Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Relevant or relative Christianity? (Part 4 of 4)

In this final part of exploring how to find the balance as we reach the lost and the irreligious, I want to examine a certain assumption we’ve made which influences our approach to ministry. We’ve wrongly assumed that being relevant is synonymous with watering down the gospel to accommodate a less-than-godly lifestyle. In reality though, relevant ministry is essential if we are to make an impact on the culture and environment in which we have been called to serve. However, relevant ministry does not entail blending in to look like the culture we are trying to reach. It does, however mean that we must learn to communicate in a language that they understand. Take Music for instance. Music is considered a universal “leveler” since it breaks the barriers created by the differences in language and culture. This does suggest that people are more likely to be attracted to music that is upbeat and appealing more so than they would be to music that sounds like a funeral dirge.

Interestingly enough, Craig Groeschel happens to be blogging on a similar topic today (I promise you that I didn’t know that before I began this four part series), and so I will borrow from some of his ideas rather than reinvent the wheel, since he is expressing my sentiments almost verbatim. Here’s what Craig had to say regarding being a relevant church.

“When I was a kid, many churches didn’t engage my generation. Most of my friends ‘went to church’ but we didn’t follow Christ. The American church (for the most part) lost touch with how to engage the younger generations.

The church needed to change. And it did. We needed to become more relevant in the way we engaged non-believers, challenged believers, and presented God’s Word. One result was the ‘seeker-sensitive’ church. This movement brought some very positive changes including:

We don’t assume everyone is a believer when they come to church.
We don’t assume everyone knows our language, has a Bible, or even cares about Christ.
We are more outward-focused

In my opinion though, in recent years, the pendulum has swung too far. Now, in some places, church is so relevant that we almost seem to worship culture more than Christ.”

Maybe Craig read my blog the past few days. It’s amazing how much in tune we are on this subject. You see, I agree that we can really overdo the stuff that we think makes church cool and relevant. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with all the stuff. The problem is when we begin to think that it’s the stuff that impacts and changes people’s lives rather than the pure, unadulterated message of the Cross of Christ. What truly changes lives is not the coffee shop in the lobby, not the lights and cool video footage we show, not even the casual dress style and haircuts we sport. It is simply the love of God that changes a life. The goal of being relevant should be to create an environment where people can come and experience Christ and learn of His love for them in a language to which they can relate.

Let me illustrate that point with a story. When I was in Bible College, my Hebrew teacher was one of the guys who had worked on translating the NIV Bible, as well as one of the few people left who could read and translate Ugaritic (one of the more obscure languages of the Old Testament). He once explained to us that he came from a long line of Christians, and that many of his siblings were in fact missionaries. He told us about his brother who was a career Missionary in Papua New Guinea. His brother had given his life to learning the language of the people of New Guinea, teaching the tribe he lived with and served, how to read, and then translating the Bible into their language. A tall order under any circumstance right? Well get this: he had to also figure out how to translate the Scriptures so that they would be relevant and make sense from the cultural context of the people he was called to reach.

He ran into a major roadblock with the verse where Jesus was saying to Peter, “If you love me, feed my sheep.” The tribe had no sheep and didn’t even know what they were. The dilemma: If they didn’t understand the value of sheep, they couldn’t understand the value that Jesus was placing on the ones He was charging Peter to love, disciple and serve. He knew that his primary objective was to communicate the love of God to these people in a language they would understand. The solution: Pigs were their livelihood. They traded pigs for daughter’s hands in marriage. Pigs represented their most valuable possessions. The verse was translated, “If you love me, feed my pigs.” Blasphemy I hear some of you say. I guess you’re still stuck on the KJV of the Bible (which by the way is not a literal translation of the Hebrew or Greek). The larger point here is the fact that we are constantly faced with the challenge of translating God to the unbeliever, and our lives represent the language He uses. God’s love demonstrated through us speaks louder than any of the trappings of ministry we might employ that make us relevant, or for that matter, louder than the holier-than-thou Christian who doesn’t want any sort of change that suggests a leaning towards the culture of the day.

I don’t know about you but I am personally convinced that I can reach the lost one person at a time as long as I speak a language that they understand. I for one want to be relevant. Love is a great cultural equalizer. Love is relevant under any and every circumstance. By the way, I’m convinced that those wonderful people of Papua New Guinea who painstakingly learned to read so that they could read the Bible in their own tongue and accept the Lordship of Jesus, are all going to heaven right alongside you and I even though they think Jesus loves pigs and not sheep! Now that’s what I call relevant!!


Hope Clark said...

Such an interesting topic. I watched a News interview show recently (something like Dateline or 60 Minutes) about Joel Osteen and his church Lakewood. He has a lot of critics for his simple, positive messages about living a blessed life. He admittedly doesn't use a lot of scripture, and speaks to mainstream people with a simple message of prosperity. Obviously it's needed and life-changing. It's a good thing! Where else would you start with someone who isn't even a believer? But what happens after you have been fed there for several years and have now progressed enough to move from milk to meat? There are now something like 30,000 attending adults at his church. It seemed to me that there is a risk of people staying there in the comfortable zone of believing that a positive-thinking life is all that God has for them. How do you continue to move people forward on the journey to a powerful, supernatural relationship with God?

Joseph said...

Great thoughts expressed here. I do think though, that without being on the inside of Lakewood, it's hard to make a judgment as to their effectiveness in discipling people. Remember the premise of my position is that not everything has to happen on Sunday. All we see of Lakewood on TV is their Sunday service, and that probably doesn't tell the entire story.

The kinds of people that Joel is reaching with his message may never go to your church or that powerful spiritual church down the street. Who would reach them if not him? That's what makes the Body of Christ so effective and so like a body. The whole Body is not an eye. It is probably safe to assume that they have some sort of discipling process in place so that people don't just find a comfort zone in the "positive-thinking" message.

If however, that is not the case, I imagine that those that are driven to grow spiritually will find another church that fulfills that need.

joey said...

Paul said to become "all things to all men" for the sole purpose of saving them. Certainly then, the motivation is foremost. That doesn't mean hang out at strip clubs for example, to share the gospel and yet xxxchruch has figured out a way to work with a particular group of people that most of use would avoid.

Joseph said...

How true that is. So the real objective should be to always be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit so that we know when we are crossing the line from relevance as a means to an end, to making relevance the end in itself.