You’ve heard the story of the new pastor who stood up on his first Sunday and declared, “It’s my goal to bring this church into the twentieth century!’ Someone interrupted, “Don’t you mean twenty-first century?” The pastor replied, “We’ll take it one century at a time.”
Churches can get stuck in a rut of irrelevance. The number one reason why Americans do not attend church in the 21st century is it is, according to the un-churched, irrelevant. The typical comments include, “It’s a waste of time.” “The church just isn’t pertinent to my life today.” “I have more important things to do.” “It doesn’t make any difference in my life.”
I grew up in an environment where the church valued tradition over relevance. We sang centuries-old songs, sat on centuries-old furniture with a strange name (pews) and used centuries-old languages (Old English and Latin). . And I wondered if the issues we discussed were ever important. I had a desire for God, but the boredom tended to squelch it. When I finally turned to God in college (outside of my traditional church) I became passionate about spiritual relevance.
Clearly God is relevant. The Bible is relevant, and the Gospel is the most relevant news in the world. So here’s the question, how can we as churches (and followers) stay relevant?
Thom Rainer says one of the top questions churches need to ask is: Are you addressing the real issues of real lives?
How can we address real issues and remain relevant?
The Apostle Paul had some ideas:
“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make 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 men so that by all possible means I might save some.”--1 Corinthians 9:19-22 (NIV)
Paul valued relevance. And in this passage he outlines at least five keys to staying up to date.
1. Know your role
The Message Version says:
“Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn't take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I've become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn't just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!”--1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (The Message)
Paul describes himself as a servant. His role was to intentionally serve others. Relevance demands that we put our preferences, our style, even our rights aside. Paul gave up his rights for relevance:
“Yet I have never used any of these rights. And I am not writing this to suggest that I want to start now.”--1 Corinthians 9:15 (NLT)
William Temple observed, “The church is the only cooperative society in the world that exists for the benefit of non-members.”
To stay relevant the church needs to take on a servant role and to embrace the truth that the church exists for others. But sadly, most people never get there. Most believers never progress from spiritual adolescence to servant-hood.
George Barna states that 90% of the Christians in America see their local congregations existing primarily to meet their needs. If we’re going to stay relevant that needs to change. We need to get the message across that church isn’t for us.
In “Deliberate Simplicity,” Dave Browing writes, “A big part of a pastor’s job is to keep the church swimming upstream, because the natural current takes us to a place of inward focus. We buy new chairs not so we will be more comfortable but so our neighbors and friends will be when they finally arrive. We pick songs not with just our ear in mind but for those who are about to come.”
We have to reframe our role as one of a servant to others if we want to be and stay on the edge.
2. Know your audience
“I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever.” 1 Corinthians 9:20 (The Message)
A scuba diver was enjoying the aquatic world 20 feet below the water line, when he noticed another man the same depth—but he had no scuba gear at all. The diver went below another 20 feet, but moments later the same guy joined him. The diver went down another 25 feet, but again the other guy showed up.! This confused the scuba diver, so he took out a waterproof chalkboard set and wrote, “How are you able to stay under the deep without any equipment?” The guy took the chalkboard and wrote, “I’m drowning!”
We need to understand who we are talking to. Relevance is relative. We have to go out of our way to understand our target and go out of our way to communicate to them.
was a typical summer day in Texas--about two hundred degrees with two hundred percent humidity. I was uncomfortable and beginning to perspire when a couple of my buddies said they were making a Starbucks run. They asked if I wanted anything. “Great, thank you,” I said. “How about a venti passion iced tea with two Splendas and lots of ice.” That’s my typical order. They returned and handed me a hot tea. I was confused, I never drink hot tea and who drinks hot tea on a summer day in Dallas anyway? I thought, “Know your audience!” To be fair, they did bring me a cup of ice because they thought I must be nuts wanting hot tea in hot Texas. I must not have been very clear. But the point is it is often difficult to understand our audience, but relevance means we work at it.
3. Know the times
“The “Men of Issachar...understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”--1 Chronicles 12:32
We need to know the Bible and the times.
I like this Anthony Myers quote: “Not a lot of people know this about me, but I'm a time traveler. The only catch is that so far, I can only travel through time at the same rate everyone else is going.”
I suspect a lot of churches travel through time slower than everyone else.
Eric Hoffer suggests: “In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
I don’t want to lead a church that is beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. So I need to know the times.
4. Know the message
When she got flowers from her husband on their anniversary, my daughter's friend quickly opened the card. All it said was "No." What did that mean? She called her husband, who said, "I didn't attach any message. The florist asked if I had a message and I said, 'No.'"
Do we have a message? Do we know what it is? Paul did:
“It is the opportunity to preach the Good News …”--1 Corinthians 9:17 (NLT)
Paul embraced a message of good news. Have we?
The number one reason why people don’t go to church is they say it is irrelevant. Reason number two is new: the church’s anti-gay stance. Reason number 3: “Everyone is a hypocrite.” Reason 4: “All they want is my money. And the fifth reason why people in America don’t go to church? They say, “The church is gloomy and all they talk about is death.”
Amazingly, the church is now known for bad news, when our message is supposed to be good news. If we become known for what we are for rather than for what we are against, we’ll probably be a lot more relevant. Let’s concentrate on the good news.
5. Know the goal
“I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”--1 Corinthians 9:22 (NIV)
Paul’s goal was not to be hip, it wasn’t to be politically correct, it wasn’t to be liked or even right. His goal was to win people to Jesus.
Now we know that Paul doesn’t win them, you and I don’t win them--God does.
“I do all this for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” 1 Corinthians 9:23-24 (NIV)
Paul knows God wins them, but he also knows he is a partner in the process and he takes his responsibility seriously and with a sense of urgency.
Henry Trumbull made this sobering observation: “Unless a man is ready to work for the salvation of others, it may be questioned whether or not he himself is saved. He who wants only enough religion to save himself is not likely to have even that much.”
That’s tough stuff. But perhaps if we, like Paul, were so committed to outreach that we would do anything short of sinning to save folks, we might be even more effective.
So let’s continue to know our role, know our audience, know the times, know the message and know the goal--all of that will go a long way toward helping us stay relevant.