Relevance Misconstrued

Churches long to be perceived as relevant. What makes a church relevant?

In our day relevance is commonly equated with two traits. The first is contemporaneity: preferring the new to the old. A Tampa, Florida church called advertizes 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.”

The second trait typically associated with relevance is preaching that addresses people’s felt needs. Hence the popularity of sermons on marriage, personal finances, child-rearing, handling conflict, and other personal adjustment issues. In this vein, I recently heard a northern Virginia church advertise a 5-week sermon series on having a “Bod for God.”

Equating relevance with contemporaneity and therapeutic preaching underestimates God’s Word and underestimates churchgoers and prospective churchgoers. I say this for three reasons.

First, the entire Bible is relevant. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete…” “whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” (II Timothy 3:16; Romans 15:4). Those parts of Scripture that do not address your immediate, felt needs often address more foundational needs that you’ll 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. The Welsh preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, was approached after a worship service by a woman who was visiting his church. She said something to the effect, “My marriage is falling apart, but 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 pertinent tomorrow.

Second, to preach solely on Bible themes that we think are relevant wrongly assumes that unchurched people have no interest in learning the Bible as a whole. This is a tragic miscalculation. Many unchurched people are very interested in hearing the Bible clearly explained and applied. Thom Rainer notes this in his 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.”

Many people in their twenties and thirties are tired of topical talks and pandering preachers. Though not from Christian backgrounds, they were looking for the church to be the church. They are seeking a sense of the transcendent. They want to hear a word from God.

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 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.” Pastors who are comfortable in their own skin are typically more appealing, and trusted.

We are relevant when we have confidence in God’s Word and when we seek to be a light in the world rather than a reflection of the world. Martin Lloyd-Jones said, “When the church is absolutely different from the world she invariably attracts it.”

This article is a guest contribution by Peter Kemeny, pastor of Good News Presbyterian Church (A.R.P.) of Frederick, Maryland. It was originally released in the February 2012 congregational newsletter and is republished here with the kind permission of the author.