Forget Being Culturally Relevant – Let’s Get Contextually Real

Dirty Hands 200c“How do I get my church to grow?”

That is the #1 question asked by pastors today.

I used to ask that question a lot. I take an entire chapter of The Grasshopper Myth to tell how pursuing the answer to it nearly killed me and my church.

I don’t ask that question any more.

For a while I shifted from that question to asking what is surely the #2 question asked by pastors today. Namely, “How do I make my church culturally relevant?”

I don’t ask that question any more either.

No, I don’t want my church to wallow in some old-time, glory days of the past that probably never really were that glorious. But the latest buzzword of cultural relevance may not be the best alternative to that.


The Problem with Being Culturally Relevant

Chasing cultural relevance reminds me of an episode from the bygone TV sitcom Third Rock from the Sun, in which the aliens decided that the best way for them to blend in with earth culture was to do whatever was most popular.

They watched only the highest-rated TV shows, wore the best-selling clothes, ate at the most popular restaurants, etc. They didn’t do what they enjoyed, only what was popular. As a result, they became bland and bored. By the end of the episode they decided that being themselves was better than blending in.

Trying to be culturally relevant is turning us into followers instead of leaders. And it makes our churches look a little too much the same in the ways we ought to be different. 

Chasing cultural relevance can give us a false sense of success because it can be learned by reading the right books and watching a couple of the latest TV shows. But thinking I know the youth of my community because I read a book on postmodernism and watched an episode of the latest hot show on MTV is a delusion.


If Not Cultural Relevance, Then What?

I’ve had this discomfort with cultural relevance for a while now, but I haven’t talked or written about it because I didn’t know what to replace it with – or at least I didn’t know what to call what I wanted to replace it with.

Now I do.

A couple weeks ago I had a great talk with someone I’ve just met, named Mark Collins. Mark works with the Western Ontario District of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. He also pastors a Small Church on the edge of a First Nations Community.

We were talking about the advantages and challenges of Small Churches when he said “We need to stop worrying about being culturally relevant and start being contextually real.”

Contextually real. That’s it!

Thank you for the “aha” moment, Mark.


The Irrelevance of Being Culturally Relevant

Ministry, especially Small Church ministry, is not about relevance, it’s about reality. And it’s not about the culture, it’s about our context. It’s about living my real life in the context of other people’s real lives.

How have we missed this simple reality? And why would we want to replace it with being culturally relevant?

Here are a few possible reasons:

  • Cultural relevance is cool. Contextual reality isn’t.
  • Cultural relevance is broad. Contextual reality is narrow.
  • Cultural relevance is generic. Contextual reality is personal.
  • Cultural relevance follows trends. Contextual reality listens to people.
  • Cultural relevance has answers. Contextual reality asks questions.
  • Cultural relevance creates outsiders. Contextual reality invites outsiders in.
  • Cultural relevance celebrates success. Contextual reality recognizes our hurts.
  • Cultural relevance can happen at a distance. Contextual reality means getting our hands dirty.

Cultural relevance is more comfortable for a lot of us. It helps us feel like we’re in charge of something. That we have a few things figured out in a world that has grown increasingly difficult to understand.

Contextual reality, on the other hand, is anything but comfortable. It puts us in charge of nothing. And it often raises more questions than it answers.

But contextual reality has one advantage.

It. Is. Real.


Jesus Was Contextually Real

Jesus never gave one moment’s thought to being relevant to his culture. Not to the Jewish culture he lived in, to the Roman culture that was subjugating them, or to the Greek culture that framed their thinking.

Jesus was real. And he adapted to the reality of whatever context he found himself in. One city at a time, one crowd at a time, one person at a time. And he did it without ever betraying his core reality.

So maybe instead of asking “what’s cool?”, “what’s relevant?” or even “what’s new?” our churches ought to be asking people “what reality are you living in?”

Dealing with people rather than trends takes a little longer. But it’s worth it. And I’ve come to believe it’s the only way we can really earn people’s trust so that they’ll allow us to share the deeper reality that’s only found in Jesus. A reality that fits any context. And any culture.


So what do you think? Do you have any other illustrations of the differences between being culturally relevant and being contextually real?

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(Dirty Hands photo from Michael.Boston • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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13 thoughts on “Forget Being Culturally Relevant – Let’s Get Contextually Real”

    1. Check out Mike’s comments below. That’s as good an answer as the one I was thinking. Contextual reality is just a fancy term for getting to know people one at a time.

    2. Adding to my other message…it’s also about what my congregation is “really” all about. Not as a whole but each person — person by person.

      It’s one of the great advantages of a small church–you can spend time with people to hear their “real” story.

  1. It’s the difference between reading a demographic report about your community and actually knocking on a door and getting to know what is “realy” [reality] going on.

    Or–the difference between hanging at a Starbucks or the local laundrymat.

    Or praying over a city verses sitting on a bus bench with an elderly person and asking them what you can pray for them for.

    Realty is dirty work.

  2. Help me out here, Karl. I’m not sure I’m catching your drift.

    It seems like you’re posing an “either or” thing here. Part of my confusion stems from the fact that a lot of church growth talkers throw the phrase “culturally relevant” around w/o dialing in the meaning.

    Here’s my understanding of the term “cultural relevance”, influenced largely by family members who are in social services and public education.

    In education and the “caring professions” (including everything from medicine to social work to psychotherapy) the term simply refers to the fact that professionals adjust their communication process to the person receiving benefit of the professional’s actions. E.g., my wife is a social worker who manages 50+ caseworkers that provide Medicaid services in a metropolitan area. Their clients include people who are first generation from North Africa, Mexico and Central America, Asia as well as native born U.S. citizens.

    In order to help these clients caseworkers must use forms of communication (metaphors, specialized terms, methods of personal interaction, perhaps even a translator) to increase the likelihood of their being understood and the client being helped.

    When I think of cultural relevance and the church what comes to *my* mind is insuring that the ministry offers forms of communication, programs and services (not necessarily worship services) that will be readily understood and received by an ethnically or culturally distinct group of people to whom that church has been called to minister.

    I confess, I’m not sure that’s what the church growth talkers mean by the term. Perhaps they do; I no longer dedicate much of my bandwidth to what they say.

    Now, moving on.

    If I understand you correctly, at least the bit about being contextually real, it sounds a lot like the latest buzzword, “missional living.”

    Seems to me that the two go hand-in-hand, but only if I define cultural relevance as above.


    One of the influencers in my current client church (I’m an intentional interim by vocation) has huge passion, energy and devotion to follow-up with visitors and home visitation. His vision for the assimilation process includes a series of home visits to those who have visited the church.

    In the Deep South – his provenance – this was and maybe still is appropriate. It fits the culture. But in the metropolitan areas of the Southwest that is considered “creepy”. It is associated with young men in white shirts and black ties riding bicycles or middle aged women in frumpy dresses schlepping briefcases from door to door. It is culturally inappropriate.

    In the desire to insure that the church’s follow-up with visitors (getting our hands dirty by going to the folks looking for a church) it seems to me that we are at the same time being contextually real – going outside the walls of the fortress to engage people out there where they live and breathe – and culturally relevant.

    Perhaps all I’ve done is flap my gums (or clacked on the keyboard) because I’m working from a mistaken notion of what you mean by “culturally relevant”.

    In any case I much appreciate your “Oh yeah?” approach to what passes for conventional wisdom. It’s healthy, thought provoking and challenges us to visit our presuppositions and unspoken value.

    That’s where most of the trouble generally starts.

    1. P.S.

      Cultural relevance as a professional term has nothing do with whether the receptor thinks you’re cool, edgy or on the bleeding edge. It also has nothing to do with how you appraise your own ministry (is it too cynical to say “congratulating yourself at rejecting past forms”?). The only meaningful measurement of cultural relevance is “did that person understand what I was trying to communicate?”

      1. Bud, I agree that cultural relevance as defined by your description here, is the correct approach. And it may still mean that to certain professionals. But that’s not who my audience is. What it has come to mean for many pastors is “find out what’s cool and do church that way”.

        That’s why I think we need a new term. My side-by-side bullet points were meant to lay out that distinction.

        If what someone means by “culturally relevant” is what you’ve described, then great. Pastors and churches need to “adjust their communication process to the person receiving benefit of the professional’s actions” and “use forms of communication (metaphors, specialized terms, methods of personal interaction, perhaps even a translator) to increase the likelihood of their being understood”. That sounds contextually real to me.

        I don’t care if people call it “culturally relevant”, “contextually real”, “missional living” or if they don’t even have a term for it. My only concern, like I said in the post, is that we’re doing what Jesus did when “he adapted to the reality of whatever context he found himself in. One city at a time, one crowd at a time, one person at a time. And he did it without ever betraying his core reality.”

        Dude, you’re deep! I gotta work double-time to keep up with you!

  3. I often worry that being Culturally Relevant also causes us to present the Gospel in a way that is not authentic.
    I see sites like ‘Q’ and something doesn’t feel right…..ya know ?

    1. “How do I get my church to grow?”

      Man, there is so much packed into that question – the one everybody’s asking – that books could be written in reply. (OTOH a lot of books that shouldn’t have been written have been!)

      Two thoughts in response.

      First, the answer is pretty simple and straight forward. All it takes to turn a church around are two elements: (1) a pastor with proper training and (2) a willing church. There’s a lot that needs to be dealt with in both of those elements, most of which has been ignored in church growth literature. Fortunately, the last few years have seen some real progress.

      Second, the answer is “You can’t.” Jesus is the one who builds the church. Not you. Not me. Our job is to faithfully execute (see “pastor with proper training” above) to bring the church around to the state of willingness (see “willing church” above).

      But even then we are like the prophet: we dig the trench, we stack the wood, we pour the water. Then we pray. If God doesn’t send the fire, well, we did our job. He just hasn’t chosen to build in this place at this moment in history.

      The trick is for pastors to be content, but not until they know they have skillfully executed their task. And, sadly, many of them have been shortchanged in their training.

      So much to say. So little time to say it.

  4. WONDERFUL!! My husband and I were JUST TALKING about this the other day.
    One thing we came up with is that this new idea of “cultural relevance” seems to teach that “wide is the way and many people find it”…and then you say,
    “Cultural relevance is broad. Contextual reality is narrow”
    Cultural relevance is what espouses the “anything goes” under the banner of love mentality that has invaded the church today. We must become like the world to win the world.
    That thinking is like trying to give a world that’s addicted to Coke a watered down version of Pepsi as an alternative.
    All the while they are DYING OF THIRST for LIVING WATER and we offer them watered down Pepsi –
    May God forgive us.

  5. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

  6. Wonderful post. I totally agree. Been very uncomfortable with the “culturally relevant” push, but had a hard time defining what would be better. Contextually real is exactly it. Thanks for sharing!

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