By Aaron Wilson
A friend once told me about seeing an advertisement for a new church that had launched in town. Printed on the ad in bold lettering were the words, “Relevant to your life.”
“I knew immediately to steer clear of that church,” my friend said emphatically.
While no one wants to be in a church that’s irrelevant to their life, the idea of “churches being relevant” can elicit a negative response for those who associate it with gimmicks, pageantry, and shallow messages short on the gospel.
But it shouldn’t be this way.
The Bible paints relevancy as a godly attribute that’s required for disciples to communicate the gospel of Christ to an ever-changing culture. But just like any attribute, relevancy can be twisted beyond its God-given intent and misused by sinful people.
Here are three reasons churches should strive to be relevant and three pitfalls to avoid when doing so.
3 Reasons churches should strive to be relevant
1. Relevancy expresses the Golden Rule.
In Luke 7:12, Jesus sums up how God’s people are to treat others: “Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them.”
How do we like people to treat us? We like them to meet us on our level. To show an interest in things that matter to us. To use a vocabulary we understand.
If we like to be treated this way, we should likewise strive to be relevant to our culture in the methods and styles we use to communicate the gospel and in the ways we live out the Christian life.
2. Relevancy reflects the Incarnation.
The story of the gospel pivots around the Incarnation in which Jesus took on the form of one of His people.
While remaining sinless, Jesus adopted the language and customs of His people and engaged in cultural activities of the day. When He taught, Jesus used parables and illustrations relevant to first century Jews.
Jesus taught citing a recent news event (Luke 13:4) and connected Old Testament Scriptures to common life experiences applicable to His audience.
When a church strives to be relevant to its community, it imitates the Savior who took the initiative to come down from heaven and take on flesh and blood to live among His people and speak their language.
3. Relevancy is an offshoot of relational living.
While being relevant requires intentionality, it also happens naturally as a church body engages its community and fulfills the Great Commission. This is because when Christians interact with unchurched people on a regular basis, they gain perspective on how nonbelievers view the church from the outside.
This in turn, enables Christians to remove manmade stumbling blocks that may have crept into church practices—barriers that unnecessarily hinder people from hearing and understanding the good news.
Sometimes, this is as simple as addressing stylistic changes. Jerry Seinfeld said, “You can always tell what was the best year of your father’s life, because they seem to freeze that clothing style and just ride it out to the end.”
Are there any “frozen styles” at your church that have nothing to do with the gospel or being faithful to Scripture, but have remained unchanged for years because they grew comfortable for the congregation or leadership?
3 Pitfalls to avoid when striving to be relevant
The three points listed above shed light on why churches should seek to model Jesus in being relevant to their community. There are temptations, however, that come with this godly pursuit. Here are three things to guard against when striving to be relevant.
1. Compromising biblical truth
Cultural relevancy, although a good thing, can be positioned as an idol when it leads the church to compromise biblical values or make concessions of truth.
There’s a big difference between helping people make sense of hard passages by explaining them in accessible language, and watering down hard passages to make them say the opposite of what they mean.
The former is the mark of a faithful preacher; the latter is heresy.
2. Being self-serving
The goal of being relevant to one’s culture is to exalt Jesus and build people up in the faith. But relevancy can become an idol when it’s instead leveraged to bolster a preacher’s personal platform or a church’s brand.
Relevancy has nothing to do with being hip, cool, or trending on social media. It has everything to do with meeting unchurched people where they are and communicating with them in ways they can understand.
3. Presupposing we can remove all gospel friction
A church that desires to be relevant to its culture seeks to remove unnecessary friction with the world that comes from differences in style and vocabulary (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
But churches must understand that the gospel will always bring friction with the world in the form of its content.
The message about sin and the need for repentance are subjects that attract worldly resistance in any culture. Likewise, God’s ruling on issues such as marriage, sexuality, when life begins, and the origins of the universe—just to name a few—fly in the face of people who don’t yet understand why they should trust and submit to biblical authority.
For this reason, churches shouldn’t confuse cultural relevancy with cultural approval.
When a church seeks to be relevant to its community, it creates an onramp for people to believe the gospel. When a church labors to be approved by its community by way of its doctrine, it creates a slippery slope for people to reject the faith.
8 ways churches can pursue cultural relevancy
So how do churches seek cultural relevancy while avoiding the pitfalls that can come with it? Here are eight ideas.
- Be intentional about building relationships with the unchurched. Set this expectation for members and celebrate the church’s successes.
- Don’t live at the church. Avoid packing your church calendar so tightly members spend all their time in Christian circles. Give your members margin in their lives and release them into the community for the sake of missions.
- Embrace technology. While you don’t have to be subscribed to every podcast coming out of Silicon Valley, it’s important to be informed on the ways technology is always changing culture. Leverage the common grace of technology to the glory of God.
- Understand you can faithfully exegete Scripture and still preach relevantly. Relevant preaching helps people connect God’s Word to their everyday realities. As Meredith Cook writes about expositional preaching, “God’s Word should inform our thinking on all things—the kind of TV shows we watch, how we raise our children, how we treat our pets, how we approach birth control, how we vote, and more.”
- Keep up with news, trends, and conversations happening in the public square. This is exactly what Facts & Trends provides from a Christian perspective. Are you subscribed to our daily newsletter?
- Define or replace “churchy” terminology. Where exactly is “the sanctuary” in the church building? What’s a “quiet time?” Here are six things pastors should say in every sermon.
- Open your church up for community events and services to get to know your unchurched neighbors. Here are some real examples of churches putting this into practice throughout the week.
- Ask questions. Ask church visitors and members of the community honest questions about what they think of your church and the Christian faith. Invest in a church mystery visit to get an honest assessment of what unchurched people come away with after visiting one of your services.
AARON WILSON (@AaronBWilson26) is associate editor for Facts & Trends.