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Smile When You Say “Relevance”

A church can only grow when it’s leadership is committed to reaching people who have never been reached, or who’ve given up on church, with the life changing Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We must willing to use any method to do so, short of sin or changing the Message.  It’s called being relevant.

The “blogganistas” have tried their best to make “relevance” a theological cuss word.  Day after day on their blogs – why are their comments sections always closed? – they try to hoodwink us into thinking that “Relevant” = “sell out,” or “heresy,” or “abandoning the ‘faith once delivered.'”

I can’t use the word that comes to mind, but it stinks and it’s hard to get off your shoe…

“Relevance” is nothing more or less than what missionaries call “cross-cultural” and “contextualization.” A missionary who goes to a foreign mission field and does not plan on being relevant will fail. 21st century America is no different than any foreign mission field, and may be more resistant.

All churches “do” relevance, it is simply a matter of degree. The traditional, never-change-a-thing church is relevant primarily to veteran, experienced church goers, and those de-churched folks who want to return to a church they remember from childhood. The congregation that markets itself as the “Church that still sings ‘Just As I Am,'” is trying to make themselves relevant to those same folks, and also to those who might be upset or angry about changes at their own church.

Relevance isn’t about whether the preacher’s illustrations come from Spurgeon or Spiderman 3. It’s about telling the old, old Story in ways that are inviting, accessible, and understandable to an increasingly godless culture.

80 percent of North American churches are stagnant or declining. 3,500-4,000 U.S. churches close their doors each year. Something is drastically wrong somewhere. And if we continue to blame it on the lost who don’t want to hear the “pure, faithful gospel,” and only want to have their ears tickled, then a large part of the problem is us.

I totally agree that the “best” way to reach a lost person is one-on-one, a Christian developing a relationship with another person and sharing their faith. But I also recognize the reality that a very small percentage of believers ever do that sharing. Yes, that needs to change and should be a focus point for any church – but what happens in the meantime?  50,000 unsaved people die every day – how many days are we willing to let that happen while we say, “We’re working on it!”?

The bottom line for me is that any Sunday I preach to empty seats, I have not been as faithful, or as successful, as God wants me to be.  Sure, a lot of seat fillers don’t want anything too deep, or they just want to feel better, or they’re looking for some help with improvement of life issues – I don’t expect anything else of the unchurched or the immature…

But if they stay, they will hear the gospel, get involved in a small group, journey through our discipling process, learn to study the Scriptures, become a disciple-maker… In other words, if they hang around they will grow up. But none of that happens if they never come for the first time, or have a good reason to come back.  Relevance is, at base, about giving them a reason.

  1. speak5words
    September 15, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Empty seats don’t make one unfaithful. I would rather preach to empty seats if the few that were there wanted to be taught the bible and weren’t there because the music was so good, or the seats were comfortable. The Holy Spirit is the reason they hear. I Cor 1:18.

  2. fiercegrace
    September 15, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Thanks for your input – but I couldn’t disagree more. Every empty seat represents a lost opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to somebody. I long ago gave up on expecting the unsaved and unchurched to “want to be taught the Bible.” Often, they don’t even know why they’re coming to church, or what they’re hoping to find.

    If they like the music and that’s why they come back – or the children’s ministry, or the coffee – great. They will hear the Gospel every time they come, no matter why they come.

    I believe in necessity of the power of the Holy Spirit to draw people near to God, to woo them to salvation. But the Word also asks the rhetorical question: “How will they hear without a preacher?” So it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.

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