Permanent Relevance

By Tim Cantrell

September 2007

Have you ever heard a church leader say, ‘Beloved, let us aim to be as irrelevant as possible?’  Of course not.  Everyone agrees that relevance is important.  Like King David, we must “serve the purpose of God” in our “own generation” (Acts 13:36).  Like the sons of Issachar, we want to “understand the times” (1 Chron. 12:32).  Like Jesus, we want to love and reach each new person we encounter.  Our hearts should break with compassion when we see many of the ways that our Baptist churches are failing to reach our world.  Our ears should be wide open to learn all that we can about our culture(s), whether Western and postmodern or African and rural, or somewhere in between.  Any church that shuts its eyes and ears to the white harvest all around is guilty of inexcusable irrelevancy.

But strangely, relevance can elude those who pursue it hardest.  Churches that chase after relevance end up having little lasting impact on society.  In his insightful book, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance, Os Guinness notes:  “After two hundred years of earnest dedication to reinventing the faith and the church and to being more relevant in the world, we are confronted by an embarrassing fact:  Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant.”

Likewise, in his book The Gagging of God, D.A. Carson writes, “Study after study has shown that pursuing relevance may achieve a certain instant ‘success’.”  Yet he states that such apparent success “is frequently the advance warning” to bitter failure in the long run.  A prime example would be the many mainline churches that sought greater social impact and respectability, but ended up being devoured by liberal theology and denying the gospel.

Here is the decisive question:  how do we achieve relevance in our churches?  I look at our changing world with compassion but also with confidence that God has clearly shown the way to stay relevant and reach every generation.  In this article, I would like to first clear the debris of dangerous attempts at relevance so that we can rediscover the solid foundation for lasting relevance.  As Paul wrote in Romans 12:2, each new era brings with it new temptations to “conform to the world” and new opportunities to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” so that we can know God’s will for us in our time.

Conforming to the World – Irrelevant relevancy

We must be careful of being naïve in the way we analyse cultural trends, as if the world’s values are neutral and harmless.  We cannot simply say, ‘The world is changing so we must adapt’.  Sadly, some today are rebuking the church for not keeping up with the world, instead of exposing the world’s hostility toward God and His truth.  What a complete reversal of God’s strategy in Scripture!

For both Israel and the church, God’s mandate has always been for us to reach the world by being holy, by living differently, not by trying to keep up with the world (e.g., Exod. 19:6; 1 Pet. 1:14; 2:12; Titus 2).  We might be shocked to realise the evangelistic potency of a church where personal holiness is upheld, church discipline is practiced, and ever member is known for purity.

We must strike the biblical balance:  God calls us to passionately love a lost world, yet also to shun conformity to the world system whose views and values are driven by Satan and by a sinful, anti-God attitude (Jam. 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17; Rom. 8:5-8).  Unbelieving human cultures are not ‘innocent until proven guilty’.  God’s Word tells us to expect that every culture, in its own way, will be guilty of rejecting God’s authority (Rom. 1:18-32; Eph. 2:1-3; 4:17-19).