The Trap of Being Relevant

As a pastor, it’s my desire to teach and demonstrate that God’s Word really is still powerfully true today.  This desire brings some pastors to be so “relevant” they become just like those they’re trying to minister to, while others stand at a distance while trying to speak that truth into the culture.  I think both of those extremes are off the mark, and I’m honestly not sure which is more common… but that’s not my topic for today.

I just want to think about the “trap of being relevant.”  While writing a paper for school on Michael Horton’s book, Christless Christianity, I wrote the following reflection:

One of the greatest pearls of wisdom came when he wrote, “While the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, the assimilation of the church to the world silences the witness” (p.16). Of course, this is the great irony of making Christianity culturally relevant: in seeking to win an audience, we lose our distinct message.  Scripture is relevant and does not need us to make it so.  Therein lies my greatest point of agreement and disagreement with Horton: I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment that the American Church has succumbed to culture and that Gospel-Proclamation is the calling and mission of the Church, but I often disagree with how he applies this within the local church.

As Christians (this is especially true for both pastors and parents as they attempt to teach Scripture), we need to be careful that in our desire to be “relevant” and “applicable” we aren’t guilty of a few things:

  1. We aren’t holding back from saying what needs to be said.  Are you so concerned about seeming judgmental that you’re not correcting what is false and speaking what is biblically true?
  2. We are blending in so much our message is just one of many conflicting messages.  The call to trust in and follow Jesus Christ better be different than the sales pitch to buy a new iPhone 4s.  Methods and Message ARE linked… if we blindly adopt so much of our cultures methods for communicating then we run the risk of simply making the Gospel another message for them to ignore.
  3. We are “redeeming culture” as a way to communicate the Gospel so much that once the Gospel is believed in, we’ve lost the ability to call people to repent and leave what is sinful behind.  I’m not separating faith and repentance here, but simply want to point out that if we are constantly “using” cultural touchpoints to demonstrate biblical truths then people could easily think, “Ok, now I believe in Jesus, but why would he want me to leave behind all this music I love if you’ve shown me how to listen to it Christianly?”

Keep in mind this is a word of warning against extremes, not a wholesale rejection of using cultural trends as a way to begin biblical conversations.  We need to understand both Scripture and our world, that’s obvious and I would never disagree with that (as the cliche says, “Preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”).  If we need to “make” Scripture relevant, then we simply have not understood what it says enough.

These are things that need to be held in tension.  It’s so easy to go from overemphasizing Scripture (where you want people to go) that you’re ignoring culture (where they are right now), then recognize what you’re doing and begin to overemphasize the other to correct your imbalance… and next thing you know you’re on the ministry see-saw constantly trying to find the “relevance sweet spot.”

Pastors – Are you trying to be so relevant in your ministry that you focus more on culture than Scripture?

Parents – Are you trying to be accepted by your teenager so much that you’re becoming more like them than you are calling them to be who God created them to become (aka: like Jesus)?

Everyone – Are you trying to justify the music/movies/whatever you like by “infusing” it with biblical overtones, or is it really something that needs to be honestly evaluated and left behind?

2 thoughts on “The Trap of Being Relevant

  1. benjaminkerns November 22, 2011 / 5:14 pm

    what a great post. i appreciated your balanced approach and gentile rebuke. this is a hard topic and a challenge to find that balance. one way or the other and we miss it entirely.

    being relevant is not a justification or even an awareness of pop culture. being relevant is understanding the culture in such a deep way that we can find cracks in it where we can communicate the gospel and the need for salvation and redemption.

    thanks again for a consistently stellar blog!

    • Pastor Mike November 22, 2011 / 6:54 pm

      Hey Benjamin, thanks for the encouragement about the blog, it’s good to know somebody reads this stuff and thinks it’s helpful.

      This is such a tricky tension, isn’t it?! I seem to be on that see saw more often than I care to admit, but hopefully I’m getting better at holding them both in tension. I’d love to hear how you try to keep them in tension…

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