time “brushing up” on culture through stuffy books and empty movies. Plant your foot firmly in the Word of God and the other foot firmly in the world in which you live. Live out your convictions and your faith but don’t push people away. Think Christianly about your relationships. Relationships take time and people want to know that you care about them and not just about getting another convert for Jesus.

Jesus says we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus connected with “tax collectors and sinners” (and he was rejected by religious leaders as a result). He did it, not to understand them or to be like them, but to love them and to develop a relationship with them. Personally, I’d much rather “engage culture” by spending time in my neighbor’s living room than by guessing about the culture based on a book I read or a movie I watched.

Jesus was relevant because he was relational. How do you connect with your neighbors?

Nathan is the pastor of City Life Church in Ridgewood, NY. He and his family are committed to making and multiplying disciples in the most diverse county in the US. Read more about Nathan here. Visit the City Life Church website here.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Matt P

    Nodded my head at a lot of your insights on this one… thanks!

    One of your rhetorical questions, “Is it helpful to study the various generations (millenials, boomers, busters, etc.) and how they act and think?”, reminds me of chapter 1 in “Don’t Call It a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day” (ed. by Kevin DeYoung). If you don’t know the book already, I bet you’d appreciate it. Chapter 1 is by Kevin DeYoung (RCA pastor, Michigan; GCTS alum), called “The Secret to Reaching the Next Generation,” and despite the seeming “hipness” of the chapter title, it’s a great call to Biblical basics of being in people’s lives for God’s glory, kinda like some of your comments. I commend it (and the whole book) to you if you’re not already familiar.

    And lastly, on your question about my neighbors: my most frequent contact with neighbors right now is 2 very young boys always playing in our driveway. Sweetest kids and so much fun to play with, but also push boundaries, etc. often, and sadly they sometimes provoke in me the same feeling you described in your other post about the dentist. So your post is a timely reminder to persevere in love w/ the two boys and just keep praying for their parents and our limited interactions w/ them. Anyway…I’m not very good at the whole *brief* comment concept of blogging. Thanks for your grace when you get these infrequent and long-winded comments from me! 🙂

    • Matt, I hadn’t read that book. Looks really good. Keep reaching those neighbors!