How Relevant is Relevancy?

by Rick Shrader

For a generation now the church has been concerned about whether or not the world is listening to our message.  Books and articles continue to bemoan our plight of a decreasing effectiveness in evangelism and church attendance.  This has caused many to make drastic changes to the methodology and polity of the church.  But even with the major overhauls that have taken place, still many are not satisfied with the results.  Our postmodern culture has caused the church to run the spectrum of styles from seeker sensitive to the emergent church.  At the same time, many contemporary church proponents continue to be critical of traditional churches.

One recent article,1 written by a professor of writing and communications at a major university, expressed concern about what messages we are sending to the world by the way we conduct our church services.  After visiting a number of fundamental Baptist churches, he “made an ethnographic analysis of the speech codes that we unconsciously use in our subculture.”  He means that he noticed a number of ways in which the world seems to be turned off by our church services.  His use of “subculture” to describe our churches seems backward to me since I rather see the world as a subculture and the New Testament as a divine culture.  But, of course, my point of view, according to this author, would be part of the (so-called) problem!

First, he says, “Much of the speaking we do in church is unintelligible to outsiders.”  He sees our churches loaded with assumptions about the way people relate to one another.  We talk of “having fellowship” among believers, of “witnessing” to unbelievers, and even of “having devotions” with God.  These kinds of expressions, the author thinks, are “extremely strong forms of negation” toward outsiders.

Second, “Our church buildings have few crosses.”  He explains that our churches have a pulpit with a preacher giving a “top-down” monologue rather than a two-way dialogue.  The Bible is our “dominant symbol.”  The author wishes we could find other ways (having more icons?) of being more “welcoming” to visitors.

Third, the author relates how university professors have difficulty teaching Christian students in secular schools how to compose arguments.  These students seem to think the Bible ends all arguments.  “By refusing to do research [is this really true or just someone’s opinion?] and construct arguments, these students were reinforcing the stereotype of Christians as obscurantist Bible thumpers.”  As a conclusion he says (of student essay contests), “My burden is that a theme of ‘Balancing Biblical Truth and Cultural Relevance’ should be an occasion for us to look beyond the discourses we use in church.  We must rethink the unconscious messages by which our subculture alienates visitors.”

These kinds of thoughts are not new.  The church has been wrestling with relevance for most of the last century.  Before I give some rhetorical questions of my own, I want to say that  we shouldn’t lose ourselves in a minimalist mindset.  Of course we do some things for the sake of visitors.  Common courtesies, general cleanliness, friendly environment, even modern conveniences are things anyone would do when hosting visitors.  The weightier issues here, however, have to do with the operation of the church itself; with whether or not we are changing New Testament Christianity to fit the world’s desires.  If we change what we are convinced we ought to be, are we even being honest with those who come in among us?

Are we worried about a belligerent minority?

Are we attempting to reconstruct the whole house because of one squeaking door?  When studies are made about cultural relevancy, the laboratory mice are always the teenagers, college students, or similar groups with a specific world view.  Some years ago now, I engulfed myself in a study of postmodernism.  It seemed that I saw everyone and everything through the lens of metanarrative, semiotics, or deconstruction.  I finally had to slap myself back into reality and realize that the great majority of people I sit next to in the restaurant or pump gas next to at the gas station not only don’t know or care about these terms, they don’t fit into these categories anyway.  I’m not saying that these things don’t pose a threat to our society, but I am suggesting that the church has overestimated postmodernism’s effect on the majority of people.

We ought to at least agree that Christianity has faced many things in its two thousand year history and it never profited by changing its message or methods to fit the temporary cultural winds.  Jesus first instructed His disciples to enter into a town with the message of the kingdom and if there were those who were “unworthy” of the message and wouldn’t receive it, they were to shake the dust off their feet and move on (Matt. 10:11-15).  I don’t think the Lord was teaching hard-heartedness or cultural obscurantism, but I think He was teaching us to not lose our heads when some in our society won’t hear the message.  At times that belligerent group may be large or small, but it should not affect the gospel presentation.

Should we continue down a proven slippery slope?

Surely we know by now that few things move from liberal to conservative, but rather almost always from conservative to liberal.  The twentieth century alone is sufficient to warn us of individuals and groups who were once fundamental and solid in their Biblical convictions but through a sincere desire to reach more people have gone off into compromising arrangements from which they never returned.

The apostle John warned the church not to bid “God speed” (or “God bless”) to those who have deviated from the message of Christ (2 John 10-11).  To do so is to fellowship or partake in their wrong actions.  We never gain more evangelistic results by compromising the truth of Scripture.  Aren’t we doing that with a lost world when we adopt their methods of worship and bring those into our churches?  Many Baptist groups slid down this slope but few have recovered.  They merely redefined their new position as fundamental.  Our soteriological methods must always be governed by our doxological convictions.

Should churches be sanctuaries or half-way houses?

Is it the purpose of the local church to reform the unregenerate or to strengthen the saints?  Should we make our services debating contests or places of fellowship and admonition?  It is interesting how those questions sound politically incorrect to our ears.  We have been so conditioned by our culture that to think of the church as a sanctuary apart from the world, a place of rest from the battlefield, a realm of safety for our families, makes us feel as if we are somehow cowards or apathetic.

How can we read the book of Acts and the Epistles and miss this?  Read Acts 4:23ff; 5:12-14; 18:6-8; 19:9-10.  It does not follow that because the church creates a sanctuary for the saints that the church will do less in evangelism.  To the contrary, the church must teach, admonish, comfort, worship, and pray if it is going to be effective in evangelism.  We must retreat to our training facilities if we are to perform mightily on the field!  Our practices (to continue the analogy) are not closed to outsiders, but they are closed to the advice and control of outsiders.  The church as the church will produce believers who are ready and able to truly evangelize.

Do heralds bargain with the Master’s message?

I’m sure we would all agree that they do not.  But some evidently feel that changing methodologies does not violate that principle.  Our word for “preacher” comes from the New Testament word for “herald (kerux—2 Tim. 1:11).”  He was a trusted agent of the king who spoke the king’s message to the people.  He had no right to change or barter that message.  His method of proclaiming the message was “preaching” (kerusso—2 Tim. 4:2).  The message itself was the subject of the preaching (the kerygma—2 Tim. 4:17).

If we really believe the Bible is our authority for faith and practice, then we have no right to rearrange our practices because those we are preaching to don’t like it.  That may grieve our hearts and may even cost us relationships but it cannot change our devotion.

Are we to evangelize or win the world?

There is a vast difference between faithfully proclaiming our faith to whomever will listen, and insisting that every listener must accept our faith.  We are commissioned to preach the gospel to every creature (Mk. 16:15-16) but not to win every creature.  We don’t baptize every nation but the converts from every nation (Matt. 28:19-20).  We are to be “witnesses” in all the world but there will be both times of revival and persecution.  Must we insist that our time  be a time of great revival?  Must we say that if we are in one of those difficult times that we are doing something wrong?  God doesn’t ask us to evaluate our evangelism or our faith by how others respond.  That is the Holy Spirit’s business and we should be satisfied with His decisions.

Does our generation really not understand us?

Does the average American citizen have a difficult time following a simple sentence with nouns and verbs?  Does even the punk rocker not know what we are saying when we speak of the gospel of Christ?  I think he understands perfectly and reacts according to his conscience.  We’ve been watching too many TV shows and reading too many vogue magazines and watching too many Hollywood movies.  The generations, cultures, and faiths may have their own homey way of speaking within their circles (where would the world be without such variety?) but to say that one cannot be understood by the others is to be a bit culturally myopic.

The Bible does say that the lost man cannot grasp spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14) and that unless the Holy Spirit works in his heart he will call it all foolishness.  But this is not the same as saying he cannot understand language.  Besides, if he could not even understand our language, then there would be no purpose to evangelism at all.  The lost man understands all too well the claims of Christ.  We are the ones who are uncomfortable.

Do we really want to be like the world?

Are some trying so hard to be “understood” by the world because they love it more than the church?  One has to wonder what the motivation is for turning the church of Jesus Christ into a cultural retreat for the world.  If the local church assembly is to be designed by sinners, where do the saints find fulfillment for the New Testament commands of Christ?  Where is the reverence?  Where is the specifically Christian fellowship?  Where is the love of the brethren?  Where is the place to do the business of the church decently and in order?

Some say that they make these changes in the church service for the sake of the lost who are there.  But if they see that no lost are there for a particular hour, do they quickly dispense with all that and have a normal service?  No, these changes are made for Christians who like it that way.  It is because they spend the other six days of the week watching American Idol that they cannot bring themselves to love the church on Sunday.  John wrote, “They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.  We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us.  Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:5-6).

And So . . . .

Cultural relevancy is not all it’s cracked up to be.  This isn’t the first generation of believers who have found themselves on the outside of cultural elitism. History and eternity will judge how we hold the banner behind a long line of faithful men and women.  “Let us not be weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”