Relevance is a Tool, Not a Goal by Ed Stetzer
I’VE GOT A DEWALT 12-INCH DUAL BEVEL COMPOUND MITER SAW WITH A SLIDE. (GRUNT.) OH YES, IT’S A SERIOUS TOOL AND, NO, YOU CAN’T BORROW IT.
I tell my wife that I have to have the right tool for the right job. She smirks and points out that I haven’t used it in 4 years – but I know what really matters: I might. And when I do, I need the right tool.
Tools matter. They make it possible to accomplish the goal. Relevance is like that – it is a tool to accomplish a more important purpose, communicating Christ in culture.
Relevance is a word seen more and more these days on church websites.
It seems that every church wants to make sure everyone else knows how relevant they are. This strikes me a bit like the advertising agency named “Creative Ads.” If you are so creative, could you not share that with me in a more creative way?
No one advertises their lack of relevance. Who wants an irrelevant church? (Well, it must be a lot of people, but that is another story. But, I am guessing that most of them do not read articles on this site.)
For most of us, we are tired of people criticizing culturally relevant churches. I have heard dozens of sermons against contemporary worship, music, and casual dress. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt (or the tie, depending on your perspective).
But, we also need to be careful. Relevance can (and sometimes is) over-emphasized. The problem isn’t found in the desire to be relevant. After all, the word relevant means, “to be pertinent.” The problem is that sometimes we have too little confidence in the Gospel and its ability to prove relevant on its own merit.
The Gospel is relevant, in this and every culture; it is often our churches and ministries that are not. We can find ourselves putting too much emphasis on relevance itself, and not enough on what we’re trying to make understandable – the Gospel.
While relevance can bridge some gaps to the Gospel, it is only a tool, not a goal.
Are you focusing too much on relevance?
Here are some ways you can know that relevance has become more important than the Gospel to you:
1. If we focus on personal transformation and not Gospel transformation.
Too often our messages are driven by the steps method (i.e. five steps toward financial freedom) when oftentimes these steps have little to do with Biblical advice on the subject. If this is the case, you’ll find more secular advice than Biblical advice on certain subjects. It’s not that we can’t learn from others in the world; however, the goal of our churches isn’t to simply reflect the culture but to impact it. The danger of relevance in this area is to enforce an already narcissistic mentality that permeates our culture. The consumeristic, me-istic mindset is thorny ground that threatens to choke out the Word in people’s lives.
2. If your sermons are so practical they lack any Gospel.
Do not preach any message that would not be true if Jesus had not died on the cross. It is great to be practical in what we teach; but, if we hesitate to share about the work of Christ, what is the eternal value? Using practical messages can help us share Biblical truth, but ultimately our goal is that they leave with the Truth, not just true stuff. The Truth is the person of Jesus. Think through the inner logic of Jesus and his very character. How does his viewpoint – what he really treasured – shine through here? The very essence of Jesus should waft through the room during your sermons.
3. If you talk about practical more than you talk about biblical.
This is more than simply how we preach, it is how we carry out our duties in the ministry. When sharing the vision of your church, what is prominent? What do people walk away with? What strikes them as being at the very heart of what your ministry is all about? There are many pastors who have visions of a new building, higher giving, and so forth. While these fit practical needs, many focus on them more than we focus on a Biblical aspect of our faith. You want the people you are leading to be built on the solid foundation of God’s Word – not the wood, hay, and stubble that will eventually fade away.
4. If your outreach demeans others that preach the Gospel.
This shows that your confidence is in your relevance and not His Gospel. Do not communicate anything that feeds people’s tendency to devalue other churches that preach the Gospel. There are plenty of churches today promoting their church by diminishing the ministry of another. While some of these churches may be irrelevant to much of the community, we shouldn’t make an extra effort to prove this to the community. Those churches are probably able to reach some people you couldn’t. We are all on the same team, even if our methods and styles are very different – so let’s begin to act like it – even when others do not.
5. If your approach makes you the hero and not Jesus.
It seems that many ministries are driven by personalities. It is not a good thing that the number one reason someone stays at a church is because they like the pastor. It is inevitable that personalities will drive some ministries because people will obviously come to listen to this person. Seek for ways to promote others and their unique gifts. When you do so you emphasize the astounding body of Christ and the phenomenal power that comes when that body is truly connected and functioning. This brings glory to Jesus and not you.
6. If “personal evangelism” is an oxymoron at your church.
Simply put, disciples share their faith. If our goal is to make disciples, we don’t just hope to have plenty of seats filled on a given weekend at our church. Instead, we hope to see people respond and be moved by the Gospel. This is evident in their personal devotion toward sharing the Good News with others. Train your people to share their own stories of encountering Jesus.
7. If “invest and invite” never leads to evangelize.
Many church structures emphasize to their members to simply “invest and invite.” This is a great strategy toward getting their friends, families, and neighbors in the door. But if this is the means to an end, you might be placing too much emphasis on relevance and not enough on the Gospel. Once we have invested and invited, we need to share the Good News with them. If you are really developing disciples, you are training your people in the full set of discipling skills.
8. If attendance is a greater value than conversion.
Everyone wants to know numbers. Deep down, many pastors equate attendance with success. It definitely does make sense in some ways, but the fastest growing religion in the world is a works-based falsehood. Face it, Donald Trump or Madonna can draw a crowd. Don’t be fooled into believing your ability to fill seats is effecting redemption in others. Numbers can help us only if we have already defined our win on the response to the Gospel.
9. If the cross gets less focus than the church.
Typically, we don’t talk about the cross enough. The cross should be central to the vision and direction of our churches. Without the cross, none of us would even be where we are today – and without the cross our churches will never be where they need to be. We must lead people to depend on the cross and not our programs and systems. Help your church learn that the path to redemption in their own lives and circumstances can lead straight to the cross. It does not have to go through a relevant church first.
10. If not offending seekers is more important than telling the Gospel.
The Gospel is offensive. When it comes down to it, eventually we’re going to have to pull the trigger and we may end up being the stench of death to someone. But, if the risk we take is so that they can hear the truth, we must move forward regardless of the relational cost. Don’t try to sand down the cross and make it smooth and lightweight. Be “seeker comprehensible” and quit trying to be driven by seekers.
The sad truth is that some churches sacrifice their God-given message on the altar of relevance, and the Gospel is what is seen as irrelevant. We need to recapture a genuine faith in and love for the Gospel and a desire to let it do its thing in our congregation. We can use relevance as a tool to connect with people, but even the best tool can’t do its work if there is not a clear goal. As my wife reminds me, there is no point in having that beautiful yellow miter saw if it is not building something (like that new swing set she wants built).
Let’s be relevant – but let’s make sure that relevance is a tool and not the goal. Relevance is a tool that helps people to understand the eternal truths of Christ – that’s relevant in this and every age.