Relevance Revisited

I feel compelled to write one more post on relevance as it is such a driving force in our American Christian culture, usually for the negative. I see some trends in today’s evangelical church that are troubling.

Before I begin, I do want to issue a disclaimer: I don’t think we are to ignore our culture, societal movements, or technology when it comes to the way we worship or “do church”. Jesus was in tune with the culture and his audience. He related to fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors and Pharisees. When Paul spoke on Mars Hill, he showed understanding of the culture of the day. So in no way do I want to be perceived as rejecting a need to be aware of our culture and understand that being relevant is not inherently bad. It is not.

What is bothersome is a culture in our churches that is promoting a religion of relevance. We will only be effective if we are “cool”. Our building must look a certain way, our stage must look a certain way, and our music and production values must be at the broadcast tv level.

Two current trends concerning relevance that I would like to address.

1. Irrelevance is irreverence.

This is a core value for a large church in America, and it is being pragmatically adopted by many other churches. Reverence for God should be derived and focused on our response to Him, not our relevance to our culture. I understand that the intent of this statement is really more about relevance than it is reverence, but our motivation for reverence shouldn’t be driven by our attempts at relevance.

2. Church is for people who are not yet attending.
While A major function of the church is outreach, the church’s primary purpose is for worship of God, teaching and fellowship. Acts 2 shows some of these activities.

42 And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.

46 And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,

47 Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Yes, there were people getting saved and there was the public preaching on God’s word, but God’s people gathered together in homes and in the temple for times that were for them. The word for church is the Greek word “ekklesia” from two words meaning “call” and “out”. We are the “called out” ones. We are called out from the world. Yes, we are “in” the world, but not “of” the world (John 17:14).

The focus on people who are not yet here means that we are likely to be focused on evangelism to the neglect of worship and discipleship. Part of this desire to reach people will result in a need to be relevant. It will drive choices about use of secular music in church, the depth of sermons, and programs for the church.

In conclusion, I am not against being relevant. I am against being driven by relevance. One of my students had a great quote: “any attempt to marry church with the culture is bound to end in divorce.” We should be “in” the world but not “of” the world. There is a balance in all things, and certainly the balance of being in a culture should be weighed against the balance of being counter-cultural. Most of what Jesus calls us to do is counter-cultural.

The greatest travesty in the church in the last fifty years is that we took transcendence and traded it for relevance. Attributed to James McDonald via Twitter.

11 comments to Relevance Revisited

  • Jordan Redfield

    These are some very good thoughts! I especially liked the emphasis on discipleship within the church. I’m generally the first to question how the church appears to sometimes neglect evangelism and carrying out the Great Commission. But I agree that discipleship is perhaps even more important. If there aren’t believers being discipled and strengthened in their faith, then they won’t be equipped or motivated to proclaim the gospel. The church must not be so consumed with being relevant with our culture that it fails to function as God has created it to.

  • Isaac Murrell

    I agree with this, and that is a great quote about ending in divorce. I encountered this question today after leaving church when a friend asked me what I thought the church needed. In my response to her, I explained the balance of being traditional and contemporary and how most of the current Christian culture looks toward worship groups like Hillsong, Elevation Worship, Jesus Culture, and etc. Most younger people want to have great contemporary music because that is what they listen often and in their spare time. (I am not saying that it is all they listen to.) To be relevant would be to mimic these churches and music groups in order to start up another one to attract more people to get in church and therefore share the gospel. I think the church, especially worship leaders, can get caught up into creating a relevant environment and setlist with contemporary songs and new technology, and then forget that it is all about spreading the Gospel. That is our mission. To be honest, I think most kids want the worship experience they get from groups like Hillsong and Jesus Culture. I have noticed that many groups are releasing “Live” albums in order to capture a worship experience and bring it to people. Let’s be honest, people love good music and they love the emotional response that happens often in times of worship. All this leads me to say that I think we are getting too caught up in being relevant. It is a good thing to reach culture and to do anything we can to do that, but we have to be sure our sole motive is to be able to spread the Gospel and not just create something because its what everyone is doing and its the new thing to do. The church needs to learn to be able to worship God because of what he has done for us and not because the music is powerful and we feel like it. But don’t get me wrong, having great music and a nice environment is very helpful and can be really edifying. It is a good thing, but it needs to be created for this purpose. It shouldn’t be created because Hillsong does it. It needs to be all about God, the Gospel, people, and the church.

    • Iril

      I know this one is old, but it caught my aitnetton. It is for this very reason that I don’t play on worship teams anymore. It seems that being like a cd is more important than being yourself and doing what you do. Then you take others who do what they do, and put it together to make something new and meaningful. Instead, worship just turns into copying the latest fads and making the members of the team contort themselves until they meet the expectations of others. MAJOR BURN OUT! Too many times Christians are trying to offer an alternative. I don’t want an alternative, I want the answer.

  • Roger O'Neel

    Good thoughts guys! Thanks for the comments!

    • Abush

      good points. I think soitmemes we think “relevance” means that we copy culture (and usually the most shallow elements of our culture) and then try to sanitize it. What we always end up with when we do that is a cheap knock-off. It becomes like shopping at the $1 Store where everything looks like the original, but when you get close you realize it’s cheap, plastic junk with no real value despite it’s low price. I mean, do we REALLY think that doing a sermon series called “LOST, are you found?” styled to look like the TV show is creative and relevant? I remember when Survivor was so huge and every church in town did a sermon series using all kinds of different variations on the Survivor theme. I throw up a little bit in my mouth every time I think about it. What made films like The Matrix and Memento so great? They were original. They were genre defying/defining. U2 Joshua Tree Nirvana on and on. What if we quit copying Hillsongs and Chris Tomlin? What if we defy current genres and define new ones? Why not.

    • Isabel

      I know what you mean. I also have had a very difficult time finndig a church. Just like you, I want to FEEL that peaceful feeling when I find it. Out of the churches we have visited, I feel uncomfortable and vulnerable….its so hard to explain. We are still looking though. When we visit a new church, we always go two or three times just to make sure that it is not just because we dont know anyone. I know that God will direct us to the right church and we will find that ‘home’ feeling. Kim

      • Jessica

        As a pastor’s wife- this topic is near to my heart!First of all, I have to say that I do not beviele that the “Church” is at fault!! The Bible is very clear, that it is to be us PARENTS that are to be training our children in righteousness!!! Sunday School & Youth Group were started many, many years later & really were started for the “non-churched” kids! Those statistics are sad, but I think they are a lot due to the fact that parents have been relying on the church to teach their children about Christ- instead of taking an active role themselves (& actually living what they beviele)!A couple things our church does that I LOVE are… when children turn 4, they join their parents in “big” church- children younger than that are certainly welcome, but there is nursery & children’s church provided for children under 4. Although I do understand how difficult it can be for some kids to sit so long (we are all about wiggles at our house), we beviele that having children in the service, plants seeds in their little hearts! :)We also have just started a curriculum (our pastors & elders & teachers have created) that lasts 7 years & walks everyone through the Bible… all Sunday School classes of various ages as well as the sermon are focused on the SAME topic… are memorizing the same verse, etc. In this way, children (along with their parents) will go through an in depth study of the whole Bible twice.Sorry, this is getting way too long! ;)Great question!Jessica

  • Jacob Tudor

    Lately I have found myself reflecting just how much my own Church has been driven by relevance in the past few years. I am actively involved at my home Chruch, a rather large Dayton suburban Church that has greatly accepted modern worship over the last decade- which of course that in itself is not a bad thing. However, just a few years ago we undertook a large construction and rennovation project costing millions of dollars that really made me question this topic. It included many “things” that, upon first impressrion, would seem like a huge waste of money, unnecassary, and flashy- as if the Church had taken the idea of relevance and gone off the deep end in order to attaract people because of what we had. From a perspective, maybe there was truth to this. However, the overall health, community, and growth that has occurred would say otherwise. Each week I engage with many people in genuine worship, and it’s simply amazing, awe-inspiring! In addition, I’m a young adult volunteer in a ministry for middle school students that is growing so rapidly we just don’t know what to do! And this is definitely a good problem to have. In the end, I still haven’t been able to decide whether the recent developments at my Church were driven by relevance- I personally know many of the people who lead the Church very closely and I understand their hearts and motive and do not believe this is the case- although this may not be the case to those who don’t. But what I do know is that God has greatly blessed us, and the hand of God has been working like rapid wildfire in this Church community through the lives and testimonies of the people, and that is my desire!

  • Mike Powell

    I first of all really like what you put in your last paragraph. I am not against being relevant but I am against being driven by relevance. It is so true and I have seen it even in my own church. In attempt to become more contemporized, we lost some of the people in church. There should be a good well-rounded balance in the church so that like what you said, we have a good balance of being cultaral and being counter-cultural.

  • Roger O'Neel

    Great comments guys!

  • Caleb Gordon

    I Agree with this, worship has to be a balance of “seeker driven” and “seeker sensitive”. A lot of churches are mainly driven by evangelism and yet they seem to lack the discipleship aspect. (1 corinthians 3:2) talks about the idea that God gave us spiritual “milk”; we were not ready for a really deep or “meaty” topics. Its this idea that describes how churches are lacking the spiritual meat that believers need to grow and mature. There is the idea of house churches for believers to gather and sunday morning to reach out, but I think there even needs to be a balance on Sunday morning. The main objective is not to reach out to the lost, although very important. Our main goal in worship is to sing back the Gospel, worshiping the one true God, and pointing others to Christ.