Innovative Ministry
Culturally Relevant or Contextually Real, Part 2: More than Semantics?
When a term becomes so misunderstood that it loses its value, it needs rewording. We may be there with cultural relevance.

Sometimes you write something and you know people don't care much about it, because nobody responds. Other times you write something and you know people don’t care because they tell you they don't care. Vigorously.

Last week’s post on the difference between being culturally relevant or contextually real garnered a lot of commentary on social media.

Most of it was very positive, with pastors feeling grateful that I had been able to define some concepts (with the help of Mark Collins) that many had felt, but weren't sure how to put into words.

But there were a few who responded with the big meh (some literally writing meh in their response).

That's okay. I respond with meh to a lot of things. I’ve even written a couple of posts about things I feel meh about.

Usually I let minor disagreements like that go. But the issues raised in this one are important enough for a follow-up.

Ain’t Cultural Relevance Cool?

Here’s the main issue the meh-ers had with my post. They felt like the difference between the terms culturally relevant and contextually real was merely a matter of semantics.

Several sarcastically announced the arrival of a new buzzword. One commenter said it’s just macrorelevance v. microrelevance (not a bad way to phrase it, actually). While another said "let's not call it a dog, let's call it a canine."

Is the difference between cultural relevance and contextual reality just a matter of semantics? Yes. And no.

So is the difference between cultural relevance and contextual reality just a matter of semantics? Dog v. canine? Tomayto/tomahto?

Yes. And no.

First, the yes side. In the minds of many people, being culturally relevant means being cool. I don’t think being cool is the premise behind the push for cultural relevance, but that perception has become our reality.

Some churches chase cool in the name of cultural relevance, while other churches reject cultural relevance because they’re tired of chasing cool. Either way, this is a problem for how we perceive and adapt to cultural relevance.

When a term becomes so misunderstood, both by those appropriating it and by those rejecting it, that it loses its value, it needs to be changed so we can hear the concept in a fresh, new way. A lot of us are there with cultural relevance. To the degree that a semantic shift can help us re-frame the issue, I say bring the semantic shift on.

Second, on the ‘no’ side. It's not just a semantic shift. I think we can look at these two concepts like a Venn diagram with the two circles of cultural relevance and contextual reality overlapping by 50 to 60 percent or more.

Where they overlap: both terms have to do with meeting people where they are, listening before we speak and using different methods for different circumstances.

Where they’re different: I explained many of the differences in my previous article, so I won't go over them in detail here, but cultural relevance tends to be broadly-focused, trend-based and concerned with what’s new. Contextual reality tends to be narrowly-focused, individual-based and concerned with what’s happening here and now, whether it’s new or not.

It’s a Small Church Thing

Here’s the most interesting – and perhaps the most [cough] relevant – part of the feedback I received. Those who loved the idea of being contextually real rather than culturally relevant were the small church pastors I predominantly write for. Those who rejected it, from what I can tell, were not coming come from that viewpoint.

In a small church, the cool aspects of cultural relevance are hard to come by – and often unnecessary.

And maybe that's the whole issue. In a small church, the cool aspects of cultural relevance are hard to come by – and often unnecessary. In fact, they can carry more negative baggage than positive. But understanding people's contextual reality, and living with them in it, is essential.

Many small churches will never be seen as culturally relevant because they’re in communities that aren’t considered culturally relevant. Or because they’re being intentionally counter-cultural. (Yes, even methodologically).

They’re not cool. They never will be. They’re not trying to be. But they are real.

For small church pastors like me, contextual reality (or microrelevance) matters. It's less about following cultural trends than it is about spending time with individuals, families and our communities to hear their heartbeat, share their burdens and communicate the gospel within the reality of that context.

That may not look culturally relevant in a lot of places, but it's very real within our context.

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The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

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