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Desperately Seeking Relevance

relevance

The following article contains observations and perceptions that I have developed in the last few decades as a Christian and preacher.  The warnings are offered because of my concern and love for the people of God. I have tried to write cautiously, and to avoid inflamed rhetoric.  I pray my comments will be considered, and my intent understood.

Perhaps you have heard of the apocryphal “Chinese” curse, “May you live in interesting times.”  While it might seem to be a blessing, the phrase is most commonly used in an ironic sense.  It seems that times of physical peace and blessing are typically rather boring, but times of conflict and upheaval are, at least historically speaking, much more interesting.

It is our misfortune to live in interesting times!  We have rogue nations with nuclear bombs; a rapidly increasing world population, resulting in significant economic and ecological challenges; a militant faction of Muslims declaring jihad throughout the world; an extremely partisan spirit in Washington D.C. that has made our government ineffectual and unresponsive to the needs of the American people.  We have militant social activists seeking to disrupt and remake the norms of morality and decency.  We have racial unrest.

And, we have systemic and dedicated efforts to secularize America. These efforts have significantly marginalized faith in God. This can be illustrated from a 2011 poll of religious views (Pew Research Center, 2011).  Only 50% of Americans still believe religion is important, and only 53% believe that belief in God is necessary for a foundation of morality and good values. These figures are a bit dated, and no doubt the secularization trend has continued in the last seven years.

For decades the Christian denominations have sought to effectively deal with these changing attitudes.  They have been largely unsuccessful. A study in 2005 revealed that only 18% of Americans attend church on any Sunday.  Again, in the intervening 13 years it is doubtful the trend has reversed.  In that same interval it was estimated that 94% of all churches were losing ground when compared with the population growth in their community. (An Up Close Look at Church Attendance).

How have most denominations sought to stop this negative trend?  By becoming relevant.  Oh, the siren song of relevancy!  We need to “appeal to the unchurched”, rather than “bring the sinner to Christ”.  We need to supply worship that is entertaining (praise bands, pop/metal/rap, concerts, skits), rather than offer the simple, reverent worship that was practiced by Christians in the New Testament.  We need to have youth activities, sleep-ins, games, family life centers and softball teams, rather than call our members to sacrifice and service.  We need to add donuts and coffee to morning Bible classes.  We need to dress our preachers in tshirts and faded jeans, and have culturally relevant 15 minute talks, rather than the hour long doctrinal treatises of an earlier generation. We need to invite people to come as they are, rather than convicting them of the need to change (repent).  In effect, we need to appeal to the carnal man, because a spiritual approach will not get them in the door.

Let me give you an example.  A few weeks ago I had an interesting conversation with the young lady who cut my hair.  Knowing that I was a preacher, she said she had attended a “Christmas” service with her family.  During the service, there was a rap battle between Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy.  In the middle of this performance her young nephew looked up at her and asked, “Are we in church?”  Later, she said another man (with dental issues) stood up to sing “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth!” Why would a church do such a thing?  They had the desire to be relevant!  If they thought that a reverent service, with a 40 minute sermon on the birth of our Lord, and hymns on the theme would pack the people in, that is what they would have done.  Instead of convicting, they chose to entertain.

The most obvious example of this desire to be relevant is found in how churches treat their young people.  It begins when they are young, when they separate the small children from the congregation for “Children’s church.”  As they grow there is the assignation of a special “youth minister” whose responsibility it is to (as one youth minister said) “help Christian parents provide Christian entertainment to Christian young people.”  In their efforts to appeal, and make Christ “relevant” to the young, they pander to the young.  They create a separate group that is pampered and indulged through their entire youth.  So, what happens when they enter the real world? William Lane Craig, in his book On Guard (a book on Christian apologetics) wrote this, “A Christian minister at Stanford University recently told me that 40 percent of Christian high school students in church youth groups will quit church involvement altogether after graduation.  Forty percent! It’s not just that they lose their faith in a hostile university environment.  Rather, many have already abandoned faith while still in the youth group but continue to go through the motions until they’re out from under their parent’s authority.” It is obvious from the quote, and the anecdotal evidence you see in just about every Christian denomination, that these efforts to be “relevant” to the young are not working.

Leaving the denominations for a moment, I want to sound an internal warning.  We have observed and reproved the “social gospel” efforts that are so prevalent in more liberal churches of Christ.  In fact, we have noted that most of the efforts of the denominations are mirrored among the liberal churches, from youth ministers to gymnasiums and fellowship halls.  The efforts may be tame when compared to the extremes to which some denominations go, but they are still efforts to be “relevant.”  With the same results.

More conservative congregations have until recent years resisted the trend.  There are, however, some troubling trends I wish to discuss.  It is important to note that with most if not all of the things discussed here, there is no intrinsic error or sin to be found.  However, I fear that the desire to be relevant may be creating the same type of problems that we have noted are found among the denominational churches.

FC Summer Camp

Full disclosure here, all four of my children attended summer camp at Camp Henzel near Austin, TX.   For the most part, they had beneficial and enjoyable experiences, and I appreciate all the work done by the many volunteers and directors.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such efforts, and much that is good.

There is a danger, however.  One that is obvious when considered dispassionately.  Florida College, and the camps that are run under its banner are human efforts.  If there is present among those who run the camp (or more probably among those who attend it) an improper value placed upon the camp and it’s “spiritual benefits”, it can be detrimental.

In the camps there is a manufactured atmosphere.  Children are away from their parents, counseled and taught by older teens they admire, and immersed in an experience that can’t be maintained outside of the camp itself.  It is insular, and exhilarating.  When the child/teen returns home to the congregation where they are members, the experience is different.  The sermons are not tailored to their interests, the songs are not sung outside in a circle with their camp friends, and the peer group is much smaller.  The differences, to an impressionable and emotional young person, can cause problems.

A few years ago I was asked to speak with a young lady who was being disrespectful to her parents.  When returning from camp she spoke disparagingly of her church family, saying that the people at camp were much more spiritually minded.  She had been caught up in the atmosphere of the week, and the worship and teaching in her congregation held no appeal for her.  The problem was not with the congregation.  It was with the skewed perspective of an impressionable young lady.  God’s plan has established the local congregation, with elders, deacons, evangelists and teachers whose work is to edify and build up the church (Ephesians 4:11-16). No human devised institution or experience, no matter how fun or exhilarating, can or should take the place of the church of our Lord.  That’s true whether it is a week of camp, or four years at college.  Any perspective regarding the relative importance of those experiences that diminishes the effectiveness and influence of the church purchased with our Lord’s blood endangers the soul.

When preparing my children for camp, I told them that it was a vacation, and a time to make good friends.  I emphasized the importance of acting appropriately, told them to have fun, and let them know that we would talk about what they learned in the Bible studies when they got home.  I told them that camp was for fun, but God had designed the church for their spiritual growth and well-being.  For the most part, when they returned the experience was positive.  But, some of the things that their peers, and even the senior counselors said in the cabin studies was not only unwise, but scripturally wrong.  There is danger to be found there. Parents should be on guard, making every effort to guide their children to avoid the natural and foolish inclinations of the immature.

Youth Lectures

Themed sermon series are very beneficial. Topics that are helpful and relevant to young people are an effective means of edification.  The fact that they are a part of the work of a local church, and typically under the oversight of elders is especially appropriate.  So, could there be a drawback?  Only if they are not done well.

What if the speakers who participate are chosen for their charisma rather than the substance of their message?  What if the lectures are as much comedy routine as a study of scripture?  What if the event is touted as much an opportunity for food and play (at member’s homes of course) as an opportunity to engage in meaningful worship and study? In short, what if the young person is pandered to rather than challenged?  Is it not possible that the same skewed perspectives mentioned before will blossom in the minds of our impressionable youth? Can we not fall into the same trap of seeking relevance as a means of keeping our young people?

An Overemphasis on Singing

I love to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. It is a wonderful, uplifting, and important part of the worship of the local church.  Our congregation has a 90 minute singing every quarter, as well as special song services on the 5th Sundays when they occur.  I also love to lead, and trained my two sons who have both surpassed me in song leading ability.  In a sense, you can’t overemphasize the importance of this act of worship any more than any other.

However, I have witnessed problems in our worship in the church.  I’m not talking about bad singing, incompetent song leaders, or inappropriate songs.  (That is gist for another article).  Rather, tendencies that lead to the same skewed perspectives, and the same desire for relevancy.

For example, in some places a generational divide has occurred.  An older generation may be neglected as the young in a congregation clamor for the new songs they have learned at camp or college.  (On one occasion I felt that very thing, though still a young preacher.  I was visiting in the home of a family during a gospel meeting I was preaching, and we had a singing.  Quite a few young people were there.  The entire night they sang song after song that I did not know.  That was fine, I was an outsider, and all them knew the songs.  But, it was frustrating for me to be so limited in my ability to participate because I didn’t know the songs).  I have talked with older Christians who have felt the same frustration in the worship of the local church.  Of course, the opposite may occur.  The young people desire to sing the new songs they have learned, but the leadership in the congregation shows no desire to incorporate new hymns into the worship period.  In the mind of some it is as if The Old Rugged Cross, or Precious Memories are themselves inspired works that can’t be equaled!  No group should be pandered to, and no group should be neglected.

Also, is it not troublesome that Annual Singings with imported song leaders get standing room only crowds, when so many can’t be troubled to visit an area gospel meeting?  Why is it that people will take vacations and travel 250 miles to go to a singing, but can’t be troubled to suspend their week’s schedule to attend their own congregation’s effort to spread the gospel? Why is it that so many congregations have few visitors from other groups when they hold their gospel efforts? By using the term “overemphasis” here I mean that some people have that same skewed perspective that seeks the sensual above the spiritual.  They crave the momentary exhilaration of 500 voices raised in song, rather than the edification of the message contained therein. They want the experience, they want to be entertained. If that is their desire, it is a problem.

A Consumer Mentality Regarding Church Membership

While many churches are losing members, and church attendance itself is by percentage at an all time low in America, it is interesting that larger churches are growing. In fact, in the denominations there are what are called megachurches. The Lakewood church in Houston, TX, founded by Joel Osteen meets in the former Compaq Center, which seats almost 17,000.  They hold two English services and two Spanish services each week.  They average around 52,000 attendees a week.

Why do so many people buy into what the Lakewood church is selling?  It is certainly not the doctrine.  Osteen is roundly and rightly criticized as a twister of scripture (cf. 2 Peter 3:16).  But, he entertains.  Rather than giving people what they need, he gives them what they want.

The previously cited study, which reveals the growth of churches over 2000 in number, makes the following observations:  1) Many people have the perception that they are upgrading to first class when they move from a smaller congregation to a larger one; 2) Since the percentage of Americans attending is declining, much of the growth is not through conversions, but from members leaving a smaller group to go to the larger one. This is harmful to the smaller churches; 3) Many have expectations that smaller churches can’t meet – programs, dynamic music, a large youth ministry.  The following quote is telling: “We’ve created a church consumer culture” (ibid).

Again, there is not a problem with a church being large and growing. But a man has a skewed perspective if he seeks a church for what it has rather than seeking a church where he can serve the Lord. It is so obvious that this is the case in the denominations today.  But, I know of members of the Lord’s church who drive right by faithful, smaller congregations who need them to go to a bigger congregation.  It might be because of the charismatic preacher, because of how many kids are there, because of how good the singing is, because of the beautiful new building with the great acoustics and amazing video presentations.  If it is not because they are in the place where they can and are actively serving the Lord, then it is not a right reason.

The Solution?

So, if pandering to the carnal appetites of men is not getting more to go to church, then what is the solution?  There may not be one, at least not a satisfactory one.  God established the gospel as the means of man’s reconciliation to Him.  “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16).  The thing about the gospel of Christ, its power is persuasive.  It convicts the soul of the honest hearer.  The same gospel that brought 3,000 souls to Christ in Acts 2, enraged a group of Jews to the point of stoning the preacher in Acts 7.

In the antediluvian world, “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).  It was this wickedness that led God to judge the world by water.  The point here is, only eight souls were spared from condemnation from that judgment.

In Judges 17 a man named Micah (like many today) created his own religion.  He built a shrine, made an ephod and household idols, and hired a young man from Bethlehem to be a priest.  “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6).

During Elijah’s time, when Ahab was king in Israel, the prophet was targeted by that wicked king.  “So he said, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left; and they seek to take my life” (1 Kings 19:10). Though Elijah was mistaken (God told him, “Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal”, vs. 18), it nevertheless was a dark time in Israel.

The point is this.  Though we may do everything exactly as God desires us to do it, with the most talented and charismatic of men and women, utilizing to the utmost the power of the gospel, most will not respond to our plea.  In our time, and in our nation, the work of evangelism is difficult.  But it is not in vain!  The majority most certainly will reject the truth.  Jesus told his disciples, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18).  But, there will always be some who respond out of a pure heart.

The intent of God has never been to appeal to men as they are, but to bring them to repentance.  Our focus should be less on relevance and relative growth, and more on the work of evangelism itself.  Remember Paul’s words, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.  So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).  The increase may be small in our time, but that is irrelevant as it pertains to our call to plant the gospel seed.

May I suggest a few needed things for the people of God.

Embrace our countercultural identity

We are “sojourners and pilgrims” (cf. 1 Peter 2:11).  As the song says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.”  Peter admonished, “we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles” (1 Peter 4:3).  Conversion is rightly termed a new birth.  As we die to sin, we rise to become a new creature in Christ, and our lives should mirror that fact.  Paul exhorted the Romans, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2).

Our churches should not be trying to alter our worship to become more palatable to the worldly minded.  Our focus must not be on style, but substance.  We should rejoice in how different we are from the denominations who have pandered to gain numbers.  We should offer something distinctive and unique.  The appeal to “Speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Bible is silent” is as needed today as it ever has been.

As individuals, we should self-identify as a “peculiar people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).  Parents should not try to make sure their children fit in, instead giving them the tools to handle being different!  When a child is ridiculed for his faith, rather than express sorrow, rejoice with them that he was “counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41).  By forging an identity that celebrates the distinction between the world and the church, our children will be less vulnerable to the siren call of our adversary.

Preach more apologetics

Our faith is reasonable, and as Christians we are urged, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).  We have a solid philosophical, intellectual and evidential basis for our faith. However, our children are especially vulnerable to societal attacks.  Lessons on Christian evidences are important.  Appeals to archaeology, true science, history, prophecy, etc. are needed.  Remember, while you may be secure in your faith, your children are still spiritual babes.  In school their faith is under attack, often from a very early age.  We must never assume they are strong.  We need to proactive in establishing them in the truth.

Preach more doctrine

I don’t know how many times I have been complimented by visitors on what they view as a unique or rare approach that I take in my sermons.  It has nothing to do with my ability or intelligence.  It is simply because doctrinal preaching, with application, is not seen in many pulpits.  When they visit, they are struck by the contrast between what they are hearing, and what they typically have heard in other places.  I tell them that there are many men who are doing the same thing, they just haven’t been going to the right congregations!

It takes time to explain scripture, maintaining context.  It takes time to make proper applications from God’s word.  A 35 to 40 minute lesson explaining why James (James 2:14-26) is not contradicting Paul (Ephesians 2:8-9) is not a lesson that appeals to the carnal man.  Those who pander to the “felt needs” of an uninterested audience will limit their sermonettes to 15 minutes or so, and sprinkle in copious anecdotes, jokes, illustrations and quotes from human sources.  There remains no room to “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 timothy 4:2).  I am not talking about style, and I am not opposed to humor and anecdotes in preaching.  However, these are tools to adorn the word, not replace it!

God has established the church to equip the saints.  Paul describes the purpose, “that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (Ephesians 4:12).  To avoid false doctrine a church must be established in true doctrine!  The work of a preacher is to give men what they need, not what they want.  A congregation who supplies this will protect its members, and appeal to those who desire to know and obey God’s will.  Our perspective is unique in the religious world.  It is misguided to try to adapt or conform our preaching to the norm of our society.

Challenge our young Christians

As mentioned, our most vulnerable members are our young.  Too often we see churches and parents pander to the young, creating an insular and artificial experience that can’t be maintained when they leave the nest.  I am convinced that just as a father might make his son earn his pocket money with household chores, a young man will learn responsibility and spirituality if he is given tasks to perform in the Lord’s work.

I have had the opportunity to teach a number of training classes for little boys.  Leading prayers and songs at the front of the building is a thrilling and exciting thing at that age.  Such training and encouragement makes them eager to take their place as worship leaders when they become Christians.  Too often our young men sit apathetically in classes, lounge on a pew at the back of the church, never challenged in classes or their homes to develop leadership skills.  If they do one day become obedient to the gospel, they are unprepared, embarrassed, and unwilling to take part in leading a prayer, reading scripture or leading a song.  This is a natural part of adolescence, but it is a vulnerable age, and I have time and again seen this type of teenager leave the Lord’s church when they leave their parent’s home.

The same thing can be said of young ladies.  Society wants to train them to take a position in the work place, and to educate them in preparation for a career.  If a young lady is going to be trained as a mother, wife, homemaker, caregiver, hostess – it will have to be done in the home and the church.  These things have little value to mainstream culture.  Our little girls are vulnerable and must be protected by training them up in the way they should go!

The primary work of training the young is done in the home.  Parents have the responsibility to “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).  However, the local congregation can be remarkably helpful through bible classes, training, and mentorship.  “The older women likewise,… that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed” (Titus 2:3-5).

One final thought on this matter.  Parents often have a misguided desire to protect their children from sacrifice.  They think that a child shouldn’t have to miss a ball game, a prom or a party.  They don’t want their children to be looked at as peculiar because of what they wear, or because they are not “allowed” to do what their friends are able to do.  Trying to spare feelings and avoid conflict, they inadvertently teach their children that you can be a Christian without commitment!  This is a grave mistake!

Children who miss an athletic event because it conflicts with worship, Bible class or a gospel meeting learn that God comes first.  When a child is told they can’t wear an item of clothing, or go to a specific movie, or attend an unchaperoned party, they are learning that they are different from the world, and that allegiance to God is most important.  If they are taught this while young, the later adolescent battles with limits and authority are often mitigated or even avoided.  I can’t overemphasize the importance of this.  If you are too protective of a child’s sensibilities, you are pandering to him, and hampering his spiritual development!

Regarding our young, I would like to broach the subject of home schooling.  My four children were all educated in public schools.  I have no bias on the matter.  However, I have had conversations with Christians who actively oppose the practice of home schooling.  The typical arguments made, regarding socialization and integration, actually oppose the principles we have established in this article.  Parents who choose to invest their time and effort in teaching their child in secular subjects is doing a good thing.  Those who do a good job do not hamper their child’s education in any way.  In fact, such personalized and involved parental tutoring is every bit as effective in educating a child.  And, many of the dangers that can destroy the vulnerable are avoided.  Home schooling is not for every family.  However, diligence is required on the part of parents who choose to send their children out into a hostile culture for education.  It is certainly improper for Christians to have and to express disapproval or prejudice against a family that teaches their children at home.

Insist on holiness

“But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Uncompromised preaching on modesty, chastity and sobriety is needed because of the ungodliness surrounding God’s people.  In part, the practice of true religion is “to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

For too long Christians have been hearing uncertain sounds from pulpits.  Lessons on modesty, social drinking, and divorce & remarriage are rare, or serve to enable ungodly action through the creation of doubt rather than certainty.  We live in a prurient society.  We must be on guard lest we be influenced to compromise and sin.  The Corinthian church should serve as an object lesson to us, “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

The apostle Paul noted the primary influences in Crete were ungodly.  “One of them, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true” (Titus 1:12-13).  He knew that Titus’ work in evangelizing and edification would be difficult in this culture.  Consider his instructions to his fellow worker, “Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men who turn from the truth.  To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled.  They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work” (Titus 1:13-16).

Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:1 is so important in our present culture.  “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”

Conclusion

As noted, a countercultural approach to evangelism and edification will not guarantee an increase in conversions, nor a retention of faithful members.  Most will refuse to heed the message, and some who have become obedient to the gospel will forfeit their standing with God (cf. Matthew 7:13-14; Hebrews 6:4-6).

However, this is God’s way, and it is indisputably the best way.  Any desire on our part to conform to the world is misguided.  “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17).  Numbers do not matter, souls do.  You can’t make disciples with donuts and volleyball games, you must convert them to Christ!  Relevancy is irrelevant!  “‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen” (Matthew 28:19-20).