Listening to the “Christian” radio station here in Perth recently my wife Lesley heard the announcers applauding a church that was to show live on Sunday morning a football game between Australia and the New Zealand All-Blacks. The rationale was that many would stay home and watch it so by bringing it to church we bring the people to church.
Another church, in an endeavour to reach people, offered a “mystery man” and a glass of Champagne event for women and a beer and sausage-sizzle event for men. In our self-congratulatory climate of modern western religion such endeavours are applauded as being creative methods to bring people back to church; a way of becoming “relevant” in a society that has little time for God.
The word “relevance” has become the catchcry of many of our churches today. It has become a jargon word implying that the message of the church has become irrelevant to society and we are “losing ground”. While the “Christian” market-leaders have managed to corner the market on crowds and programmes many others struggle to increase as they feel they should. After all, God is into big, success, prosperity, rapid growth etc, etc, etc.
Relevance through success
Without getting too sidetracked here (so early in this paper) I think we should consider our fixation with “big” and “success” and the like. If God is the infinite God of eternity what makes us think that our big is God’s big? If God is God then one or one thousand is of little significance. When I look at a bucket of sand and a wheelbarrow of sand I am not overawed with either. Even a truck load is not that impressive. Why do we think that God is impressed with what impresses us or that he demands or expects us to strive for what we deem to be impressive? Doesn’t the gospel indicate that God is impressed only with his son and that if we are found in him then that is enough! Peter eloquently describes God’s economy this way:
2 Peter 3:8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. NIV
While this is talking about time and the Lord’s return it reveals much about his greatness and our insignificance. To us a thousand years or thousands of people is a big thing. But to God it is insignificant. I am tempted to pursue this thought, but I’ll resist except to say this;
Eccl 4:4 And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. NIV
Is the driven-ness of many church leaders and overseers today motivated by envy, pride and their need for self-actualisation? Have we become a prideful people who must be seen as successful by the standards of this world?
In regard to success it is surprising that our popular gospel declares that “God wants you to succeed”, yet it was Jesus who made the remarkable statement highlighting the life of the believer this way:
John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” NIV
He makes it clear that power, popularity and worldly success stand in contra-distinction to Kingdom living in this world:
John 15:18-21 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. NIV
An Irrelevant God
I wonder if anyone has stopped to consider what we mean when we declare the church to be “irrelevant” to modern society. We consider that 20th and 21st century sin is unique. The needs of this generation are somehow different from previous generations. In doing so we also declare that the message of the cross in not – in its current form – able to be the power of God to bring salvation. The end conclusion – if we are to take the gospel of relevance to its own illogical conclusion – is that God is not relevant today.
Am I being unfair? Well, I think the two examples stated above are evidence of this conclusion. People will not come and worship God at a meeting on Sunday so we offer them football, alcohol or some other attraction that they already enjoy. The argument is that it is simply “pre-evangelism”. That argument does not stand in the first example where worship is changed for another god, but can perhaps be considered for the second. The problem with “pre-evangelism” is that it introduces a “programme” in an area that is the domain of every member of God’s kingdom. The contact of the church with the world is through those working, trading and interacting on a daily basis within society. The believer is the “pre-evangelism” or meeting point.
Two immediate thoughts present themselves here; the first is the relevance of the message of the cross and the second is the relevance of the church as the expression of Jesus Christ on earth.
An irrelevant gospel
It matters little how clever the arguments sound that we need to package the message of the church differently, the fact remains that the gospel is now and will always be an irrelevance to those who are perishing.
According to the Macquarie Concise Dictionary the word “relevant” means: bearing upon or connected with the matter at hand; to the purpose; pertinent. Conversely irrelevant means: not applicable or pertinent. So, when we consider the need for relevance we are in fact considering something that is contradictory to the gospel and Scripture.
God is never “relevant” to a self-focussed and self-absorbed world (Rom 8:7-8). The gospel in fact can never be relevant (1Cor 2:14). It is a contradiction to the corruption that is in the world through lust (2Pt 1:3,4). Paul makes it plain that the standards of thinking in this age are foolishness and so it is not the message that is irrelevant to people it is people who are irrelevant to the message.
1 Cor 3:18-20 Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” NIV
The message of the cross, as Paul declares (1 Cor 1:18) will always be foolishness (irrelevant) to those who are perishing, even sophisticated, wise, unique modernity, and wisdom (relevant) to those who are being saved.
To justify a gospel of relevance rather than the message of the cross we are given the contrast between some angry doomsayer proclaiming a turn or burn message as being the alternative to a culturally acceptable and relevant – though useless in the context of salvation – message. It is this fact alone that can bring salvation: Jesus died for the sin of all so that many can repent and come into the salvation of God. Beer, mystery men, football or messages that help people feel at home in this world (see Heb 11:13; 1Pt 1:1,17; 2:11) may be relevant to this age but they cannot bring life and freedom from sin and death. The gospel of relevance is irrelevant to those who are being saved.
In short and to put it bluntly, the message of relevance that is being proclaimed today is a message of death.
An irrelevant church
Quite amazingly, contrary to popular belief in the church, The Church is not called to be relevant to the world but to God. A church that is relevant to God will be a church that is relevant to those who are being saved.
Paul makes it clear that the increase belongs to and comes from God (1Cor 3:6). Salvation belongs to God (Rev 7:10; 19:1) not to the church and it is he who draws men to himself (Jn 6:44,65) not our wise and persuasive words. The church that proclaims the Word of God is not relevant to society but to God.
1 Cor 1:30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. NIV
Why is it that we, who were brought into the kingdom even when we were enemies, (and if we are honest, we entered even though our minds were saying a different thing) think that God NEEDS US to grow the church?
John 5:44 How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? NIV
This verse makes it clear that to be relevant to man is to be irrelevant to God.
What is needed here is a discussion on ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. The church is more than a Sunday meeting; it is the body of Christ on earth. Paul points out in Ephesians 3:9,10 that this body, called church, is the manifest wisdom of God to principalities and powers and rulers of the air. It is an active and dynamic community of faith. When we declare it to be irrelevant we declare it to be failing as the manifest wisdom of God. If it is indeed failing – and I believe it is – it is failing God first and by extension fallen humanity.
The church that is not the community of faith, that is not the family of God on earth, is an organised religion of society and therefore irrelevant to God and to those in society seeking God.
Jesus said that it is when the church is seen as a loving community that others will know that the church is indeed the church of Jesus Christ.
John 13:34-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” NIV
The life of a community of faith is evidenced in the shared life of Jesus and his disciples when he ministered as a man. They continued on in this shared life after his ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. As the message spread, it did not simply produce saved lives, but communities of faith sharing the life of Jesus together. The evident love of this shared life was a catalyst through which the Spirit drew others into the family of God.
Getting people to a Sunday meeting is not the same as making disciples and is not the purpose of the church of Jesus Christ. If we want more people at a meeting let’s buy a pub, or some other establishment that caters to the lusts of the flesh and offer people what they want. This is the logic of a gospel of relevancy.
Let me conclude by saying that I am in agreement with the message that the church has become irrelevant. The difference however is to whom the church has become irrelevant. Our relevance is meant to be to God alone. The church has become an irrelevance in the earth only to the extent that it has become irrelevant to God. That is, much of our focus is not pertinent to Scripture and has no bearing on or connection to the matter at hand ie being the manifest wisdom of God on earth.
What is the response then to this? Only God’s grace can bring life to a dying world. The church that wants to really make a difference in the world – as opposed to those who want to impress society and be accepted and praised by society through the accumulation of the world’s measurements of success – needs to become the church of Jesus Christ and seek to impress him and him alone. That church will make a difference even if that church is considered irrelevant by society and by the contemporary church of this society.
“To be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of God” (James 4:4 paraphrased)