What Makes a Church Relevant?
Churches want to be relevant. Many churches advertise that they offer “relevant Bible teaching” or that they are “a church for real life.” Twenty churches in our country have gone so far as to name themselves “Relevant Church.” But what is it that makes a church relevant?
Many in our day equate relevance with two traits. The first trait is contemporaneity, preferring the new to the old. The second trait is preaching on felt-need topics like marriage, personal finances, child-rearing, and conflict resolution. RelevantChurch.com, a congregation in Tampa, Florida advertises that “the band brings it loud and strong….Expect lots of lights, video, and creativity. Then, expect to hear a Biblical message that is relevant to you and your spiritual journey.”
Equating relevance with contemporaneity and therapeutic preaching underestimates both God’s Word and the people in the pew. I say this for three reasons.
First, the entire Bible is relevant. Referring to the Old Testament, the apostle Paul wrote that “all Scripture is…profitable” and “whatever was written in the former days was written for our instruction” (II Timothy 3:16; Romans 15:4). Those parts of the Bible that do not address your self-perceived needs often address more foundational needs that you will be aware of in the future. You may not be interested in a sermon on Psalm 46 today (“God is our refuge and strength”) but this Psalm will be a comforting friend should you one day find yourself burying a loved one. A woman whose marriage was falling apart told the great Welsh preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “I don’t need to hear another sermon on marriage. The sermon you just preached on the greatness of God will do more for my marriage than all those marriage sermons combined.” What’s irrelevant to you today you will likely find useful tomorrow.
Second, when churches preach almost exclusively on those themes from the Bible that they consider to be relevant they wrongly assume that people have no interest in learning the Bible as a whole. This is a tragic miscalculation. Many people, even the unchurched, are very interested in hearing the Bible clearly explained and applied. Thom Rainer notes this in his book, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched (Zondervan, 2001): “Now we are hearing from the formerly unchurched that preaching that truly teaches the Bible in its original context is a major factor in reaching the unchurched.…The formerly unchurched told us that they were attracted to strong biblical teaching and to understanding Christian doctrine. Pastors who understand this and communicate doctrine clearly are among the leaders whose churches are reaching the unchurched.”
Third, churches that strain to appear relevant can come across as inauthentic. Julie Neidlinger, a 34-year-old single woman and artist, in an essay titled “Why I Walked Out of Church,” excoriates a pastor whom she saw preaching in baggy jeans, untucked shirt, flip flops, ear microphone, and holding a Starbucks cup: “Could he try any harder to be lame?… I can’t stand the phoniness, or trendiness, or sameness…. It’s like the Christian version of annoying hipsters, an overly-studied and homogenized ‘with-it’ faux coolness.”
A church is relevant when it has confidence in God’s Word, when it seeks to be a light in the world rather than a reflection of the world, and when it is a loving, welcoming community.
Peter Kemeny, Pastor
Good News Presbyterian Church
P.O. Box 1051, Frederick, MD 21702