Dear Friends,

Not long ago I passed a church with a sign out front that proudly read, “We sing old fashioned music!”  Now, aside from the fact that music is timeless, it made me wonder, “What do they mean by that?”  Have they installed a harpsichord?  Perhaps they’ve gone back to Gregorian chants?  Ok, I know what they meant.  They’re singing hymns and none of these new-fangled choruses that don’t sound right with an organ.  That’s their preference and I can respect that, but who are they trying to attract with that sign?  Certainly not unbelievers or anyone not raised in church with similar preferences.

Maintaining societal relevancy can be an unnerving process for many church people.  It’s a simple formula that we tend to hold; World (Society) = BAD, Church (God) = GOOD.  I’ve preached it many times!  We, church people, also tend to be guilty of getting things just the way WE like them and doing everything we can to keep it that way.  We come to believe that anything new, modern or different must be bad because its conforming to the world.  While no one wants to be in a church that’s irrelevant to their life, the idea of churches being relevant to prevailing culture can elicit a strong negative response for those who associate it with gimmicks, pageantry, and shallow messages light on the gospel.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Bible paints relevancy as a godly attribute that’s required for disciples to effectively communicate the gospel of Christ to an ever-changing culture. But just like any attribute, relevancy can be twisted beyond its God-given intent and misused by sinful people.  So, as a church that desires to impact our community and beyond, I believe there are ways we should strive to remain relevant while protecting our Biblical foundation from compromise.

In Luke 7:12, Jesus sums up how God’s people are to treat others in what we call the Golden Rule: “Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them.”  How do we like people to treat us? We like them to meet us on our level. To show an interest in things that matter to us. To use vocabulary that we can understand.  No one likes to be talked above or around or to be confused about what’s being said or going on.  If we like to be treated in a welcoming and understanding manner, we should likewise strive to be relevant to  those of our culture in the methods and styles we use to communicate the gospel and in the way we live out the Christian life.

The foundation of the gospel is the incarnation in which God the Son, Jesus, put on flesh to be one of us, to understand us, to show us the way back to God.  While remaining sinless, Jesus adopted the language and customs of His people and engaged in common cultural activities of the day. When He taught, Jesus used parables and illustrations relevant to first century Jews.  In Luke 13:4, Jesus taught using a recent news event and connected Old Testament Scriptures to common life experiences applicable to His audience.  When a church strives to be relevant to its community, it imitates our Savior who took the initiative to come down from heaven and live among His people and speak their language.  He didn’t water down hard truths but He attracted people to Him so that they could hear the message of the Kingdom of God.  He could have lived as a hermit or an oracle in the far reaches of a desert only accessible by a difficult journey.  Instead, He made it easy to approach Him and He welcomed those who came with compassion for their lostness.

While being relevant requires intentionality, it also happens naturally as a church body engages its community and fulfills the Great Commission. This is because when Christians interact with unchurched people on a regular basis, they gain perspective on how nonbelievers view the church from the outside.  This in turn, enables Christians to remove manmade stumbling blocks (vocabulary, rituals, rules) that may have crept into church practices.  These are barriers that unnecessarily hinder people from hearing and understanding the Good News.  Sometimes, this is as simple as making stylistic changes. These might include music, décor, signage, logos and marketing, dress, color schemes or any number of things related to design or method.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once quipped, “You can always tell what was the best year of your father’s life, because they seem to freeze that clothing style and just ride it out to the end.”  While that’s fine for an individual, it can be death to the effectiveness of a church!  We must ask ourselves, are there any “frozen styles” at our church that have nothing to do with the gospel or being faithful to Scripture, but have remained unchanged just because they have grown comfortable or they are sentimental?  As a church we should seek to model Jesus in being relevant to our community.

There are temptations and traps, however, that come with the godly pursuit of relevancy that many churches have fallen into that we must guard against.  The greatest of these is compromising Biblical truth.  Cultural relevancy, although a good thing, can become an idol when it leads the church to compromise Biblical values or make concessions to teaching truth.  This will lead to poor theology and an acceptance of sin.  This should never be!  There’s a big difference between helping people make sense of hard passages by explaining them in contemporary and relevant language, and watering down hard passages to make them say something other than what God intended them to mean.

Another temptation is to become self-serving.  The goal of being relevant to one’s culture or society is to exalt Jesus and build people up in the faith and to save the lost. But relevancy can be used as an excuse to change our message, focus and vision.  Over the past few years, pastors and church leaders everywhere have sacrificed their calling to preach and teach Jesus and the Good News to the “relevancy” of being active and vocal about politics and social activism.  That is not our calling!  Godly relevancy has nothing to do with being hip, cool, or trending on social media. It has everything to do with meeting unchurched and unsaved people where they are and communicating with them in ways and language they can receive and understand.

A church that desires to be relevant to its culture seeks to remove unnecessary alienation with the world that comes from differences in style, vocabulary and methodology.  Paul spoke of the need for this in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.  You should read the whole passage but it ends with this; “…I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.”  Let’s face it, the message about sin and the need for repentance are subjects that attract worldly resistance, even ridicule, in any culture. Likewise, God’s principles on issues such as marriage, sexuality, abortion, and the origins of the universe—just to name a few—fly in the face of people who don’t yet understand why they should trust and submit to Biblical authority and morality.  For this reason, we must never confuse cultural relevancy with cultural approval.

When a church seeks to be relevant to its community, it does so to make it easier for people to hear and believe the gospel.  Conversely, when a church strives simply for society’s approval, it creates a slippery slope where truth is compromised and faith is rendered useless. 

As we begin to emerge from this transition period in the life of our church and to stretch out at our new campus, we must set aside personal preferences and out dated looks and practices and endeavor to evaluate our relevancy to those in our community.  Not for the sake of numbers, increased offerings or change alone but for the sake of souls! 

Only by Grace!

Pastor Mike