Is Relevance Really That Important?

Core Value Two: Relevance

Last week we left off talking about relevance in ministry and it’s critical importance in the North American context. So why is relevance important – besides the fact that 94% of churches in America are reportedly losing ground in their communities – and why would we make it one of our core values at Renovate Church? Let me try and answer that question with a quick illustration.

In his book, Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Modern Myths, theologian Alister McGrath tells about his friend’s stamp-collecting hobby. His friend, he’s says, “is perfectly capable of telling me everything I could possibly want to know about the watermarks of stamps issued during the reign of Queen Victoria by the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago. And while I have no doubt about the truth of what he is telling me, I cannot help but feel that it is an utter irrelevance to my life.”

Seriously? Come on now, who doesn’t want to know the intricacies of the stamps from Trinidad and Tobago? I know just this week I was able to strike up a profound conversation with a guy at Gold’s Gym remarking how much his faded t-shirt looked like the watermark of one of the most popular stamps during the Queen Victoria era. Amazingly, he was so impressed with my knowledge of Caribbean stamps that he immediately asked me what he had to do to be saved and inherit eternal life. Nope, didn’t really happen. Actually, a comment like this might have closed the door for an on-going conversation.

What this story does do is accurately capture the very real tension in many churches between the desire to be Biblically faithful yet the need to be culturally relevant. In this story, the information was accurate and truthful but it was also not relevant to the hearer. This is, many times, where we find ourselves as Christians trying to connect the gospel message to our current cultural context – a context where an increasing number of people have no religious background and where many people believe that religion is outdated and unnecessary at best and oppressive at worst. As one pastor recently said, “unfortunately, the church has become great at answering questions most people aren’t asking.” He went on to say that many people in our communities are open to talking to believers because they want answers to their problems. They want to know how their marriage can be healed or how their struggling children can be helped or how they can get free from addiction or the bitterness and anger that’s controlling their life. This is the point where the gospel is relevant in their lives. Wasn’t this what Jesus routinely did? I see Jesus in Mark 10:51 asking the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” I see Jesus in Mark 5:24 going with a man named Jairus because his daughter was sick and dying. I see Jesus concerned for people’s physical and spiritual needs.

So what does it mean to be Biblically faithful yet culturally relevant? On the one hand it means we cannot be more committed to our preferences, styles, and traditions than we are to engaging the people God has called us to love, serve, and reach! I know this firsthand from our church planting experience in Indiana where we did not give enough consideration to our local context. Sadly, we were more committed to our “style of ministry” than to effectively connecting the gospel to the real needs and questions of the community. The result was that we became increasingly disconnected from the community. Cultural barriers were put up that kept people from hearing the gospel. On the other hand it also means that we cannot try so hard to fit in and be cool that we lose our distinctiveness.

One of the articles that sums up this balance of relevance and faithfulness well was written by Ed Stetzer (http://catalystconference.com/read/church-and-contemporary-culture-always-a-challenge/). For the sake of time I won’t go into everything Stetzer said but will point out one of his main themes is that effective churches both contend for the gospel and contextualize the gospel so that it is understandable. This is the pattern of Jesus, Paul, the New Testament church, and missionaries for the past 2000 years and this is the kind of church we want to be! Contend and contextualize.

In the next post I’ll explain some ways that all of us can better understand our community, and therefore, better communicate the gospel to those around us. Have a great week!

Dave and April