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Developing Missional Churches for the Great Commission, Part Eight: Cultural Relevance and Living Sent

This is the final post of an eight-part series on Developing Missional Churches for the Great Commission. Here are the first seven posts:

  1. Understanding What We Mean When We Talk about Being Missional
  2. The Great Commission and Missional Thinking
  3. The Challenge of Being Missional
  4. The Missional Idea in Scripture
  5. God Sends
  6. The Compartmentalized Mission
  7. Go Where God Sends

Cultural Relevance and Living Sent

The gospel is always a stumbling block. But, the fact that so many people reject the gospel before they get to the gospel is a painful reality. In our well-meaning bid to “make the Bible and God relevant,” we often marginalize ourselves from the very culture we seek to reach. The Bible and God are relevant in this culture and in every other culture. He and His gospel are relevant. Always. We are the roadblocks to relevancy, not the Bible. We live in a way that makes God seem irrelevant, but He is not to blame.

A missional church with a Great Commission passion will care about relevance–making the message clear. Cultural awareness, relevance, and engagement are an important element of missional theology and being on mission yet these are not the only elements.  Our churches are to be biblically faithful, culturally relevant, and counter-cultural communities. Being biblically faithful is possible without being culturally relevant or counter-cultural communities. Being biblically faithful and counter-cultural is also possible. But to be true to all three elements is challenging. Part of our task of being missional is to be all three. Being missional means we live, act, and think like a people living on mission.

I was in Romania a few years ago with one of my former students, Chris. He had never been out of the country until then. Driving around Bucharest, we passed the American embassy and discovered that it was on high alert. You could see all these Marines with their guns ready and the American flag flying proudly. But Chris had never been out of the country before. He did not understand how American Marines could have weapons ready and American flags could fly on Romanian soil. The answer is related to what Scripture says about how we are to live sent.

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul refers to himself, and, I think, to all believers as an ambassador. When you are leading a missional church, you are establishing an embassy (to use a diplomatic term). You are involved in making the invisible kingdom of God break through to become visible through the development of a church in that time and that place. You are representing God in an alien land. In 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Paul speaks about what it means to be sent as representing and participating in the mission of reconciliation:

From now on, then, we do not know anyone in a purely human way. Even if we have known Christ in a purely human way, yet now we no longer know Him like that. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come. Now everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ; certain that God is appealing through us, we plead on Christ’s behalf, ‘Be reconciled to God.’ He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

Paul’s imagery is that we represent a sovereign king from another kingdom. When you plant or develop your church–whether in Mississippi or Manhattan or Madrid–you are establishing an embassy whose purpose is to propagate the good news of the King from another kingdom. This is what it means to live sent. This does not simply mean we go for the good of the city, though it does include good for the city. This does not simply mean loving the poor, though it does include love for the poor. We go for what missiologists call a “transforming mission.”  Sometimes we say that sharing Christ through planting churches and serving the community are two sides to the same coin. But this is a bad metaphor because it implies that those two sides have to be flipped one to the other. The mission is not two things; it is one thing. A “transforming mission” changes us and people far from God because we live sent.

I have planted several churches and led in revitalizing several others. The reason I love church planting is the simple focus of planting and sharing the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ being communicated and transforming the lives of people in the community around me is what evangelistic ministry is about. Admittedly the pressure changes as a new church grows. You will feel the pressure to do so many other things, many of them considered to be good ministries. But holding to a missional theology will remind you that the nature of the mission leads to the transmission of the Gospel. It should be true of all churches as they pursue a missional position that they hold the mission of God as primary.  The mission is not the mission; the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ is central to the mission.

Paul said, “We are ambassadors for Christ; certain that God is appealing through us, we plead on Christ’s behalf, ‘Be reconciled to God'” (2 Cor. 5:20). When you lead a church, recognize that the church must be three things: biblically faithful, culturally relevant, and a counter-culture community. Put the gospel, the authority of Scripture, and the centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the center of all you do.

Some ministries teach you to ignore culture. Do not listen to them. Their view hurts the mission of the church. They teach you to preach against culture. Yet, preaching against culture is like preaching against someone’s house–it is just the place where they live. There are good things in it and bad things in it too. But our task it not to preach against a house. Our task is to engage those who live in the house (near and far from us) with the good news of Jesus Christ. We need to engage people in culture with a biblically faithful message.

To engage culture with a biblically faithful message, we also need to culturally relevant strategies. Again, fundamental to the nature of the gospel is the proclamation of the gospel. But even further, fundamental to the proclamation of the gospel is being sent to people–and that means we must understand those people. Cultural relevance is understanding and communicating with the people God has sent you to reach.  People are afraid of that term because it seems to be a compromise.  It need not be.

Cool and trendy does not necessarily mean culturally relevant because the definition changes from community to community across America. It changes even more dramatically across cultures. I would encourage you to be a church that seeks out those who are far from an understanding of the gospel and make the gospel comprehensible to them.  Everyone who interacts with your church ought to understand what is going on while he or she is there. That is what being culturally relevant means. It is an issue of communication, making sure church forms, style, and method support and aid gospel proclamation. One important focus of being culturally relevant is to create an environment where people are comfortable, at ease and their defenses are disarmed, so they can receive the message of the gospel.

You cannot always be sensitive. The gospel is not sensitive to the conscience or practices of the lost. The cross is scandalous and causes people to stumble across it. It is supposed to offend the sinner, pierce their conscience, and convict their soul. But the church should never create an environment, systems, or rules that cause people to stumble before they even get to the cross. Instead, as ambassadors, we should speak winsomely and act graciously toward those in need of our King’s message.

Your church must be biblically faithful, culturally relevant, and finally a counter-culture community. Tim Keller talks about being “counter-intuitive.” He explains we are to do those things in the name of Jesus Christ that might surprise, transform, and be salt and light in a community. The purpose is that the name and fame of Christ might be more widely known.

So, What does it look like?

I think part of the challenge is to keep “missional” from dying as a buzzword but flourishing as an idea that presses believers forward into God’s work. “Missional” is not a new word for cutting edge and contemporary. And, it should not be used as the adjective for every ministry so we can pretend we have missional music, missional quilting, and missional lighting. Instead, we need to ensure that missional is a driving force for how we live out God’s work. I have already warned about the dangers of the theoretical without the practical. God’s sending us is a big idea. Simply stated, it means participating in the mission of God, being theologically formed, theologically shaped, and theologically sent. That means perhaps a different kind of church.

So I encourage you, when you look at your community, to fall deeply in love with it. Remember when Jesus walked down that mountain outside of Jerusalem? He looked over Jerusalem and wept for it. The people were like sheep without a shepherd. When you lead a church, say, “Dear God, I want to lead a biblically faithful church, rooted in the soil of the culture where I am; a church that becomes a counter-culture community representing you as an ambassador, as a king from another kingdom–an invisible kingdom that begins to be made known here through the gospel to the glory of Jesus Christ.”

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is the Dean of Talbot School of Theology at Biola Univeristy and Scholar in Residence & Teaching Pastor at Mariners Church. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches; trained pastors and church planters on six continents; earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates; and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the Editor-in-Chief of Outreach Magazine, and regularly writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Dr. Stetzer is the host of "The Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast," and his national radio show, "Ed Stetzer Live," airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates.