Monday, November 19, 2007

Should a Church Try to Be Relevant?

Yesterday at church, someone brought up with the idea of Relevance. I have been hearing this word for a long time. I suppose it is because many churches are frustrated with the lack of growth, both numerically and spiritually. Megachurches and growing churches are taking up all the headlines. In America, "Willow Creek Community Church" and "Saddleback" are two of the most well known churches, precisely because it is attracting lots of attention in its growth. In Korea, Cho Yongi's name is household fame. In Singapore, City Harvest Church and New Creation Church are receiving rave reviews and headlines, both positive as well as negative.

There are many proponents to the idea of making the church relevant to the world. Some see this as a missional enterprise. Some churches like Focal Point believes that church should not be boring in the first place. Churches like Growthtrac wants to make their programmes attractive in the name of relevance. The Emergent Church movement is one major player in the relevancy enterprise. What is the Emergent Church movement? From my initial readings, they seek to engage the contemporary cultures, especially the younger generation in terms of first getting them into a conversation. According to Christianity Today, there are five defining streams. The writer, Scot McKnight, creatively puts it in alliteration form: Prophetic, Postmodern, Praxis-Oriented, Post-Evangelical and Political. There is a helpful definition from that article.
Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities. [Eddie Gibbs & Ryan Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Baker Academic, 2005)]
Brian McLaren is often named the unofficial leader of the Emergent church movement (ECM). Some critics have pretty harsh comments for him. Another popular speaker is Leonard Sweet, who recently released a very catchy book by the title: "The Gospel According to Starbucks." Simply reading the title will make any bored soul sit up.

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, two very respectable evangelical scholars has this to say:
"The task of the church is not to make the church relevant to the world, but to make the world relevant to the church."
There is even a "Relevant Magazine" that comprises people who "want to break stereotypes, challenge status-quo and enact change through the media." Another evangelical scholar, DA Carson, has strong words against the Emergent Church. He says that the presupposition of the ECM's thinking is too 'reductionistic and wooden.' (Da Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church, p59). Carson's enthusiasm or over-enthusiasm in trying to support his viewpoints even peeved my school professor when he lumped my professor with the ECM. From Carson's preface, it seems that the book is a book of generalizations. Apparently, Carson might have overdone this. While Carson made pretty good arguments against the ECM, his arguments loses much scholastic potency due to such generalizations.

Opponents to the 'relevance' doctrine see the problem in terms of consumerism. There are places which are strongly against the idea of a purpose-driven church and points out concerns about it being a church-growth movement. Others take a poke at the emergent church movement, by suggesting two ways to be relevant. I think this is more fine-tuning the relevance idea, rather than a direct criticism.

I have no problems with the intent of the ECM, which is to reach out and touch lives for God. Neither have I any problems with the desire to identify with the surrounding culture and to revitalize the church. What is my concern is the danger in diluting the gospel. Any attempts to be relevant risk some kind of compromise and oversimplification of the gospel message. Jesus does not mince his words when he teaches his disciples to sell and give away everything they have and then follow him. Paul urges the church not to be conformed to this world. Eugene Peterson's rendition of Rom 12:2 makes it very clear:
Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. (MSG)
Firstly, when we want to engage culture, we need to engage it from the basis of Scripture teaching. Remember that we are not of the world. We are in the world. As long as we are in the world, we need to wear the armour of God before venturing forth. Otherwise, we are exposed to all kinds of worldly influence that will eventually destroy us, and the people we are trying to reach.

Secondly, we must take note of place. The idea of place is something we cannot do away lightly with. Can we teach the Bible in the pub or the discotech? Can we try to preach Christ in a busy shopping mall? Even churches find it hard to teach the Bible through the pulpit and resort to spiritual retreats or annual camps away from the city! Jesus often retreated to the mountains and the wilderness to pray and be with God.

Thirdly, we must take notice of individual persons rather than generalizing how people looks like. Mass appeal programs do not necessarily meet the needs of every individual. If ECM becomes like a mass evangelism enterprise, it will not go far.

Fourthly, the notion of relevance needs to be constantly examined. We do not become relevant for relevance sake. Instead, we grow to be like Christ, and in the process we become like light set on the hill, that shines its brightness to the world around us. We do not need to sugar-coat the gospel to attract people. The gospel alone has the power to change people. Moreover, a lousy program that is run by loving and devoted people reaches deeper than a wonderful program operated by people merely going through the motions, and distancing themselves from the people they are trying to reach.

Fifthly, we need to see that the battle is often internal. Taking Paul's letter to the Ephesians, we must beware of spiritual warfare. Os Guiness in his wonderful book "Dining with the Devil" warns us that the problem about megachurches in the shopping mall, is not the church inside the shopping mall. It is the 'shopping mall' that is inside the church that is troubling. This reminds me that while it is easy for Israel to leave Egypt physically, it is harder for Israel to remove 'Egypt' inside them out of their lives. Look at how often they complain to Moses, after the Lord has delivered them from slavery!

Sixthly, becoming culturally relevant must never be done at the expense of biblical reverence. If Jesus does not mince his words, and Paul is prepared to stand for Christ even risking martyrdom, why should we as his disciples mince ours?

Seventhly, we must constantly 're-invent' our methods and structures not according to changing cultural norms, but according to what the Holy Spirit is teaching us. There might be formulas that work for certain churches but not for others. We must discern carefully all the time, wearing TRI-FOCAL lenses, to check whether the prompting, the message or the idea is from God, from the devil or from our fleshly desires.

In a nutshell, the need to be relevant can be one style of outreach. It must never become the only or the main way to do it. The chief way is always prayer with Scripture and obedience to its teachings. The best 'culturally relevant' enterprise for me lies in the following. Jesus said.
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:34-35, NIV)
Practicing this transcends all kind of relevancy equations, all kinds of megachurch mania and all kinds of statistical concerns. It transcends time zone. Love is a language that the world understands. We need not worry so much about becoming relevant, when we are able to show love and concern for one another in the church. If church members are prepared to go all out to help one another in all kinds of ways possible, it will attract the world to the church, like bees to honey. People will then be enticed to taste and truly see for themselves that the Lord is good. Indeed, for those of us who have such a privilege, we can say without blinking an eye that the Lord is truly good.

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