Cultural relevance without syncretism

Jesus’ prayer in John 17 was that his followers would be in the world but not of the world. But how do we balance cultural relevance without tipping over into syncretism? 

Let’s graph those two ideas:

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Growing up in a classic suburban evangelical church, the focus of ‘being a good follower of Jesus’ was all about the horizontal axis: don’t be worldly! It’s not a false message; it’s just one dimensional. The short cut to not being of the world is to not be in it. Don’t watch the Simpsons. Don’t go to the movies/beach/ department store underwear-section. Steer clear of people with different points of view.

Looking back at our diagram, that view of discipleship pushes to the right but then drifts upwards (A). Bit by bit we become followers of the Pharisees rather than Jesus. Jesus was passionate and deliberate about being in the world. It was scandalous! He hung out with prostitutes, ate with tax collectors, touched the sick, and taught fishermen (and at the beach mind you). He was there partying at weddings and preaching in the back-block villages.

Following that Jesus is more dangerous. It’s multi-dimensional. We pay attention to, and engage with, the world that God so loved. Now I’ve seen some people pay too much attention to the vertical axis. They cringe whenever Christians break cultural ‘rules’ (do dorky things). Their discipleship line heads down but then drifts to the left (B). It’s a trendier path than A, but is equally fruitless. In fact, each curved path (A & B) represents Christians who are dead scared of being like the other ones. I say watch out for both.

But missional – ah, missional – is that difficult but fertile field between cultural irrelevance (A) and syncretism (B). It endeavours to be both in the world and not of it. Those who tread there know it is not simple. It’s not taught in 15 minutes or with a few rules of thumb. It’s a field that can only be navigated with prayer, open eyes, wise advice, good friends, and your wits about you; with the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other, and Christ’s love to compel you on. It’s neither boring (like A) nor bland (like B). It’s an adventure with Jesus as he brings the Kingdom of God near to the real world.

nGage by Andrew Turner, who is a pastor with the GO Network in Adelaide and a Regional Minister with SA Baptist Union. prac8