The Relevance Trap
I began ministry in an age that emphasized relevance to the world.
Earlier ministries seemed, well, churchy. The answer: make the church friendly to outsiders. Emphasize relevance. Make unbelievers feel comfortable within the church. Market the message. Lower as many barriers as possible to get unbelievers into the church.
I learned some good things from this approach. We certainly should remove unnecessary barriers between people and Jesus. We should speak in a way that’s understandable to as many people as possible.
But relevance was a trap. For one thing, we can’t make Scripture relevant to people. It already is. Besides, there’s no way we can minimize the strangeness of what we believe or the strangeness of what we do as believers.
The Strangeness of What We Believe
What we believe makes no sense to the world. No marketing campaign or style of music can overcome our weirdness. We believe that Jesus is God, that he was born of a virgin, that he offered his life as a sacrifice for our sins in our place, that he rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and that he’s coming again. And that’s just the start.
For a while, it seemed that we could deemphasize the strangeness and present the gospel without its sharp edges. In some ways, I sense that people today don’t trip over the supernatural. They’re prepared to accept the premise of the spiritual world and the idea that God might exist. They’re not prepared for a holy God who inspires fear and deserves worship and submission.
What we believe is out of step with culture. It’s meant to be that way, and the differences are becoming even more pronounced.
God is gracious, but we always come to him on his terms, not ours. We preach a message that’s foolish to the world, and we shouldn’t try to change that (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Any model of ministry that minimizes the strangeness of our message to unbelieving ears is a dead end. Our message sounds foolish and offensive to the world, and yet “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)
The Strangeness of What We Do
We don’t just believe strange things. We do some strange things too.
I was speaking to friends one day at a coffee shop. Our seats were beside a sidewalk. I was explaining how strange we must seem to even new Christians in our church. We believe that men and women are equal but not interchangeable. We believe that sex is meant for marriage between one man and one woman. We believe that the first step of the Christian life is to be submerged under water to signify one’s death and new life in Christ. It’s all so unusual. As I spoke, a person overheard part of our conversation and glared at me. It seems she agreed with me that it’s not palatable at all.
So much of what we do is strange. Investing thousands of dollars in kingdom work is strange. Baptizing people is strange. Singing to God is strange. Listening to somebody preach from a document that’s thousands of years old is strange. It’s getting harder to pretend that what we do is just a Christian version of a concert and a TED Talk with good childcare. Churches are going to seem increasingly out of step with culture.
Corinth was a sophisticated, secular city with a preference for slick presentations of human ingenuity. The formula could have been easily adapted for use within the church. Come to town. Package your ideas. Gain a hearing. Live a lifestyle that matched the expectations. Win people to the gospel, and benefit from the financial perks. I can imagine how attractive this formula must have been as a way to communicate the gospel inoffensively to the culture.
Paul wanted nothing to do with it.
Paul knew that the gospel never lines up with the world’s values. He knew that the truth of the gospel could be compromised by how he communicated the gospel. He drew criticism from many in the church in Corinth because he broke their expectations of how to communicate the gospel. He knew the message of the gospel was strange in the eyes of the world (1 Corinthians 1:20-25), and he was okay with his methods looking strange too (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
The Path Forward
I’m not arguing that we should erect unnecessary barriers. I am arguing, though, that we embrace the strangeness of both our message and our methods, and trust that the foolishness of God indeed is wiser than the wisdom of this world.
The world doesn’t need more of the world. We can’t market or entertain better than the world can, nor should we. Using the world’s methods to communicate a palatable gospel is a distortion of the Christian faith.
For thousands of years, the world has been changed by churches that faithfully preach a strange gospel and do strange things while pointing to a crucified Savior. It’s what the world has always needed most.
Blog originally posted on TGC Canada Website