The Interceders Encourager No. 48
The Right Kind of Relevance
(with acknowledgments to Steven Grant, Colorado, USA. All quotations, unless stated otherwise, are from him, though his wording is often changed)
"One of the buzzwords of the church has been the term 'relevance.' There are seminars urging us as Christians to be relevant to our culture and surroundings. But is this what Jesus taught? While He loved the people so much He died for their sins, He never compromised or yielded in their direction. In fact, he called them apart from the world to develop His Kingdom. They were to model something radically different that would make the world sit up and take notice.
The church has now been 'relevant' to the world for several decades. So, what type of fruit has this produced? In the Western World, it has brought forth a self-serving, weak, greedy generation. The plea, 'God have mercy on me, a sinner,' or the question, 'What must I do to be saved' has been replaced with, 'What can you do for me.' The knowledge of God and His Word has been trumped by the need to feel good.
Of course we need to relate to people in order to see them come to Christ, but the church is on the fast track to becoming a spiritual welfare state, doing everything to please people; instead of challenging people to face up to their rebellion against a holy God, and get their sin dealt with, in order to create a glorious bride, pure and spotless, ready for her husband the Lord Jesus Christ."
1. The Right Kind of Relevance
Now it is right that, in some ways, the church should be relevant. The message of the gospel should always be presented in ways that people understand and relate to. The Master Preacher always started where people were, and spoke about things that all the people were familiar with. In the same way, preachers should always start where people are, and speak in terms that people understand. This means:
a) Preachers should never use old fashioned, outdated language. All the preachers in the Bible spoke to their own generations in the language of the day that everybody could understand. The word of God must always be presented in the best contemporary language, or it will be rejected as irrelevant. I have seen the tragedy of this on too many occasions; the word of God rejected by people because it has been presented in old fashioned language. No church should ever be guilty of making the gospel difficult to understand by its generation. At the time of the Reformation, one of the main concerns of the Reformers was that the Bible should be translated and preached in the people's own language, as the Bible was available only in Latin, a language that ordinary people could not understand. The foremost concern of John Wycliffe, the morning star of the Reformation, was that the common ploughboy could hear the Bible in his own language. God's intention has always been that his word should be understood and acted upon by all people everywhere. Unless this happens, God's purpose is being frustrated.
I am well aware that some versions of the Bible are more accurate translations than others, therefore we must not seek to 'play fast and loose' with the text, but must seek the most accurate understandable translation, bearing in mind that no text can ever be perfectly translated from one language to another. On the other hand, in the light of the Day of Pentecost, and all subsequent times of revival, the main consideration must always be the Bible's usefulness in evangelism, as we ask ourselves, "Is the version that we use the most understandable and the most effective in convicting people of sin?"
b) Preachers should always start and continue by relating what they have to say to people's experiences. They should never start by saying, "Today we are going to continue with the next chapter in Leviticus or Ezekiel, or something similar. None of the preachers in the Bible would ever have done that. They started where their contemporaries were, and spoke directly to their situation, challenging them to face up to God's standards. It is true that they often referred back to what God had done in the past, but only to remind them of how far they had gone away from Him. Jesus referred to people who had lived before Him and to particular passages in the Bible, but only to illustrate what He was talking about. The only exception to this, that some people might hold up, is the time when He was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read from in the synagogue at Nazareth. But we should notice that having read the verses, he straightaway threw the challenge back at them, telling them on that day the Scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing. Furthermore, He did not attempt to dissect the passage, but went on to speak of their situation, and tell them off for rejecting Him and His message. In the same way, on the Day of Pentecost, even though all His hearers were familiar with their Scriptures, Peter did not start by saying, "Now, today, we are going to consider the prophecy of Joel," or anything like that. He started where the people were. After addressing the people by name, he proceeded to relate to them very closely. "These men that you see here today, are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day, but this what the prophet Joel prophesied." After quoting the words of the prophet, immediately he got back to them reminding them of what they knew about Jesus. He finished by telling them that they were murderers, and then challenging them to repentance and baptism. Everything was relevant and direct and personal.
The relevance shown by the Biblical preachers was not in giving people what they wanted, but in giving people what they needed, which is the reality of the truth of God applied to their lives, the challenge of His standards and the provision of His power to enable people to reach those standards.
2. The Timeless Message
We need to notice that, even though the message of the gospel should be presented in ways that people understand, the message itself stays the same, for it is the truth about the unchanging, eternal God, for His character, His standards and His purposes remain the same. "His truth at all times firmly stood, and shall from age to age endure," (William Kethe). "Firm as a rock Thy truth shall stand, when rolling years shall cease to move," (Isaac Watts).
The problem with so much of today's church is that in their concern to become "relevant," they have changed the message itself, which is a recipe for disaster. If God never changes, (which He does not), those who change the message are therefore taking people further away from God, and not nearer to Him.
All people have a need for purpose in living, and to find answers to their feelings of loneliness, disappointment, despair, etc., and the church's task is to show that these will not be found through shallow, temporal things, which is what the churches seem to be most concerned about, but will only be found through getting right with God, making Jesus the Lord of their lives, in dying to themselves and their sin, in living for Christ, and in trusting God for everything.
"But today there is very little shared about dying to self and dying to sin. Yet Jesus Himself said that it was a very tight gate and a narrow way that led to everlasting life, and only a few found it, for most people go down the broad path that leads to destruction; a warning that is sounded many times in the rest of the New Testament.
3. The Wrong Kind of Relevance
But you would not know about the challenges and the warnings that Jesus declared if you looked at most Christian advertising these days, There is little or no mention of preparing for judgment or getting right with God or facing up to reality, but in its search for "relevance," the churches pander to people's selfishness, offering coffee mornings, mothers and toddlers groups, children's clubs, etc., with no mention of God at all. Other places offer the greatest and most popular speakers and singers, who should not be missed.
I am told that "in the pursuit of 'relevance,' in America they have biker churches, cowboy churches, postmodern churches, churches with the lights turned down for the right "mood." They even have guitar-based churches, jumbo-screen churches, and coffee shop churches." In times of revival, they had none of these things, but they had reality; they had the power of God; they saw Him work; they had the answers to man's deepest needs.
"If God were really in all these 'relevant' churches and meetings, we should be witnessing the Holy Spirit moving in conviction, with people broken in repentance. We would see PowerPoint replaced by Holy Spirit power. We would see the world beating a path to our doors.
But they aren't, and the reason is we're too relevant in terms of becoming like the world. In the Roman world of the Early Church, there was a great desire for entertainment, as there is today. There were public baths, gymnasiums, performing jugglers, clowns, pipe players, dancers, as well as drinking taverns and gaming houses; along with the larger events put on by the authorities: performances of plays, public games, gladiatorial contests and chariot races held in stadia and amphitheatres. But the churches did not attempt to mimic any of these activities. Their business was more serious. They had completely different objectives, determined by the fact that they knew this world was not their home. They were pilgrims on the way to heaven. Their aims, therefore, were to live holy lives, to wait for the coming of the Lord, to pray for others to come out of their darkness into the marvelous light of the Lord, to convince those who doubted, and to snatch people out of the fire of hell. (Jude 20-23)
The early church, therefore, was countercultural and completely different from those around them. They knew that they were called out and separate from the world, and all those who have experienced revival have felt the same. "But most of the churches today have abdicated that role in order to appear more acceptable and more successful. To appeal to people, we are careful to package our messages in the current, latest trend. Away with dressing in our best clothes for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, relevance means that we now have the postmodern teacher, clothed in jeans and a casual shirt, along with most of his members. Some come complete with bar stool and visual aids on stage, while the message of the gospel is shared in a conversational tone complete with postmodern hesitancy, insecurity and lots of questions. They forget the fact that Christ proclaimed His Kingdom with boldness, power and signs following. We are relevant, and sterile.
The other extreme in the church emphasize traditional hymns and ways of doing things. There may well be aspects of this that are right and God honouring, but there is no power and no reality in their midst. If we truly want God in His fullness, we will do whatever is necessary to be pleasing to Him. This in itself demands we lay aside all attempts to be like the world, and to humbly seek the Lord. God has promised He would come and pour out His Spirit if we would humble ourselves, pray, seek His face and turn from our wicked ways.
4. The Irrelevant Church
We need to ask ourselves what are people really looking for? I submit to you that deep down they are looking for something different from what they see around them, not the same. If they want the same things, they can find them in the world. The result of all this seeking to be relevant to the world is that the Church has become irrelevant as far as the world is concerned. We need to show them what the world can never give them, the real presence of the loving, holy, Almighty God. We need to be genuine, to praise the Lord in sincerity, to pray with the certainty that He's listening; to apply the Bible to our lives because we really believe it is the word of God; and tell others to do so. When we worship with absolute sincerity, like the tax collector in the Temple, whom Jesus praised; when we open ourselves to really learn from God; when we live in faith and obedience; this will then be seen by sinners, and they will acknowledge that God is with us. But instead, today, if sinners walk into most church services expecting something amazing, all they would receive would be mundane religion, plus friendliness, which they would find in any secular gathering.
In many churches, where they have a big music band, if there is emotion in the congregation, it's largely contrived and soulish, caused by the music and not by the Holy Spirit of God. Furthermore, there is very little challenge in the message that is given. The call of Jesus to radical discipleship is not heard.
One of the results of seeking 'relevance' is that many of the sins of the world are now in the churches, and are unchecked, and the perpetrators not held to account. To do so would be regarded as 'judgmentalism," which is considered anathema. So even when emotion is demonstrated in church, it is rarely accompanied with a flow of God's power, for, too often, unclean hearts are lifting unclean hands to a sad and holy God, who will not hear.
The answer won't be found in a new music style or the latest and greatest band. The answer is found in Exodus 20. The first commandment God gave was that we should have no other gods before Him. Today we worship at the altar of relevance instead of the altar of God. The epistle of 1 John warned us to keep ourselves from idols and from love of the world." If we love the world, then love for the Father is not in us, we are told. This warning should be trumpeted out all over the churches in the Western world.
"We are told that nobody wants to hear the 'old fashioned fire and brimstone preaching.' Well, they can rest easy. If they come to church today, they probably won't hear any. The church has actually demonized it better than the world ever did. Let me ask you, 'When was the last time you heard a fire and brimstone message?' It was probably a long time ago. They are thought to be crude. We rely on 'relevant' styles of presentation. Hell is never mentioned. Now it's 'separation from God,' but the world doesn't care if they are separated from God. They have been living that way quite cheerfully for years. We talk of love, grace, faith, His kindness, and the gentle Saviour. We forget the fact that Jesus is returning, according to Revelation with a sword flying out of His mouth, slaughtering people! That's scary! But it's even scarier when we consider the fact that we have allowed relevance to water down the message the world expects us to preach, and needs to hear.
Jude says that we are to save some by love and others by fear, pulling them out of the fire. Have you been in a service recently where sin, hell and damnation were preached so powerfully that people were really scared? I doubt it, because the church is seeking to be 'relevant.' Remember, it is still the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom. It also perfects holiness, which is a New Testament precept. Many are looking for a little fear of God, yet we hesitate to show this side of Him."
"The chief danger of the Church today is that it is trying to get on the same side as the world, instead of turning the world upside down. Our Master expects us to accomplish results, even if they bring opposition and conflict. Anything is better than compromise, apathy, and paralysis." (A. B. Simpson)
"When the church and the world can jog comfortably along together, you can be sure something is wrong. The world has not compromised. Its spirit is exactly the same as it ever was. If Christians were equally as faithful to the Lord, separated from the world, and living so that their lives were a reproof to all ungodliness, the world would hate them as much as it ever did. It is the church that has compromised, not the world." (Catherine Booth)
"Those of us who are pastors have to bear the major part of the blame for all this, because we have become weak, self-serving, timid, and don't want to hurt anyone. Does not the lake of fire put terror into our bones? Should we not implore people to leave the kingdom of Satan, and enter the Kingdom of God? Of course. But before we do, we must repent. We have sinned greatly before God. He hates our relevance and our compromise, and wants it to be put away.
The early church loved the sinner, but they related everything to a holy God. This is our model of success. The Lord added daily to the church, even while He showed His holiness and judgment by killing Ananias and Sapphira. The church was more concerned about being relevant to God; not man." When it does that, the right relevance is thereby assured.
5. The Answer
"So, where do we begin?
We must pray and really mean business with God.
We must confess and repent of all our sins of the heart and conduct.
We must rekindle a broken and a contrite heart.
We must search out what God hates in our lives.
And we must proclaim the full counsel of God, even the hellfire and damnation aspects of His Word.
Remember, we are seeking His glory, and are living to redeem souls for Him.
Everything else is….irrelevant."