Culturally Relevant: Connection or Compromise
Christian Faith Publishing
174 pp., pb.
Dennis Bliss is a longtime Christian musician and counsellor who has spent a lifetime observing the Christian scene, and his recently published book Culturally Relevant, expresses the deep concern he has over the direction that many churches have taken. It is a call to reexamine the depth of our commitment to Christ, and to rededicate ourselves to His kingdom and glory. It is a much needed book at the present hour.
Denny begins (and he happens to be a personal friend of mine, so I will call him “Denny”) by asking what it means to be “culturally relevant.” The church, of course, exists in a surrounding culture, and ideally seeks to win the people of that culture to Christ. But to do so it must connect with them somehow. But how? What does it mean to adapt to a local culture? Is it simply a matter of speaking the same language so that they can understand what we are saying? Or does it mean changing the message so that we are telling them what they want to hear? Or, even worse, is it conforming to their standards of behavior so that they will accept us?
Denny argues a strong case that in seeking to win the lost we must never compromise our moral or ethical standards. People will not be won to Christ if they cannot see any difference between the church and what they already have in the world. In the end the strategy of compromise is self-defeating.
Denny then goes on to discuss a wide variety of issues confronting the church today: love and marriage, child discipline, evolution, abortion, divorce, adultery, premarital sex, homosexuality, feminism, the use of alcohol, and dress. Many of his observations are borne of his many long years of experience as a Christian counsellor. He then goes on to address certain issues that affect the church as a whole – evangelism, Bible translations and church music. On the subject of Bible translations he expresses the confusion and dismay that many feel when, confronted by the bewildering array versions on the market today, and not having access to the underlying Hebrew and Greek, are not in a position to tell which versions are more accurate. On the subject of church music we will have more to say in a subsequent blog post.
On most of these issues Denny takes a conservative stand: he is opposed to alcohol consumption in any amount, as well as tattoos. He is in favor of spanking children, and believes that men should wear suites to church. He prefers the old King James Version of the Bible. (He does make a concession to modernity by using the New King James Version in his book.)
Occasionally Denny gets caught in an apparent contradiction. On one hand he condemns denominationalism and suggests that it arose through human pride. But then he wants churches to separate themselves from doctrinal error and take an uncompromising stance on what they believe to be the truth. But is that not how the different denominations came into existence in the first place, and continue to this day? One could only wonder what Denny would have told Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 after they could not reach an agreement on the nature of the Lord’s Table. Which one was being proud and stubborn, and which one should refuse to compromise?
Denny argues a very strong case throughout for non-conformity to the world, and argues that obedience to Christ must always be our top priority in life. He makes the helpful observation that this does not mean that the Bible spells out in detail exactly how we are to act in every situation. What is needed, he points out, is spiritual discernment, and toward the very end of his book he lays out his “Twelve Step Program” – twelve basic principles or tests that we can use to determine if a given course of action is in line with God’s will.
At first glance Denny’s book may come across as the work of a cranky old man throwing a hissy fit. And yet his book comes out at a critical time in history. Up until now American Christians have had the luxury of living in a country where the freedom of religion was enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It was respectable to be a Christian.
And yet the times began to change. The surrounding culture became increasingly secular and materialistic, and the bulk of the population lost its interest in church. At first church leaders thought that they could entertain people back into church. The church became consumer oriented, but in the end fought a losing battle with TV, sports and shopping to get peoples’ attention.
But now the surrounding culture is not just indifferent to Christianity; it is becoming increasingly hostile towards it. Anyone who dares to take a stand for traditional Judeo-Christian morality is liable to be called “sexist” and “homophobic.” Thus we are rapidly moving toward a time when modern Christians will have to learn anew what was perfectly obvious to believers in the First Century: that if anyone wishes to be a true follower of Jesus Christ, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24; NKJV).