I want to be relevant…

It seems to be a common trend among both conservative, liberal, and emergent pastors/preachers/discussion leaders/whatever they want to call themselves to try to keep their clothing “relevant.”

Notice that many of them, if they wear glasses, wear the thick rimmed black glasses. When they get up to preach, they’re usually wearing jeans, “dress” tennis shoes, and some type of button up shirt. Most of the time they’re either speaking without a podium in front of them or they’re speaking from a stool. The stage looks like a set up for a concert, introduction videos are generally present, and the list goes on. If anything, this satirical video sums up exactly how the modern church service looks:

Or, for those who prefer something a little less satirical (as in, this is from an actual worship service):

While it is very easy to sit here and mock such people, mockery doesn’t accomplish much.

Instead, we need to look at why these people are dressing and acting this way. The reason is they want to be relevant to the culture they’re in. They think that people are leaving the church because the church isn’t reaching out in a relevant way to the culture. The solution? Dress like the culture and entertain them more than the culture does.

Even with the move by the church to become relevant, people are still leaving the church and forming negative opinions about the church. Society is still moving further and further away from Christian principles, more towards a secular morality and even the church is starting to follow suit.

Now not all of these churches and pastors are bad or have wrong motives. Most of those who attempt to create a “rock star” church still hold to the basic orthodox beliefs of Christianity. Their attempt at relevancy, for most of them, erroneously believe that people are leaving church because they don’t feel comfortable, or church isn’t “relevant.” So they create an MTV-style church in the hopes of bringing people back – and such a tactic is usually temporarily successful, but while the membership roles increase, the attendance stays about the same or drops.

There’s another type of Christian that tries to be relevant, but doesn’t do so with external features. Instead, they will change their beliefs in order to be accepted in society. They often drop the idea that Christ alone saves us and then also drop other ethical claims of the Bible in order to progress in society. They’ll say that the act of homosexuality isn’t a sin, that they might personally be against abortion, but they’re not going to prevent a woman from getting an abortion if it’s her choice, often deny the inerrancy or inspired nature of Scripture, and will pick and choose what is convenient for their belief.

I was recently at a Christian event that was extremely interesting, but it is what was said after the event that was quite odd. The main speaker, who I consider a friend, was sitting at the table with me and people were coming up and talking to him. Then someone came up, said that he thought it was interesting what my friend had to say, and then laid out that he’s an atheist. My friend leaned back, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “I’m a metaphysical atheist.”

Now, in fairness to my friend, he’s very well studied and I don’t think he said that just to “fit in.” At the same time, I can’t help but escape the idea that in some way he has shucked his beliefs because it makes his faith more acceptable to others. When our faith is acceptable to others, we then hold a faith that we can practice without anyone ridiculing us for that faith.

Finally, there are those Christians who avoid relevance at any cost and actually take pride in being against the culture. The culture is showing tolerance for homosexuality? Not only will these people speak out against homosexuality as immoral, they’ll hold rallies and find every which way to condemn homosexuals. Government is trying to pass healthcare and people seem to like it? They’ll tell you that Jesus didn’t die to give you free health care and will rally against it. People like musical instruments in worship? No thank you, pipe organ only please!

The problem with all the above is that the focus is on humans. For the conservative and moderate believers who try to be relevant by dressing like the world, their focus is on being physically appeasing to the world. People will see how the Christians dress and think, “That’s cool,” and then want to be like the Christians. For the liberal and emergent Christians who abandon certain beliefs, or at least say, “I believe it, doesn’t mean you have to” the focus is on humans so that they can be accepted. It’s not fun to tell a friend that you think his actions might separate him from a relationship with God. In fact, this can (and does) cost people friendships. Likewise, if the past and present has taught us anything, whenever society has a negative view of the Christian message, those preaching that message are not in for a comfortable life. So what better way to feel spiritual, but also not have to worry about harassment from non-believers than to just chuck the most controversial beliefs in your religion and downplay the rest? The final type of Christian, the one who stands against culture on everything, is also putting their focus on humans. They view non-Christians as evil and lost, thus they want to do everything they can to oppose non-Christians. Rather than focusing on what their duty should be, they make a new duty based upon what they see the world doing.

The purpose of Christianity is to love God in all that we think, say, and do and then to let that love reflect on our fellow humans. This means that “being relevant” isn’t found in a t-shirt, a stage set, or an abandoned belief. Being relevant is found in what we say and what we do. What we say may sometimes coincide with what the culture beliefs or it may contradict what the culture believes. What we do may be easy or it may be hard. But authenticity isn’t found in trying to appease man, but instead is found in trying to appease God. Christianity is, by nature, counter-cultural; since humans choose to sin and Christianity calls us to a life free from sin, we will often times be at odds with the world.

At the same time, being counter-cultural doesn’t mean we bash the culture or oppose the culture every chance we get. It means we should reach out to the culture, lovingly show them the errors of their ways, stand firm in the truth and call for change when needed, and be willing to help those in the culture whenever we can.

The best summary of what it means to be a Christian to a fallen culture is found in the Didache and Letter to Diogentus:


You shall not turn away from him that is in need, but you shall share all things with your brother and shall not say that they are your own. For if you share what is immortal, how much more things which are temporary?

Letter to Diogentus:

If you love Him, you will be an imitator of his kindness. Do not marvel that a man may become an imitator of God. He can, if he is willing.

It is not by ruling over his neighbors, or by seeking to hold the supremacy over those that are weaker, or by being rich and showing violence towards those that are inferior, that happiness is found. Not by any of these things can one become an imitator of God. These things do not at all constitute His majesty.

On the contrary, the one who is an imitator of God is he who takes upon himself the burden of his neighbor; who, in whatever ways he may be superior, is ready to benefit another who is deficient; who, whatever things he has received from God, he distributes to the needy and thus becomes a god to those who receive from him.

To impact the culture, you must first love God with all you are (this means do not abandon that which has been believed by all Christians, at all times, in all places) and then act on this love towards your fellow man. We must cease trying to be relevant to the culture, because if we’re truly following Christ well never be “relevant.” Instead, we must work to make the culture relevant to Christ.


2 thoughts on “I want to be relevant…

  1. GREAT video. I’ve been to one of those “uber-contemporary” churches-the stereotypes mentioned are definitely visible. I think that it’s simply a way of presenting a church that markets it better to people, both Christians and non-Christians. I think that what it’s trying to do is similiar to what Apple’s advertising does-present their church not only as a quality church relative to other churches, but also as a cool, elite social group to be a member of.

  2. Joel,

    Excellent article, calling attention to all three positions of relevance: the conservative, the moderate, and the liberal. Again, you are on target when you say that we should focus on God and what he wants us to do.

    Of course, I do think we should be relevant. That means that we need to be aware of the cultural and intellectual trends of our society, and that we should constantly engage those trends actively, to converse with them, and in light of them to reinterpret our faith in fresh and creative ways while maintaining the kernel truth. This is always a difficult task, but a necessary one.

    I would like to see more Christian theologians, philosophers, and ministers formulate a theology of culture and Christian relevance.

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