Counter-Cultural and Culturally Relevant

Just hours before his death, Jesus prayed to his father on behalf of his disciples, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” Then he stated, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (Jn 17:15-16). Jesus’ missional strategy for his followers can be summarized simply as “In the World, But Not of the World.” Another way to express this is to say God’s people are called to be both “counter-cultural” (“not of the world”) and “culturally relevant” (“in the world”). Marrying these two ideas is easier said than done.

The earliest followers of Jesus were remarkably successful in their mission to share with the Greco-Roman world God’s message about a crucified messiah. Unlike the Essenes, a monastic  Jewish community that lived isolated in the Judean desert, Jesus’ followers remained engaged with their world. They were culturally relevant! Unlike the Herodians and Sadducees, who adopted Greek culture and values at the expense of scriptural principles, early Christians were uncompromising in their loyalty to the God of Abraham. The early Christian movement was both “counter-cultural” and “culturally relevant,” and it is these two apparently contradictory features that enabled it to revolutionize the world. They were counter-cultural!

The Amish are an excellent modern example of a counter-cultural group. They reject many aspects of modern society, such as electricity, cars, smartphones, and computers. They live in rural communities, dress in traditional clothing, and speak a dialect of German called Pennsylvania Dutch. The Amish are counter-cultural because they choose a radically different way of life. However, they have become culturally irrelevant. People in society, even those who may admire them for their sincerity and simplicity, are not drawn to them other than for tourist visits in places like Lancaster, PA. Their only converts are children born into Amish families.

The United Methodist Church (UMC) is still the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with over 7 million members. However, the UMC has been experiencing a decline in membership for many years. In 2000, the UMC had over 11 million members. By 2023, that number had declined to 6.5 million. Some argue that their decline in membership is due to the UMC softening its stance on same-sex marriage and other controversial topics in today’s culture. In its attempt to be culturally relevant, it has failed to be a counter-cultural voice on values that matter to many of its members.  

How were Jesus’ earliest followers culturally relevant? For starters, they were engaged in society, living among the people (Jesus himself was raised in Nazareth), working in the trades (Acts 18:1-4), doing commerce, serving as city officials (Rom 16:23), attending synagogues, etc. Contrary to what many assume, there is no evidence in the New Testament that early Christians were known for their different style of dress. And the fact that the entire New Testament is written in the common Greek language is another indicator that early Christians were concerned with being culturally relevant. Paul encouraged the Thessalonians not to withdraw from societal occupations out of fear that the world is about to end, explaining that they should “walk properly before outsiders” (1 Thess 4:12). To the Corinthians, he encouraged language in their worship services that was accessible to visitors when he noted, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (1 Cor 14:23).

But make no mistake, early Christians were radically counter-cultural. They worshipped one God, not many. They opposed the practice of infant exposure, also known as abandonment. This was the common (and legal) practice in the Roman Empire of leaving unwanted infants to die. They were not supportive of the popular gladiator contests. They discouraged men from engaging in extra-marital sex with prostitutes and slaves. Writing to Philemon, Paul encouraged him to treat his slave as “a beloved brother” (Phlm 16) in a world where slaves had few rights and were often treated very cruelly. These are just a few examples of how early Christians were “not of the world.”

The same Paul who encouraged cultural relevance in 1 Corinthians when he said, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews…To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law” (1 Cor 9:20-21), also said in the very same letter, “Do not be idolaters…” “Flee from idolatry…” (1 Cor 10:7, 14); and “We must not indulge in sexual immorality…” (1 Cor 10:8); and to the Thessalonians, he said to “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess 4:3). And notice how careful he was, while explaining his missional strategy to be culturally relevant to Jews and Gentiles, that he was always careful not to live “outside the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:20).

The question Christians wrestle with today is, “In what ways are we called to be counter-cultural?” By keeping the seventh-day Sabbath? By maintaining a biblical sexual ethic? By caring for the poor and needy in society? “In what ways are we called to be culturally relevant?” By learning to speak the language of the people we are trying to reach? By dressing and eating like the people we are trying to reach? By working with and living among the people we are called to minister to?

There is no easy answer to these questions. They are to be answered prayerfully by each individual disciple in the setting in which God has called them. 

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