Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Relevance

There are several trends I have seen over the last decade or so that have me concerned. Perhaps many of them are actually the same trend at some deeper level. One such trend is the concern that the Church be relevant. I suppose this is a valid concern: it's hard to see that the medieval Roman Catholic church would be able to relate to people in our culture very well. This would cause problems in evangelism, outreach, etc. It is certainly untrue that culture is irrelevant to the Church: we need to speak their language at a minimum, so we can tell them the Good News.

However, when I look at attempts for relevance, I can't help but notice they're often just worldliness repackaged. That is, the word "relevance" is used to mean "no different from the world around us". I've said before, the Church ought to transcend culture: to be tied into a culture (whether the culture of today or that of 50 years ago) means to be following the world, rather than the Lord.

Note I'm not even touching the question of "relevant to whom?" right now. That's an important question, and I think it cuts pretty deep. Right at the moment, I'm accepting the (wrong) assumption that the Church is here primarily for evangelism.

Here's something to think about: if I have to watch TV to understand an illustration the preacher is trying to make, there's a problem. I'm not saying TV is evil---we personally don't have one, but that might not be your conviction on the subject---I am saying that if your "relevance" just means being up on the latest trends, you're not really that relevant. Why? Because people don't need more of the world, they need Jesus. People need something fundamentally different than what the world offers: offering a "christianized" copy of what's out there isn't helping anyone.

To the extent that the Church exists to duplicate what the world offers, the Church is a failure. We aren't here to offer daycares, marriage counselling, and Christian schools. Those may be very valid offerings, but they hardly define what the Scripture teaches about the Church. The Church is here as the Body of Christ. We're in enemy territory: this is the same world that rejected the Son of God! We're here as an embassy from Heaven, not as yet another charitable organization: the world's already got plenty of those.

In the end, there's nothing more relevant to lost sinners than the Son of God. See, the problem is, we in the Church have nothing to offer the world except the love of God. To try and offer anything else is to step beyond the boundaries of our calling.

The justification I have so often heard for making the Church more "contemporary" is outreach: no one would come to a service with stodgy old hymns where everyone wears suits; if we offer people a comfortable place to come, where the music is more to their taste and we dress like they do, then we can present the Gospel to them. This sounds like a good theory, and certainly well-intentioned, but I have to question how Scriptural it is.

Let me start out by saying I prefer traditional hymns to more modern "Christian" music (although there are notable exceptions on both sides); but I never wear a tie. And no, the culture of 100 or 200 years ago was no more holy than now: there's no implicit value to "conservativism" in the literal sense of the word.

But to package the Gospel: to try and attract the unsaved with better music or a more comfortable setting is fundamentally dishonest. Our message is not comfortable, it's not trendy or catchy or hip. Our message is: you're worthless, but God loves you anyway. To attract people into a de facto concert and then spring the Gospel on them is bait-and-switch. People see through it, they resent it.

But honestly, even that would be better than what I personally have seen. My personal experience is, the places that put up a band and dress in jeans to attract outsiders rarely (if ever) actually give the Gospel: they more frequently give a pep talk, motivational speech, or some sentimental anecdotes. This is worse than useless.

And yes, I would say the exact same thing to a church that has stodgy hymns and wears suits in order to attract an older generation.

Here's an idea for people who are concerned about relevance. Try reading the Bible. Not a few minutes a day, but really reading it: say read it through once or twice a year. That's your relevance: you have in your possession the Word of God, and the world desperately needs to hear it. Don't worry about luring people in, worry about what they'll hear when they get there. If you're offering the Gospel, the message of the Lord's death, burial, resurrection, and ascension; then you're as relevant as you can possibly be. Sure, people out for some Sunday morning entertainment might not be interested; but you'll have answers for people who are looking for them.

8 comments:

Ames said...

"Because people don't need more of the world, they need Jesus."--MJP. I like that. ". . .but you'll have answers for people who are looking for them." Well, when you put it like that, it really does make this movement seem very nonsensical. Well said.

KingJaymz said...

"My personal experience is, the places that put up a band and dress in jeans to attract outsiders rarely (if ever) actually give the Gospel: they more frequently give a pep talk, motivational speech, or some sentimental anecdotes. This is worse than useless."

Sad but true. I could say this about all of the last four churches I attended. They were "contemporary" but neglected to be relevant.

clumsy ox said...

ames, I was thinking about something you said a few years ago when I wrote that. I can't remember it exactly, but you pointed out that if the church tries to make itself just like the world in order to attract people, then there's really no good reason not to just stay in the world.

kingjaymz, you said it so much more succinctly, but that was exactly my point! I wish I could have said it so well.

I think the problem is, imitation is not relevance.

Chuck said...

In the end, there's nothing more relevant to lost sinners than the Son of God. See, the problem is, we in the Church have nothing to offer the world except the love of God. To try and offer anything else is to step beyond the boundaries of our calling.

THAT should be on a billboard somewhere.

KingJaymz said...

I think part of all of this is that the modern Evangelical church does such a poor job of defining what the innocuous parts of the culture are vs. the "worldly"/compromising parts. Why aren't churches sponsoring art clubs? Why aren't churches having community gatherings without an agenda attached? Why aren't churches feeding local neighborhood kids supper? Those would all cause controversy with the people there, but toning down the message so it isn't so overtly biblical and making sure we have state of the art tech overhead projection so that no one has to share their Bible with their neighbor (and, heaven forbid, possibly create an opportunity to get to know one's neighbor better) don't seem to cause any stir at all. Many pastors so willingly decry the evils of professional atheltics in our country and how it compromises social morality, but they let the greater compromises walk right through their door without flinching and keep out anything that might challenge the body there to really grow.

I'm sorry if this sounded like a side-track at all. I try to not do that. These thoughts just crossed my brain as I considered this post a second time.

clumsy ox said...

KingJaymz, Side-tracks are fair game, bro. If it's offensive I'll delete it, of course, but "on topic" is not a concern of mine.

Shan said...

I had a friend to whom I lent one of my favourite "CCM" CDs a few years ago - she gave it back with a barely repressed shudder, saying "I don't like it - it reminds me of the music I used to listen to and the concerts I went to before I got saved. I left that life already."

clumsy ox said...

Shan, I hadn't thought about it in those terms, necessarily, but "CCM" is an excellent example of imitation not being relevance. Not that "CCM" is evil or anything, but those they are supposedly trying to reach aren't listening. The listeners are those who are already (at least nominally) believers.

Thus, we have worldliness masquerading as evangelism.

I'm coming off a little hard on the "CCM" people here, and I probably sound a little tougher than I mean to be. But I, for one, haven't seen the promised results from "modernized Christianity" over the last couple decades...