Is Christianity Relevant?
Relevance, relevance, relevance. Be more hip, make church more fun, show movie clips, bring in rappers instead of preachers. Growing up in the late 20th and early 21st century, “relevance” was a word I heard thrown around the church and especially youth ministry a lot. There is even a Relevant magazine which I had handed to me at numerous hip youth conferences while growing up. The church needs to stop being so self conscious. Many evangelical churches remind me of that kid at school who was constantly changing his wardrobe in a desperate attempt to be cool. The church will always be relevant if it teaches the true Gospel of Jesus Christ because man will always be broken and man will always need a saviour. If a church teaches the Gospel, the church will always be relevant because the Gospel will always be relevant. Having said that, there are obviously lots of ways that churches can and should adapt their style and function to the culture around them. One would not expect a church in the jungles of Ecuador to look and function exactly like one in downtown New York City. Styles and functions of churches will change throughout the world and throughout time but the message of the Church must remain unchanged forever. People must conform their lives to the truth of God’s Word, not conform God’s Word to their own lives.
One common area of dispute is that of musical worship styles. Many modern churches model their music after pop-culture trends while more traditional groups find that this is too worldly and resist change in musical styles. Will Africans sing like Greeks? Will the Austrians play the same tunes as the Mexicans? Clearly not. The style of music or type of instruments employed by Christians has been changing and adapting to culture since the days of Jesus. A organ is no more holy than a guitar. Every church can and should decide for themselves which style of music will be most enjoyed and will connect best with their congregation. These styles may change over time in a congregation or they may use various styles throughout their worship time. Although style and instrumentation will be different all over the world, what must be true of all worship songs is that the lyrics bring praise and glory to God. The tune can change but the truth must remain. If the lyrics are not based in the truth of Scripture but rather are more focused on being catchy and acceptable to the masses then worshipers should have reason for concern. Too many songs like this may be a sign that a church is moving from being culturally relevant to being culturally determined.
Having an exciting, catchy sermon may mean that people will listen to you but if you have nothing to say what good are you doing? Can’t motivational speakers do that too? At a young age I realized that secular rock concerts were more fun than worship and full movies were far more entertaining than a few clips. If the church is just attempting to be a “Christian” version of culture then it might as well stop because culture does it better. Why take the second rate version when you can have the real deal? Therefore Church should never try to compete with the entertainment industry but rather focus on what they have cornered the market on: Truth. This is especially true for preaching. Preachers should certainly try to make their messages relevant to their congregation in the sense that the congregation should know how to put into practice the truths which they have learned. For example if a preacher is speaking on 1 Timothy 2:9-10 and simply says that women are to dress modestly he is not helping to bring much relevance to his congregation. Few if any women who identify as Christians would say that they dress immodestly. In order to really make this passage relevant, the preacher must provide some modern examples such as low cut tops or very short skirts which are not modest in our culture and thus not fitting for a Christian women. This example also demonstrates that making a passage culturally relevant does not always mean that people will like it more. In fact, cultural relevance can often mean that a passage will sting more than if the message was just about the ancient culture of the original audience. However, If a preacher goes beyond making a passage relevant and instead blunts the force of the passage by suggesting no application for today’s culture then he is moving into the realm of being culturally determined. To return to the previous example, if the preacher were to suggest that dress codes no longer applied to Christians he would not be doing justice to the text or be loving to his hearers. The congregation may be less angry but will be far less fed.
Another common way that churches try to be culturally relevant is through the design and furnishing of their buildings. Most modern, seeker oriented churches are characterized by functional buildings with few markings of any religious affiliation. On the opposite end of the spectrum are very traditional churches with stereotypical “church” buildings full of symbols, crosses, stained class, inscriptions, pews, etc. On this issue it would be hard to find any clear issue of doctrine which could suggest which style was more orthodox and so a lot of freedom should be allowed in this area. Like music, architecture and artistic tastes in general will differ greatly throughout time and cultures. Should an African tribal community be barred from having a church because they have no masons among their numbers? Certainly not! Church communities should be free to make their buildings reflect their culture by way of design and functional requirements. Similarly with furnishing and decoration a lot of freedom can be had based on cultural differences and current tastes. However, believers must ensure that everything they do brings glory to God. Are posters of Lady Gaga in the youth room really bringing praise to God? Perhaps a nightclub at the church may attract new people, but will it ultimately bring Him honour? Even with a nightclub, one can envision how it could be used to serve God, but such things must be approached with extreme caution as it may be a sign that a church has idolized relevancy.
Clothing style is also a way that churches can seek to be more culturally relevant. To this day my grandfather will not leave the house without a full suit on. His only explanation is that it isn’t proper for a man to be underdressed in public. Clearly definitions have changed and he would probably be seen as overdressed by the majority. Suits are not inherently more Christian than hoodies and so churches should seek to not allow clothing styles to limit them from connecting with their community. If however, as I mentioned earlier, a church removes any expectations for modesty or appropriateness for Christian dress then they are allowing culture and not Scripture to control how they conduct themselves.
There are many more things which change throughout time and cultures that have little or no effect on the truth of the Gospel. Musical style, architecture, dress, food, recreational activities, community needs, on and on the list goes. Churches should have the freedom and in fact be encouraged to be flexible in all of these areas where no universal, doctrinal truths are at play. The more churches and more methods of serving Christ, the more people whom can be reached and see the relevance of Christ to every life. What cannot change is that the Gospel is preached and that all Christian practice brings praise and glory to God. If a church begins to ignore clear truths of scripture in favour of cultural trends and ideologies and begins to value numbers over souls then it will soon cease to be a church.
A true church will always be culturally relevant if it remains true to Scripture because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
So keep calm and stay relevant!