Maintaining Relevance for Church Revitalization and Renewal Part III

If church is to be relevant than we must be willing to do our part to make it relevant. One of the problems we have as Christians is that we expect the church to awaken us, to get us excited about Jesus, and to motivate us to a new way of life. Well the truth is our faith does not work that way. Following Jesus requires us to be active participants in our spiritual growth by taking part in the spiritual disciplines listed above. When we participate in the spiritual disciplines, we begin to see and hear things in a different light. Words we hear on Sunday morning begin to take on new meaning, and before you know it we are excited and see the relevance of Jesus. Jesus never said following Him would be easy; but He did say the rewards would be great. With so many changes taking place in our culture today, is the church keeping pace? In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he says:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19 – 23).

Our message must never change, but our methods do in order to reach the culture we have been commissioned to reach. It is a common mistake. Pastors and churches can be trapped by this misunderstanding and never know it. Specifically, that the church must do little more than open its doors on Sunday, and the non-Christian will come. Research over the past two decades undermines this mistaken notion. People are staying away from churches in record numbers. It is time to ask why some churches are no longer vital links to the unconverted and what can be done to change a faltering outreach to the lost. In some cases, Americans are turned off to both the message and messengers of organized religion. Too many, the church has appeared narcissistic and self-serving. Leaders often leave behind shattered lives in the wake of their compromised leadership. The church’s reputation was dramatically eroded and confidence in church leadership greatly shaken by the scandals of the 1980’s. In 1974, nearly one half of the adult population expressed confidence in religious leaders, but that number plummeted to 22 percent by 1989.

The church must consider the serious question of relevance. In the early 1990’s, a denomination surveyed a southern city where it wanted to plant a church. The survey centered on a single question: Why don’t you attend church? Seventy-four percent of those surveyed indicated they felt there was no value in attending church. Thirty-four percent believed the church had no relevance to the way they lived. While the church does not exist to accommodate secular definitions of relevance, we must also face up to the dilemma framed in the lyrics of an old song: “Why spend our time answering questions no one’s asking?”

There is a high cost of not understanding a generation, not doing the homework necessary to gain a fair hearing of the gospel. We must understand that it is possible to be culturally relevant, and at the same time biblically sound in our approach to the unchurched. These two ideas are not mutually exclusive. It has been said, “The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.” That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but from my own observation, most people have some hesitancy toward change. Change takes us out of our comfort zone, it doesn’t allow us to relax, it doesn’t give us the assurance in life we long for.

Even though we are uncomfortable, and should be uncomfortable, with many of the changes in our culture, we must also understand that this is the culture we have been called to minister to. This is our world, and God has placed us here for such a time as this. We have been called to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of this generation. If we are going to do that, and if we are going to do it effectively, we must take Paul’s example as our own, and present the message of Christ in a culturally relevant fashion. I believe the church should be culturally relevant while remaining doctrinally pure.

There are things, which are always changing. We change, as we grow older. Hopefully we get wiser, more mature, and are able to have better discernment as we age. We change physically. The ethnic make up of our culture is also changing. The Caucasian population is at zero population growth, while the African American, Hispanic, & Asian populations in our country are experiencing double digit expansion. In fact, by 2050 only half of the nation’s population will be Caucasian. The concept of multicultural church revitalization will become increasingly significant as our language, customs, values, relationships, and processes are in a state of flux. Unfortunately, the Church has not kept pace with society.

The church has always adapted its ministry and methods to the culture in which they live and serve. While Jesus, the Bible, and Divine Principles will always be with us and do not change; many other things are in a constant state of flux. Worship styles, technology, outreach methods, teaching styles, and much more, are always being adapted to reach those who are unchurched, as well as to disciple those who are already Christ followers. Jesus preached from a boat on the Sea of Galilee, creating a natural amphitheater. Today most ministers use a lapel microphone. Paul wrote on papyrus with a quill and ink, this week I used my Mac Book notebook computer to write this newsletter and developed key training for some of our local pastors. The early church studied from the scrolls and parchments, we have dozens of translations bound together in our choice of bindings and colors. Throughout the week I open my Logos Bible software and search the scriptures and various commentaries in milliseconds. Paul wore a robe while he was preaching. I do not wear such a robe! The church cannot minister to the people of 2015 with methodology designed to reach the people of 1950’s.

When I read through the Bible I find verses that tell me about a new song, a new heaven and earth, new wine, new life, new covenant, new creation, new man, and a new command. Our God is a God of change, and He calls the Church to be willing to change with Him. Want a great recipe for being relevant? Here is a practical one:

Become as Authentic as Possible

Being an authentic church entails knowing who you are at the deepest level. Authenticity is the foundation of relevance because if you do not understand who you are as a church, and where you are coming from, you cannot possibly lead or influence others. You achieve authenticity through a rigorous inventory of your church’s strengths and a systematic mapping of the moments in your church life when you have been both highly effective and extremely gratified. Being real in the moment and able to speak courageously will help you share the truth in love.

Become a Life Long Learner

Achieving mastery as a church revitalizer is essential because, if you have no useful skills, you cannot be useful to others. Mastery goes beyond mere competence and skills. It means approaching one's life and relationships as an act of creation, rather than a reaction to people and events. It means approaching lifelong learning with a sense of fun that adds pleasure and energy to the tasks at hand. It means expanding your principles and practices so that they serve a greater purpose. One achieves mastery through a process of continuous improvement of your talents and abilities. Developing mastery requires the ability to put first things first, to take action before it is forced upon you, and to stay mindful while taking action.

Become More Empathetic as the Leader

Empathy is the capacity to recognize and share feelings being experienced by another being. It is the source of compassion, caring for other people, and the desire to help. It means the ability to experience the same emotions that another is feeling, without unnecessary judgment. Empathy creates relevance because it creates the deep connection that brings people together.

Take More Action

It is your actions, ultimately, that make you relevant to others. All the authenticity, mastery and empathy in the world remain sterile, until and unless put into motion. It is through action that you change yourself and change the church. Without action, even a great and brilliant mind and soul remains entirely irrelevant.

What is the challenge before us? We must minister to our culture without compromising our message. To meet the challenge of ministering to our culture without compromising our message, we must have a Biblical worldview. A worldview is quite simply the lenses through which we see our world. Whether you realize it or not, we all have a worldview. What we need to do is make sure our worldview is in line with the Bible’s. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" Galatians 3:28. If we are going to see people through Jesus’ eyes, if we are to have His worldview, we will not base our feelings and attitudes on a person’s skin color, their nationality, their language, or their social status. We will love everyone as God’s special creation. Not only do we love these people as God’s children, we embrace them as equals.

To meet the challenge of ministering to our culture without compromising our message, we must be willing to embrace new methodologies. The Pharisees approached Jesus and wondered why His disciples were not fasting – why they were not keeping the Law. Jesus responded, "No one sews a patch of un-shrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins" Mark 2:21-22.

These two brief parables of the old garment and old wineskins illustrate the incompatibility of the old system of Jewish law and tradition with the new cloth and new wine of the gospel of Christ. Jesus was always being questioned about the different methods He used. Jesus embraced what was new & effective for ministry. Jesus was the Master of presenting truth in the language of His culture. He used objects, seeds, soil, situational parables, coins, camels, and fig trees – all things that his audiences could readily identify with. And much of the methodology we employ will do the same thing -- whether it be drama, video, art, music, or stories, they will be used to present the gospel in ways that our culture can identify with.

To meet the challenge of ministering to our culture without compromising our message, we must be creative in worship. The Psalmist says: “Praise the LORD. Sing to the LORD a new song, and his praise in the congregation of the saints” (Psalms 149:1). John the revelator said: “And they sang a new song: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). God wants His church to sing a new song. He wants us to creatively worship Him in our worship services. This in no way means that we cannot continue praising God with the grand old hymns, but neither does it mean we can shut out the new songs God is calling His people to sing. This is not an either or situation, it is a both and situation.

To meet the challenge of ministering to our culture without compromising our message, we must practice the art of becoming. It’s important to note that becoming relevant should never compromise the Gospel. No one has the authority to change the good news of Jesus. If relevance is approached in a way that is culturally sensitive, word-based and Spirit-led, it will never compromise the gospel or the power thereof. So our message does not change, but our methods must as we learn to relate a timeless message to a modern culture through a relatable context. This is making the ministry of Jesus manifest in believers. To follow Paul’s example is not easy. In fact, it does not come naturally it only comes supernaturally. We can only adapt to, and minister to our culture, when we make an absolute commitment to it, as did Paul. We are not talking about compromising biblical truth, but being flexible in our approach to both evangelism and ministry. Paul says that he was “free from all men”; that is, he was not obligated to conform to any man’s ideas of opinions. He had been set free in Christ and was obligated only to be conformed to Christ. But Paul surrendered himself, actually made himself a servant to all men. Why? So that he might win more men to Christ. Paul’s going along with the opinions and customs of others does not mean he was compromising his convictions nor being two-faced. It means that he was getting next to men, gaining their confidence and trust so they would pay attention to his witness for Christ. It is important to note that becoming relevant should never compromise the Gospel. No one has the authority to change the good news of Jesus. If relevance is approached in a way that is culturally sensitive, word-based and Spirit-led, it will never compromise the gospel or the power thereof. So our message does not change, but our methods must as we learn to relate a timeless message to a modern culture through a relatable context. This is making the ministry of Jesus manifest in believers.

1. Paul became as a Jew to the Jews, that is, to those who were under the law.

When Paul was ministering to the Jews, he went along with their customs and laws just as long as nothing violated his walk in Christ. His standard was Christ, not the law. But he placed himself under the law when ministering to the Jews in order to get next to them and win their confidence and trust so he could witness to them.

2. Paul became a non-religionist to those who did not observe the law.

But note a critical fact: he does not mean he became lawless and immoral. He still obeyed the law of God; that is, he was as always under the law to Christ. He still obeyed the will of Christ, which actually includes the commandments of God and more. Paul lived as a Gentile when among them in order to get next to them and win them to Christ.

3. Paul became weak to the weak Christians.

That is, he went along with their petty rules and regulations. He refrained from doing some things that were perfectly legitimate. He conformed to their ideas and opinions just to have an open door to help them grow in Christ. He laid his personal liberty and rights aside in order to reach the new and weak Christians. He would not dare become a stumbling block to them, nor would he cause them to shut him out of their lives by offending them and thereby lose his opportunity to help them. He became as one of them in order to win them.

4. Paul clearly states his purpose for conforming to the customs and opinions of men.

Paul is declaring that he went to the extreme when necessary in order to reach people for Christ. “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (v. 22). What mattered in life was not he and his rights, but the gospel. The gospel was the consuming passion of his life. Why? He wanted to do whatever he could to win people to Christ.

In 1865 an editorial in the Boston Post read, "Well-informed people know it is impossible to transmit their voices over wires, & even if it were possible, the thing would not have practical value." In 1897 Lord Kelvin said, "Radio has no future."

Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM in 1943 said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." Ken Olson, President of Digital Equipment Corporation stated in 1977, "There is no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home." When the railroads were first introduced to the U.S., some folks feared that they’d be the downfall of the nation! Here’s an excerpt from a letter to then President Jackson dated Jan. 31, 1829: “As you may known Mr. President, ‘railroad’ carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour by ‘engine’ which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.” Grady Nut once said, “A man bought a new radio, brought it home, placed it on the refrigerator, plugged it in, turned it to WSM in Nashville TN, (home of the Grand Ole Opry), and then pulled all the knobs off. He had already tuned in all he ever wanted or expected to hear.”

It is healthy for all churches, ministers and ministries to re-assess their effective relevance from time to time. In determining the direction of our relevance, I would encourage allowing the church's younger generation to weigh in heavily since they often recognize what is irrelevant in the church more than older believers do. Of course this should be tested by the pastor and lay church leaders, but leadership will need to be flexible if we truly desire to live out Psalm 71:18 which it challenges us to  "declare [God’s] power to the next generation, [God’s] mighty acts to all who are to come." Some churches are rutted and rather dreary because what has been will still be. While I am sure these were all fine men, they were not visionaries and they did not understand the changes that were to come to their world. As the church, let us not make the same mistake that they did. Relevance is simply discovering better ways to connect Jesus to a disconnected generation, while remaining authentic and without compromising the gospel. The book of Hebrews tells us that, "Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever". Since He personally changed my life, I know He is entirely relatable. Our job is to simply keep Him relatable throughout changing times. To do so, the church needs to pursue our mission with relevance.  Our culture is radically changing before our very eyes, let us be ready for it with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Stay open to newness. Stay open to change. Relevance does not change the message; it simply reshapes its presentation. May we never allow stylistic inflexibility to confine us and make us like the very Pharisees that were willing to crucify anyone who challenged their traditions. Let us keep our relevance if we have it and find how to become relevant once more if we have lost it!

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