Missional Relevance and the Local Church
Dave Workman is the Senior Pastor of the Cincinnati Vineyard and author of "The Outward Focused Life: Becoming a Servant in a Serve-me World"
Missional Relevance and the Local Church
Relevance has been a buzzword in churches for the last couple of decades. To some it implies doing whatever it takes to culturally express the message of Jesus. To others it has negative connotations such as "watering down the Bible" or creating "church-lite". A few years ago I read an actual church advertisement in our local paper that blasted what it called worldly churches. Word-for-word it read:
"Do you want 'gospel rock' music and short sermons filled with humor? Are you looking for a church that has low enough standards so that your teens will want to attend? Do you desire a church that focuses on emotional issues instead of Biblical theology? Are you looking for such a place? Sorry to disappoint you! ...When you get tired of worldly churches, come and see us!"
From this perspective, relevance equals compromise.
A few years ago in a Gallup survey, a whopping 84% of Americans who don't go to church believe that Jesus rose from the dead. That means while an overwhelming majority of unchurched people believe in the resurrection, they have no understanding how that affects their day-to-day lives. They don't see how Jesus is relevant to them.
In an interview with David Kinnaman author of UnChristian: What a New Generation Thinks About Christianity and Why it Matters, Kinnaman says: "So the real question isn't about how we save the reputation of Christianity so that it looks good to everybody, but it's how can enough of us start to truly do the sacrificial things that Christ would do in a broken culture and in a world of broken, sinful people?"
It's natural to hold some values in a creative tension. For instance, you may value honesty and kindness, but when a friend asks how you like their new Trump-like comb-over haircut, you're suddenly holding values in creative tension.
There are two values that can cause creative tension for believers: the values of holiness and evangelism. Both of them are equally critical. Try personalizing this: which are you more naturally drawn toward?
The value of holiness simply means God calls us to live a life set apart for Him. Obviously, the culture can affect that. In Revelation, an angel warns about a metaphorical Babylon: "Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues " . It's similar to what Peter preached on his first Spirit-inspired sermon, "Escape from this corrupt generation!"
Likewise, Paul the apostle condemns any serious relationship with someone following false gods or intentionally doing wrong things. He writes: Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?
On the other end of the scale is the virtue of evangelism. The person leaning toward evangelism lives by this credo: anything short of sin in order to reach people. Interestingly, Paul also writes: I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. Even more, Jesus Himself was accused of hanging out with the wrong crowd. He even berated the religious leaders saying no one could please them and that they accused Him of being a glutton, alcoholic and a friend of sinners.
And so the hyper-evangelists guys would put on a dress and dance around if it brought someone to Christ. The hyper-holiness folks respond with, "Are you crazy? You can't do that! Not every means is good for the end." From a methodology perspective, this idea of relevance has much to do with where you place yourself on that graph.
The Church: Fortress or Force?
Depending on your church background and life experience, you might see the Church as either a fortress or a force.
For instance, if you come from a holiness-oriented religious background, you view the Church being on the left side. Or if you came from an abusive background or have a heavy-addiction history, the fortress-view feels safe and provides a sense of security. You don't want any implied reminder of a culture that hurt you or created problems for you.
But if you have a high evangelism-orientation, it's all about being a force in the culture, of being invasive with the transformative message and power of the Spirit.
Some of this is a matter of degree. But we all have to admit we need to take a hard look at how effective we really are in our mission and take a second (and third ) look at our methods. This requires healthy church "self-awareness" and an assessment of our relevance-factor.
The Church is Dynamic, not Static
"In many ways, the church missed it. It remained static when the world shifted. The language changed, the music changed, the media changed, and the church went into defense mode instead of missionary mode. Missionaries have outposts, not fortresses. Missionaries mix with the culture, not run from it. Missionaries love the people that are different from them, not hate them and call them names. Missionaries see their mission to heal, not defend. A force, not a fortress. The reason we have cupholders in our chairs at the Vineyard is not for Christians to feel comfortable; it's for pre-Christians to feel relaxed in a family room where they can see how a big dysfunctional family is undergoing therapy with Jesus via the Holy Spirit. Bring your coffee and come into the family room."
The church in America needs to see itself as missionaries in a foreign culture. To expect the world to embrace our church subculture first and look like we do breaks every rule of good missional thinking. At its core, relevance is simply the practical expression of being missional.
What would you think of a proper British gentleman who shaved his head except for a long ponytail, wore sandals and dressed in a long silk robe like everyone else around him? That would be the English missionary, Hudson Taylor, who made it his goal to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to China in the 1800's. He even lost mission support for doing that. What's more, Great Britain was actually at war with China at the time. That's analogous to an American going to Nazi Germany at the height of WWII to share Christ. Taylor decided to not turn them into British Christians but rather Chinese Christians and was immensely successful under tough hardships for fifty years.
The Danger Zone
Here's where we can get into trouble: the Danger Zones are in the extremes of separatism and conformity. The extreme on the right is where no one can tell any marked difference between believers and unbelievers. Behaviors and world-views are simply not that disparate, and it's not just about things we shouldn't do, it's about what we express we're interested in. The conformist totally fits into the culture without ever challenging it.
The other extreme is the separatists. These extremists want to withdraw as much as possible from society. In these evangelical ghettoes we have our own TV stations, our own bookstores, our own fitness clubs, our own phonebooks, our own neighborhoods, our own restaurants, and on and on. Even more extreme, all media is bad and so we burn everything that has anything to do with "the world".
Love is the Driver
The driving force for missional relevance is simply love. Jesus wrapped Himself in flesh out of compassion for us. A Jewish baby born on the wrong side of the tracks in a feeding trough for barn animals is a radical act of relevance. God, in order to rescue us, became one of us. In our context, relevance is rooted in love and a simple willingness to sacrifice whatever it takes to show God's love to others, to incarnate Jesus in someone else's world. The great commandment to love God with all that is in us is quickly followed with this one: "The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
Paul put it like this: When I am with the Jews, I become one of them so that I can bring them to Christ. When I am with those who follow the Jewish laws, I do the same, even though I am not subject to the law, so that I can bring them to Christ. When I am with the Gentiles who do not have the Jewish law, I fit in with them as much as I can. In this way, I gain their confidence and bring them to Christ. But I do not discard the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are oppressed, I share their oppression so that I might bring them to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone so that I might bring them to Christ.
When love becomes the motivation behind why we exist as churches, arguments about relevance become fairly simple matters of degree. But not by much. Our missional calling demands that we take a hard look at our relevance quotient and answer the classic question: If our local church shut down tomorrow, would anyone notice?