Staying Relevant

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Do you remember when the Seeker Sensitive movement really began to catch on? Willow Creek? Bill Hybels? Saddleback?

Pastors started thinking about how to connect with the so-called “unchurched” of their communities, trying to bridge the cultural gap. Pulpits, stained glass, hymnals and organs were replaced by stages, auditoriums, big screens and worship bands. Sermons became shorter, more accessible, less theological. Services were designed around things like “felt-needs,” surveys, the latest innovations and market strategy.

In 2007, however, the leadership of Willow Creek admitted that, although they managed to get unchurched people attending on a regular basis, their efforts did not produce the quality of disciples they were hoping for. Their services were sort of like fast food—attractive, addictive and tasty, but not exactly nourishing. 

In recent decades we have seen a dramatic shift in church culture. Hundreds of thousands of undernourished believers have abandoned the mega church for something deeper, more authentic. Many have looked to a more traditional church, hoping for a richer theology and the longstanding heritage of liturgy, hymns and ritual. Others have looked for a more radical spiritual encounters in charismatic circles, reveling in passionate worship experiences, looking for signs and wonders. Some prefer to attend churches that engage with their communities, working to benefit the public sector with the values of their private faith.

Is there a right way to do this? Are we still acting like consumers, moving from one self interest to the next, keeping ourselves comfortable and engaged? What about unbelievers? Have our efforts to nourish our own spiritual lives created another barrier, or is our authenticity drawing them in?

Conversations over the holidays have prompted me to think about the ebbs and flows of the American church, and what we can do to keep our message relevant and effective to our constantly changing culture. Here are a few thoughts:

People, not Programs:

Rather than trying to lure unchurched people to a building with the promise of quality entertainment and an inspirational message, hoping they’ll hear the Gospel, let’s try to inspire our friends, neighbors and coworkers with our own lives. Let’s be the Gospel to them.

According to Scripture, Jesus came to “tabernacle” among us (John 1:14), not just point us to a tabernacle. He gave us his Spirit that we might become biological “temples” of God (I Cor. 6:19). This was no longer about drawing people to some sacred building, but making a sacred “building” out of transformed, Spirit-filled people (I Peter 2:5).

Buildings are limited and expensive. Bodies are mobile and expressive.

Caring, not Cloistering

If our Gospel is truly about redemption and transformation, it should be obvious to outsiders. Otherwise, we shouldn’t preach at all. Or at least wait until we have a little evidence to back us up.

We claim to be indwelt by the Spirit of God, but we are much too afraid and insecure as a culture to substantiate that claim. Sure, we should be careful about what we allow into our minds and hearts, keeping our spirits as healthy as possible, but that shouldn’t define us. According to Scripture, we should be defined by our love for one another (John 13:35) and by the evidence of God’s Spirit within us (John 15:8).

When Jesus touched a leper, the leper was healed. Think about that. Jesus infected the leper rather than the other way around. God had come in the flesh, and sickness and death has been on the run ever since.

Shouldn’t we be more positive and proactive?

Inspiring, not Interrupting  

A friend of mine turned my attention to best-selling author and blogger, Seth Godin. He writes a lot about marketing to this technological generation, about how important time has become, how interrupting people with unrequested advertising can be annoying and counterproductive.

Here are a few quotes from his blog:

Permission Marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them. It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

Permission is like dating. You don’t start by asking for the sale at first impression. You earn the right, over time, bit by bit.

If it sounds like you need humility and patience to do permission marketing, you’re right. That’s why so few companies do it properly.

In my opinion, the evangelistic tools of the previous generation have to change. No more door to door evangelism. No more sitting on a park bench with a stranger and pulling out a Christian tract, the Four Spiritual Laws, or the Romans Road.

Sure, I know that many of us were converted in that way, but it’s just a tool, a recent invention in the grand scheme of Church history. Culture changes, and the Church needs to move along with it, staying relevant without compromise.

Do we really expect a stranger to absorb a story about God and sin, heaven and hell, human sacrifice and bodily resurrection, and make a decision that will change the course of their entire destiny in just one sitting? That’s sort of like me walking up to a pretty girl and expecting her to say “yes” to a wedding proposal after a quick and logical presentation.

How do you feel about the American Church? Are we vibrant enough? Are we relevant? Are we moving in the right direction? Or do you agree that we could use a little more focus and personal accountability?

6 thoughts on “Staying Relevant

  1. Absolutely. There is obviously much more to explore with this issue, but I was hoping to highlight the idea that, at its core, the Church is made up of Spirit-filled people, not some building with a pastor and programs. We are ALL the church, and need to feel that weight of responsibility in our daily lives.

    So often we see our day to day as the slog between conversion and heaven, and church as a sort of refueling station. This is not entirely the case. The church is where we come together as a community and worship, and encourage one another in the truth, and challenge one another to keep growing. But it is not a substitute for what Jesus initiated on the day of Pentecost.

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  2. John 6:44 notes that people do not come to Jesus unless the Father draws them. To think that we can use marketing to fill a constructed church is some sort of idolatry. Yes, on the day of the Pentecost the apostles were all of one accord in one place. The Holy Spirit filled the house where they were sitting. The multitude were drawn together by the sound of the Holy Spirit. “And the Lord (2962) added to the church daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47)

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  3. You’re right. We so often ignore the Spirit’s role in drawing people to the truth. We quickly resort to gimmicks and formulas, appealing to things like fear and emotions to make the sale.

    We should take a lesson from Paul: “…my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”

    At the same time, however, I think it’s important for us to develop real relationships with unbelievers, listening to them, being examples to them, and sharing our faith as often as the moment is right.

    I am not convinced that the destiny of each soul is predetermined. I know that some verses seem to point that while, though others seem to disagree. People on either side of the fence can twist the contrary verses to their will.

    The story of the rich young ruler gives me pause. Jesus was disappointed when the ruler was unable to turn from his riches to become a follower of Jesus, and told the people around him that is was HARDER for a rich man to enter the kingdom than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

    Harder? If the trajectory of each soul is predetermined, why use the word harder? If man is not free, there is no effort, no true choice, just destiny.

    I do not deny the scriptures you quoted either. I’m just . . . thinking out loud.

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  4. The punch line of the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle story is that “with men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26) It is not that we are individually predestined, but that we are saved by grace of God. There is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. We have only to accept the salvation that has been offered. As with Jonah, we are not the agents of God’s influence, but witnesses to His mercy. Faith, not works.

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