Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What Does it Mean to Be Relevant?

I love words, so much so that if I don’t know what a word means, I will go look it up in a dictionary so that I have no excuse for not knowing the definition of the word in question (which I am sure is a form of pride, but that is not the point here).

Often times in evangelical circles, and other circles too, we throw around words that display to the people in our circle that we know what’s going on—that we are up with the times. I did this when I first came back to Christ. I grew up in a Reformed, Christian home, but somehow didn’t exactly know what “sovereign” meant. At the Christian college that I attended, “sovereign” was the big buzz word, and was thrown around in sentences, so I started throwing it around in sentences, not exactly sure what I was saying. All this to say, often times we use words that sound like we are knowledgeable, yet really they are cover-ups for our own pride and naivety. Now, I am not advocating for a mass exodus from theological language in evangelical circles. I love theological language. Justification makes my heart sing! Theology is essential to a Christian’s faith and growth. I am simply trying to prove a point about how often we like to use words because they sound cool, without ever defining them, or knowing what they mean ourselves—speaking of cool, the word I want to talk about is “relevant”.

Before I go any further, I would like to say that my intent with this post is not to offend anyone. I am simply trying to define a word that is popular and give my assessment of the effect that it has had on the church. I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination; these are simply my own observations, and what I believe the Bible teaches on this issue.

Relevant is the new word of mainstream evangelicalism. I read an article yesterday about a group of churches that are redefining church in order to reach target audiences. I won’t bother mentioning the article because the article could have been written about a host of other people, churches, ministries, etc. Reading the article, I realized that if each of the people mentioned were asked to define “relevant” they probably would all come up with a different answer.

And so, we see now in so many churches a sort of segregation based on the relevance factor—we have the church who’s target audience is the counter-culture, we have the church who’s target audience is baby boomers, we have the church who’s target audience is Hollywood, and so on and so on. Any stream of society could be inserted here. Relevance, like so much of post-modern culture, has actually become whatever you make it to be, and more often than not, where we want to be “relevant” is really only with a specific target audience—the cool, young people who have influence, who are “going” somewhere. There aren’t a lot of people moving to Appalachia because they want to be relevant in those communities. Or how about the nursing homes, I don’t see a lot of church planters trying to be relevant there.

In no way am I saying that relevance is not important. It is massively important, but I think that our churches have never really defined or lived out cultural relevancy, and so in turn we have an entire movement/generation of people who are hyper-reacting to the so-called “fundamentalists” of their parent’s era, and in turn capitulating to culture. Relevance is not dumbing down the Gospel in order to make people think Jesus is cool and in turn want to follow Him. Relevance is giving people what they need in their souls, not what they think they need. If we only reach out to felt-needs we will run out of options when someone tells us they don’t need anything.

Instead, we must tell them the most relevant thing of all, the thing that transcends culture, class, and generational lines— “This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). That is the most relevant statement you could ever say to someone. Not because, like so many people like to say, “See I’m a sinner, I’m just as messed up as you are—and God doesn’t care, He loves you just the way you are.” Paul is not using that verse as a license to sin, but as an example of the greatness of the righteousness of Christ. Because one thing that never changes, no matter how much the culture shifts, is the fact that from the Fall to the End, from Genesis to Revelation, the human race is sinful and in need of a Great Savior. What is going to happen when the people in your “biker ministry” church don’t feel like being biker’s anymore, or when all your young, hip, twenty-something’s become thirty—will you kick them out? Dropping a few cuss words into a sermon and going out to bars on Friday nights just to show people that Christians can be cool too is not relevant—it’s compromise, and when Christians begin to engage the culture in a way that does not react to the generation before them, but actually lives counter-culturally, that sends a clearer message than all the swear words in the English language. Tailor-making churches in order to reach a specific audience is really limiting our ability to spread the Gospel to the masses, because when we reach out to target audiences are only reaching small percentiles of people, not all peoples, like we are told to in Scripture. Churches are to be a reflection of the Kingdom of God, which includes the bikers, the former drug addicts, the former homeless person, the wealthy baby boomer, the college student, the elderly woman, and the tiniest infant.

I recognize that I am extremely old-fashioned, and probably as far from relevant as humanly possible, but I wonder what would happen if we abandoned our methods and programming and simply got back to the Gospel, once for all delivered to the Saints, and stopped trying to be cool to so many different people, it really is exhausting. We should not be living and ministering so we can grace the next cover of "Relevant Magazine" or be hailed as "cool Christians." Our Savior was not cool, He was hated. And we must be content with being hated too if we are ever to make a difference in the lives of people. The Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing, not "coolness".


Steven said...

It seems to me that many evangelicals are ashamed of the Gospel. To put it bluntly, you cannot sell something you do not love. Therefore, some attempt to turn that thing into something that they do love. The problem is, we're not selling something. We are not pitching Jesus to market executives, or hoping that the resurrection becomes "sticky" that it might reach the "tipping point."
A lot can be said for the wisdom of meeting people where they are. We must seek the lost. And that form of outreach, as you touch on, can be very effective. But it musn't become an alteration of the reason we are seeking the lost in the first place. That is the fast track to irrelevance.

debt said...

I, too, love words! Every generation has it's buzz words, but they also abuse and misuse them. God is relevant for every generation. The Scriptures are relevant because He wrote them. The body of Christ is made up of every social, generational, racial and you name it group of people. What unites us is Christ and as you said, " the once for all delivered to the saints gospel/truth". I personally, do not want to be put into someone else's box. "I am who I am by the grace of God" was the Apostle Paul's great cry. Let the body of Christ flourish as being the "many parts" it was supposed to be; working for the furtherance of God's kingdom and the building up of Christ's church. We are made of every nation, tribe, tongue and "culture". Cultural relevance is not what makes us tick nor should it. Also, as much as every generation has it's buzz words, they also reached there generation for Christ and they did it by living and moving amongst the culture they lived in. New Tribes has been doing this for years; and what about Eric Liddle and Gladys Aylward in China or Hudson Taylor or David Livingstone? They did all of this without dumbing down the gospel.(although not always perfectly, but who does?) I'm all for becoming all things to all men so that I might win some, but not at the expense of truth.If we refuse to answer honest questions with the truth for fear of offending someone or with the "new" buzzword of "not being able to really know",then we do become irrelevant. I'm with you, Courtney. Too much criticism of previous generations, "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" doesn't strenghten the body but weakens it. Let us learn from our mistakes, but never throw out God's Word. Let's be men and women of the Book. It is our plumline. "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my Words will never pass away". Matt. 24:35 As Jesus said, "Father sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth". Luke 17:17. It either is or it isn't. If it is, and I believe it is, then trying to be relevant is irrelevant. Preach the Word, live the Word. God will seek the lost as He has promised.

cdt said...

In addition to your comment, I think that you can't love someone that you don't truly know. Often times we water down the Gospel to a point of it being no Gospel at all--which hinders us from loving Christ, because we really do not know Him. 2 Corinthians 4 talks about not "tampering" with God's Word. The New Testament church did not thrive by being relevant. They thrived because they lived so counter-culturally, and like Paul in Acts 17, answered to the void in people souls by understanding the culture, not conforming to it.

I am so glad that you decided to post! I learned to love words from you, and am so thankful. Thank you for your comments! You are a blessing, and always offer more wisdom than I ever could think of. I'm glad that forgetting your password and frustration with posting didn't keep you from commenting today. It blessed my soul!