The Race for Relevance
by Gary Miles
An acquaintance of mine who ministers in an independent, Anglican-tradition congregation recently wrote in the church newsletter, “The whole drift of western society in general, and American society in particular, would seem to be away from making it a possibility that anyone would be favorably disposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It simply has too many harsh edges, it is too absolute, it is too intolerant, it belongs to thinking that is pre-modern. Christians awash with this really believe that it is unlikely that they will ever see people [truly] converted. Massive revival that transforms a whole region or society is thought to be virtually inconceivable. Our world does not work like that.” No doubt many of us have felt just that way. We have listened to enough news reports, read enough magazine articles, maybe even talked to enough neighbors and coworkers, that we have become discouraged by the widening gap between the world view of the society around us and that of Christ and the Scriptures. “Post-Christian” and “post-modern” are descriptions often heard in believers’ social and political discussions. Church leaders and those individuals training towards ministry in the Bible colleges have debated and discussed the same difficulty endlessly. The best-selling books on church growth are nearly always plans and models for how to work with the same problem: how to interest a seemingly-disinterested public in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this circumstance, we must be patient for God’s time, always pray and work, and hope for God’s Spirit to act as He did in favorably disposing the Egyptian people towards the Israelites. Mixed in with our frustrations and hopes is also a deceiving temptation that has been an effective tool of the Enemy and it is crucial that we recognize and understand it. Israel often looked upon their circumstances in the same light as believers do today. When they were in bondage in Egypt, they looked for deliverance. When no amount of plagues could teach Pharaoh to respond to God’s demand for release, the Lord forced his hand through fouling the land and filling it with blood and sorrow. When deliverance came, the Israelites forgot Pharaoh and the fouling and sorrow and looked back to Egypt with fondness for its better food. When they finally reached the land of Canaan, “flowing with milk and honey,” they looked further to be comforted with native treasures and native wives which the Lord had commanded them to avoid. Then they forgot God. When the Lord raised up judges and prophets to lead them as Moses had done, they pointed out that the other nations around them had kings and demanded that they have one also. At first we might think that our lesson from their example in these matters is merely one of learning to be content where God leads us. There is a deeper issue of the natural man here, though, that bears closer inspection in light of the kind of response our churches will make to our present society. It is where the temptation to relevance and modernity for their own sake begins: The issues that Israel fell to considering relevant were ultimately issues of self: what we prefer to eat and drink, how we shall be clothed, whom we shall marry, how comfortable we shall be, how our status and the status of our leaders shall compare to others around us, and on and on. In other words, their primary concern was not for how they could serve God on God’s terms, but for how God could serve them – how He could meet their own preferences and interests and desires. Today, one of the fastest ways to get people interested in God is by telling them how much God is going to do for them, how “buying into God” will improve their lives or their families. As the “health and wealth” movement discovered early on, it is certainly much easier to talk to someone about having a good life or living forever in heaven than it is to tell them that they are responsible, through their sin, for the murder of Jesus Christ. As C.S. Lewis put it, “I cannot help thinking that any religion which begins with a thirst for immortality is damned, as a religion, from the outset. Until a certain spiritual level has been reached, the promise of immortality will always operate as a bribe which vitiates the whole religion and infinitely inflames those very self-regards which religion must cut down and uproot. For the essence of religion, in my view, is the thirst for an end higher than natural ends; the finite self's desire for ... and self-rejection in favor of ... an object wholly good and wholly good for it." This, of course, brings us to the central question that each of us, as individuals and as churches, must answer: What is the cost of running the race for relevance? From Jesus to the apostles to the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the central message of the Gospel has been one of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the answer to our supremely lost condition – and which can only be accepted on the basis of our own death to self: “When God calls a man, He bids him come and die.” I have had believing men and women look at me with a straight face and tell me that, regardless of what the Scriptures taught on a matter, they had no intention of obeying it because they didn’t believe it was relevant: socially relevant, personally relevant, or who knows what other kinds of gauges. Have we really considered where this road leads us? Who or what will determine where “relevance” begins and ends? To what extent are we able to amend or disregard our instructions: to the very foundations of Christianity when we no longer consider them to be relevant in a modern age? One well-known denomination holds that, because they regard God as working dispensationally, many New Testament instructions are no longer intended for this age. Even if such a conclusion was sustainable theologically, what objective scriptural basis would the choosing of the “irrelevant items” be predicated on? The scripture’s own examples and warnings, and those of the earliest church writings, fall heavily to the argument that God and His message are permanently relevant to the humble, seeking and honest heart in every age among every people group: “Beloved, while I was making every effort to write to you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” (Jude 3) No, this doesn’t mean that all traditions and practice will be identical across all cultures and times. Few Christians in history have asserted that idea, and clearly an effective introduction to Christ is always necessary. But the ringing message of Truth, the whole truth, and our godly obedience in our traditions and practices ought never to be in question. If we are a family, the very Body and Bride of Christ, and His Kingdom on earth, then there is no room for inorganic and temporal institutional priorities and proceedings designed to sell, promote, or otherwise gain glory for us or our organizations. The kind of “conversions” that result from such efforts frequently leave many questions of biblical conditions and fruit unanswered. We are not seeking to overwhelm the world with a product whose usefulness and benefits are our key selling points. That would be confusing Christianity with capitalism. Rather, in the words of Justin Martyr, written about sixty years after the death of the apostle John, “‘His blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn him, you will be innocent.’ For this reason, out of fear, we are very earnest in desiring to witness according to the Scriptures – but not from love of money, of glory, or of pleasure.” The most grievous danger above all others in the race for relevance is that, in focusing on our relevance to men, we may no longer be relevant to God. If that happens, we have ceased to be His workmanship or truly His people, and the winners of that race will be the most tragic losers of all.
i Referencing Exodus 11:3 ii Peter Hayward, Christ the Redeemer Newsletter; Spokane, WA, 02/28/2000 iii Exodus 3:7-8 iv Exodus 6:1; chapters 7 - 11