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” ().  Like the sons of Issachar, we want to “understand the times” ().  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 , 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; ; ).  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 (; ; ).  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 (; ). 


36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, (ESV)


32 Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command. (ESV)


Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (ESV)


14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,

1 Peter 2:12

14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,

1 Peter 2:12

12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (ESV)


Teach Sound Doctrine

2:1 But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. Slaves are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (ESV)


You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (ESV)


Do Not Love the World

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (ESV)


For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (ESV)


God’s Wrath on Unrighteousness

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (ESV)


By Grace Through Faith

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Ephesians 4:17-19

By Grace Through Faith

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Ephesians 4:17-19

The New Life

17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. (ESV)