A Call to Relevance
The first Christians had a reputation
for changing society. Their enemies accused them of “turning
the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). The followers of Jesus
Christ revolutionized the way men and women thought about God and
life’s priorities, how they treated one another and how they
interpreted what was going on around them. The message they preached
offered (and delivered) change and hope. Within a few years of its
launch the church began to confront and contribute to the collapse of
an empire and a panoply of entrenched deities and ancient faith
systems. The followers of Jesus, initially dismissed as irrelevant
and disparaging called “Christians” by detractors in
Antioch (one of the largest cities in its day), came to be considered
unavoidable, relevant and compelling. In no time at all, despite
vicious and vigorous attempts from the highest levels to stamp them
out, they came to shake the political, philosophical and social
foundations of their world.
is still the purpose of God for His people to be imbued by the Holy
Spirit and revolutionize humanity, at home, at school and in the
workplace. Let’s put aside the clichés and stereotypes
and see what this means in practical terms.
Jesus a “down-to-earth”
The UN World Heritage-listed
Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres (built 1194-1220), west of Paris,
is arguably the most beautiful church building in the world. I have
spent hours admiring its Gothic beauty. During the Middle Ages, when
relatively few people could read or write, one of the vehicles used
by the church for teaching stories were stained glass windows.
Cathedrals and lesser churches across Europe came to be filled with
windows graphically depicting scenes from the Old Testament, the
Gospels, church history and major events of the times. Popular ideas
about God, Jesus, judgment, Heaven, Hell, the Apostles, heroes of the
church and its contemporary hierarchy often came from these sources.
Unfortunately, the vision a lot of
people still have of Jesus is fixed in stained glass windows or
images in churches. This Jesus, who is artificial and untouchable,
does not communicate to people living in the Third Millennium.
is your image of Jesus? The writer to the Hebrews saw him in the
following terms: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower
than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered
death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for
everyone.” You could say that he was truly “down-to-earth”
(literally Ephesians 4:8-10).
Jesus were living among us today, as a man, what would he look like?
Born into the family of a peasant craftsman in an insignificant town
in a far-flung corner of the Roman Empire known for its heat,
religious extremists and political instability, he didn’t start
life with great prospects. He was known to the neighbours as the
“son of Joseph and Mary”, the boy next door. As he grew
up, he probably played all the games other children played. No doubt
he had his “favourite” fruits and vegetables. He used
the bathroom several times a day, just like everyone else. He had
body odor. As a young man his closest friends smelt like dead fish.
His feet got dirty from tramping through the countryside. In other
words, his life was pretty ordinary.
Jesus launched his ministry, he often slept out in the open (Matthew
8:20). He associated with homeless and dysfunctional people. The
religious professionals people called him a “sinner, because he
didn’t fit their mould. However, the common people thought he
was closer to God and to them than any of the establishment figures.
The Jesus of the Bible was not like the well-groomed Jesus of most
movies. He was much more mundane, more banal in appearance. Yet in
his life, death and resurrection he reconciled God and man, opening
up the way for us to live in God’s presence forever.
Jesus’ first disciples were,
for the most part, uneducated labourers or petty bureaucrats whose
importance was dismissed as soon as they reached towns of any
importance. When they wanted to get close to him, he simply invited
them home, where they got to know Him better (John 1:39).
was God. But he was also man. When he came down to earth he accepted
the same limitations as everyone else. The Bible says he got tired,
became weary of crowds, wept at the death of a friend, was frustrated
by other peoples’ bad attitudes, experienced hunger, thirst and
loneliness and baulked at the prospect of death. He was tempted just
like us. Think about it. He knew what it was to have to follow
orders from his parents. He had feelings. He experienced being a
teenage boy surrounded by pretty girls. He had good reason to feel
hatred for the Romans. But in all this he did not sin (1 Peter
2:22). His followers were ordinary people. People listened to him
because they knew he understood and identified with them. His
message was relevant to their daily lives. His teaching was replete
with simple earthly stories drawn from daily life, that had heavenly
Is Jesus’ church relevant
through the centuries, Jesus has not changed (Hebrews 13:8). But
society and “church” have changed considerably. What
does the church look like to an outsider today? Not long ago, I
asked this question of a young person at the conclusion of a Sunday
service. He replied that good churches have contemporary music,
up-to-date furnishings and high quality audio-visual facilities. But
that response confused “church” with buildings. His
description equally fits most modern convention centres or secular
training facilities. It says nothing about the relevance of the
church to the human condition. Is that all church is? A facility.
Tiles, glass and technology? Sometimes I have walked past elaborate
church buildings with trendy names and wondered what on earth would
tempt me to join, if I were not a Christian. Usually, the answer has
been “not much”. (What about your church?) Surely there
loved us so much that he didn’t expect us to find the way back
to Him. He came to us instead. Theologians call that the
“incarnation”, God taking on human flesh, being born as a
child, the Creator taking the form of a created being. Jesus’
name is “Immanuel”, which means “God with us”
(Matthew 1:23). Jesus connected with people in the street because he
responded to peoples’ felt needs and provided answers that were
relevant to daily life. The majority of His followers continue to be
ordinary people (1 Corinthians 1:26-29); the message is just as
relevant today as it was two thousand years ago.
Christianity is still characterized by God’s love in action,
building bridges, reaching down and out to others with credibility.
The Bible says that the Christian community grows and builds itself
up in love (Ephesians 4:16).
churches talk about love but outsiders recognize if it is in short
supply. The relevant church will demonstrate God’s character
and make disciples of Christ who recognize and are motivated by
divine love. This type of church will reach non-Christians and
unchurched believers. God’s love within will go beyond verbal
expressions and operate like a powerful magnet.
to all people and cultures?
my neighbourhood I can walk past Hindu temples during the festival of
Deepavali and peer in at the priests and worshippers. What does
Jesus mean to them? Just another deity, to be added to the existing
menu? Have they ever heard the Good News that God is One and that He
loves them, in terms they can understand? Down the road, Muslims
celebrating Ramadan tell me their ideas about Jesus; they believe
they have the authentic version of the story. Do they know Jesus is
alive, whereas Mohammed is dead?
the Gospel is to have relevance, it must be understood by friends
from different religions, cultures, age groups, socio-economic
conditions, languages and personal journeys. This does not come
about by changing the message to accommodate it to individual comfort
zones, but by expressing it in such a way that it can be grasped and
believed, if their hearts are open.
is perceived by its critics as having lost touch with reality. It is
seen as abstract and theoretical. Could they be right? Christians
have cultures that make one cringe. We must recognize this and not
obfuscate the message by interring it in tradition. Look at the
religious paraphernalia that has grown up around Jesus’ name:
bookmarks made of olive wood - “the sort that Jesus used”;
a bottle of “Holy Water” from the Jordan River, “where
Jesus was baptised” (it has a cute picture of the Holy Spirit
descending from heaven, on the side of the box); seraphs that glow in
the dark and play “Holy, Holy, Holy”, as long as the
batteries are working; “herbs from the Holy Land - like those
Mary would have used in her cooking”; “Biblical scents”
exuding “the smells that greeted Jesus in the Garden”;
Dead Sea bath salts “to give you a heavenly lift”; cups
with inspirational sayings; Lily of the Valley and Rose of Sharon
soap; tea bags with Bible verses on the labels, “for that
special moment”; Bible verse candy canes; and “faith”
jelly beans. Christian kitsch abounds. On my travels around the
Middle East I came across an endless array of products marketing the
region’s associations with Jesus. But what in heaven’s
name do they have to do with life back home, in the suburbs, where we
face the daily grind and have to make the difficult decisions of
change. Witness the ubiquity of Coca Cola in the so-called Third
World, as well as more “developed” countries. On a
journey through the Peruvian Andes I once visited a village where
people had no electricity, no running water, no windows on their
houses, but a huge “Beba Coca Cola” sign on the wall of a
mud hut. When I first visited Belgrade after the Balkans War
(sanctions were still in place) the first thing I noticed in the city
centre was the McDonalds outlet. It is hard to envisage a world
without take-away food, DVDs, microwaves, i-pods and digital cameras.
When European explorers travelled through Africa their ability to
write down words was regarded as “magic”. It is now
possible to sit in a grass hut in the centre of the continent and
access the Internet using solar powered satellite telephones.
Cultures do change, even though the Gospel does not; we need to keep
ahead of the game and present the message effectively to the new
can also be a stumbling block? People do not grasp the Gospel if the
terms we use and the concepts we present are alien to them. The
assumptions they have about the nature of truth, God, sin and
sacrifice are different from statements contained in Christian creeds
or liturgies. It is possible for the unchurched to be so focused on
the architecture and iconography of the church that they completely
miss the personality of Jesus?
message we declare is authenticated when we live reality, lives that
are unequivocal, clear, meaningful, contemporary and attractive. Not
just rhetoric. Not legalism, for the sake of conformity. I have
found that in churches and Christians where legalism predominates
spiritual passion is usually below average. (Duty and passion are
mutually exclusive.) Being relevant means living God’s way,
because it is truth and because it “works”. Jesus was
relevant in his day because he was infused with the power of God.
His followers were passionately and contagiously enthusiastic about
Him because they had a genuine relationship with Him and knew he
truly cared for them.
People give up on organized religion
people give up on church, they don’t give up on spirituality.
Instead, they shop around for alternatives to sterile religion.
Their boredom thresholds are low. They walk away from tradition and
shallow spirituality because tradition alone, though hallowed by its
adherents, simply doesn’t work beyond the placebo level if
rigor mortis has set in. They are better educated, more clued-up
than any previous generation, but they are also more alone. They
feel their elders are out of touch and have nothing in common with
them. They are more prepared than ever to jettison irrelevant and
is not black and white, but many shades of grey. Modern men and
women reject extremism, but often end up standing for nothing at all.
They reject the voices of the past and one-size-fits-all religious
dogmatism. Busy people want going to church to be fun and
value-added, not an activity that flows from a sense of “duty”
to God, to do a “favour” to the pastor (portrayed as
“faithfulness”). They don’t want church life to be
reduced to meaningless repetition. If we wish to address rapid
turnover in church attendance we need to look at out praxis and see
what works in pluralistic, reductionist, syncretistic societies where
all bets are off and social taboos are no longer sacrosanct.
today are increasingly mobile, physically and mentally. They have
gone from book to screen and their world has shrunk. As a
consequence, many of the old models, jargon and ceremonies no longer
work. Young people are prepared to experiment with other religions.
They have more information available to them than any other
generation in history. They are interactive and multi-channel. They
sit in front of screens and anonymously chat with virtual communities
across the globe. They absorb a wide range of attitudes, symbols,
music, languages and sounds. If we are to reach them, the narrative
has to be diverse, high-tech, relational and culturally relevant,
without changing the central message. We need to engage effectively
and imaginatively and get closer in practice to the heart of Jesus’
modern young people feel their leaders fail to articulate clear
directions, that politics and business lack moral fibre. They have a
culture of “no-values”. This is the environment in which
Christians can make a difference.
we are to reach others with the Gospel we need to be able to distil
what they are experiencing, what they need, what’s important to
them and what excites them. We need the Holy Spirit’s help to
do this – otherwise we won’t last the distance.
Transforming disjointed lives is not a matter of intellectualizing
the meaning of truth, it is allowing the power of the
Truth, through the person of Jesus, to change their opinions,
revolutionize their hearts and heal their fractures. When men and
woman have this type of encounter and birth an authentic and intimate
relationship with God, the Christianity they embrace will be one
worth living for, worth dying for, worth passing onto their
communities and children, in the face of the most strident opposition
We must make a difference
is a growing trend for Christian formation outside of traditional
church structures. People want church life that is not boring,
monotonous, unpleasant, materialistic or non-directional; worship
services that are as attractive for young people as for their
parents, because they stem from “life”. Men and women
respond to preaching and counselling that make sense and work; prayer
that comes from the heart, not rote (every denomination and
single-issue church or home group has its own rote); worship that
excites and focuses joy on God, not just the moment; programs that
promote Jesus, not leaders; hope that does not fade; relationship
with a God who is objectively “there”, where they are;
who speaks to them, in their own language. They need grace that
forgives, transforms and reconciles people; spiritual life that
transcends the material, but meets needs; love that builds families
and provides a bedrock for marriage and family; and meaningful
Biblical absolutes that (by definition) don’t change, but apply
to each and any cultural setting.
Christianity is led by empowering leadership. Churches today are
full of people who have God’s call on their lives but will
never be equipped and released to realize their potential because of
religious protectionism. Effective and mature Christian ministry
concentrates on equipping and empowering men and women for God’s
service (as Jesus did). Healthy church life talks less about “laity”
(not a New Testament concept), looks less like pyramids and more like
a nurturing environment, where Christians have the “fire”
of God in their bellies, the love of Jesus in their hearts and are
encouraged to allow the Holy Spirit to make them what God wants them
to be. Christianity focuses on Jesus, not man; it reflects God’s
energy and purpose and is unashamedly Christo-centric (Romans 1:16).
Only the power of God can transform people. Fulfilled lives answer
the existential questions and make the Gospel relevant.
We always think that ours is the
authentic model and that it will break all the records. However, in
an era of accelerating change, we need to know what is real, what we
need to hold onto, what is negotiable, what is peripheral, what is
truly distinctive about church life, worship, leadership and
discipleship. If we are inflexible we will snap under the pressures
of modern living, even though the Gospel per se will remain God’s
transforming truth for our society.
Biblical Christianity reflects the
conviction that God is in charge and that the Holy Spirit has come to
empower us to be Jesus’ witnesses. With His help, ordinary
Christians can accomplish extraordinary results. Church life that is
motivated by Him will stand the test of time and experience sustained
Church organizations need structure
and form. Charisma without character and relationship leads to
chaos. However, men and women without servant hearts, who have roles
in the church, often feel threatened and abuse spiritual power.
However, the complex forms and rules that may once have been useful
lose functionality over time. Relevant Christianity is characterized
by a preparedness to identify and change what no longer works. It
doesn’t deem structures unspiritual, but at the same time it
does not mistake structures for the essence of Christianity.
Relevant Christianity is prepared to identify and jettison false
paradigms. It focuses more on an encounter and relationship with the
living God than harmony with denominational structures or the
tensions between joyous exaltation and quiet reverence as styles of
worship. Style takes second place to substance and God’s
Don’t get me wrong. I’m
not suggesting we allow ourselves to be seduced by pressures to
conform culturally. What we need at base is spiritual renewal.
We can be optimistic or pessimistic
about change. According to Reverend Peter Corney, we need to ask
ourselves some hard questions. What shape will a reinvented church
have? What ideas will predominate? What model are we trying to
achieve? How much of the past should be carried forward? How can we
evangelize modern cities? What is the future of the church as we
know it? What is the future role of the current parachurch
organisations? What new organizations will be needed for the new
day? Corney is right in raising these matters. However, the
fundamental questions are: will we change? do we have what it takes?
are we prepared to take risks? or are we going to continue to gauge
spirituality by levels of church attendance?
Authentic Christian community brings
others into God’s kingdom. The denominational franchise model
(in which all churches look alike) does not need to constrict us.
There is no single God-ordained model, despite what some
parochialisms suggest. Practices that worked well fifty (or even
twenty) years ago may not do so any longer; some are timeless and
will work in practically any generation and culture. We need to
examine out lives and cultures and seek God’s wisdom (James 1:5
– I often apply this principle to my secular work) for the best
ways to take the message and the person of Jesus into our daily lives
in such a way that others will be attracted to Him.
Being relevant does not mean
re-inventing the message, but re-discovering it. A journalist once
asked Billy Graham if he thought his method of preaching would put
back the cause of Christianity fifty years. At the time, the world
was in the grip of the Cold War. People were looking for answers.
Science, once considered the antidote, was now known to be capable of
destroying the human race through pollution and nuclear weapons.
Young people were demonstrating against foreign wars. People
everywhere were looking for answers. A new liberalism was sweeping
the Christian world; some church leaders suggested modernism, with
its shift away from absolutes, would provide a panacea. The last
thing universalists wanted was a narrow evangelical conservatism.
Graham’s answer was unequivocal. What he wanted was not to put
back the cause of Christianity fifty years, but two thousand years.
Back to Jesus Christ. Only by becoming radical (from the Latin
meaning “root”) and getting back to basics will
Christians find the essence of the message, the Man, the Son of God,
with his dynamic power and compassion to transform human lives, in a
way that is completely relevant to the new Century. That is our
challenge as we go forward.