The Church’s Search for Relevance

I’ve always been associated with the church. For as long as I can remember, the church has had an important part of my life and now as a father it remains a central component for our spiritual health. Having attended seminary for eight years, I was exposed to Greek and Hebrew, theology, ethics, and Christian education techniques and trends. I graduated (for the last time) in December 1996, so it’s only been ten years since my formal training. I say all to this to make the point that at times I feel the disconnection between how I was educated and the world in which I serve as a minister. I’ve become more and more convinced that the methods that worked well 20 years ago don’t communicate effectively, or as effectively as they once did. And I struggle to find an answer for it. Apparently, I’m not alone in this thinking.

Leonard Sweet echoed this sentiment in a lecture given to about 150 students at the George W. Truett Seminary in Waco, TX. He talked about postmodernism–the worldview that questions modern assumptions about certainty and progress. Sweet believes the church in the West “can no longer expect to have that home-court advantage.” He added that Christians have to face this reality, and can either “deal with it, get over it, or get help.” What this means to me is that simply depending on persons to be attracted by and to our church buildings no longer works in the 21st Century. The church has too long been associated with a building and not so much by the people as the body of Christ. Sometimes our language contributes to this dynamic. I’ll talk about “going to church” like most other folks, but need to communicate more often that we ARE the church for more than an hour or two on Sundays.

Some of the changes in our society are troubling, and the truth is that many Christians have adopted the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” as their theme song. They interpret the lyrics to mean they should hunker down under their pews while the rest of the world goes through dramatic cultural and theological shifts. Most Americans believe in God, yet many do not attend church or believe that Jesus is the Son of God. As troubling as this might seem, it is also a wonderful opportunity for churches to become engaged in their community and world. There are more methods and means available for spreading the gospel than any other time in history. We have to determine our attitude. As Sweet said, we can either deal with it or get over it. It doesn’t do any good to complain about why so many people aren’t attending church these days. There are far too many options available on Sunday mornings, as folks are choosing the country club or IHOPs for their spiritual nourishment. Church isn’t even on the radar for many people as they wake up on Sundays.

This is remarkably similar to 1st Century Christianity. Sweet commented, “I think God is defragging and rebooting the church. I think what he is doing is getting us back to the original operating system of Christianity.” He maintains that the old model of church is “killing the West” and the out-dated model is “attractional, propositional, and colonial.” What this says to me is that the old mindset that thinks people know where the church building is and can come is no longer effective. A cold orthodoxy doesn’t appeal to the masses, and I’m not talking about watering down the gospel or tenets of biblical Christianity. The “if you build it, they will come” approach doesn’t connect and most of the general public aren’t impressed with our beautiful buildings. It also means that the church isn’t the center of the community anymore, with rare exceptions being in the rural areas when there hasn’t been any change nor will their be in the quality of life.

Sweet’s call for a “missional, relational, and incarnational” church resonates with me. As a pastor, I am constantly thinking of our people and those in the community who aren’t part of a fellowship of believers. Our mindset should be one of missionaries rather than merely members who are part of a club, as Reggie McNeal would say. We shouldn’t think of the mission field as something overseas, out of sight, and only considered when missions offerings are received. Each church is a headquarters for the Lord’s mission and work in expanding the Kingdom of God. It’s not always about buildings, budgets, and baptisms. It’s about how the church is connecting with those in the community and in our families. These are things that can’t be measured quantitatively all the time, a difficult reality for pastors and members who base their success on how many people fill the pews.

It’s difficult dealing with this postmodern idea when you’ve been raised in the church your whole life. Sometimes it takes someone on the outside looking in to inform us how we can more effectively communicate the gospel. Many people are interested in spirituality these days, but don’t consider the local church as a resource for fostering their growth in that area. This is a shame and an indictment on the local church. It should cause us to reconsider our methods and “churchspeak” in telling people about Jesus. I am attempting to “reboot” my own theological system and assumptions in reaching a younger generation who doesn’t have the built-in allegiance to the church. While some discussions focus around kinds of worship, more recent conversations deal with an “ancient-future” dynamic that tries to merge the worship style of early church with the 21st century realities. The Emergent Church might be going in this direction, and I’ll be interested to see how that dialogue goes.

An important option in addressing these changes relates to new church starts. Congregations that were birthed during WWI or even WWII have been built by members who understand commitment, sacrifice, and loyalty to the institutional church. Many of these precious folks are still around and end up doing much of the serving, teaching, and giving. You can look back at the records of churches during the 1950s or 60s and see that this was the golden age of attendance and influence. Our senior adults today were the young to middle age group who were faithful to be at the church “every time the door was opened.” Churches built on this mentality may have difficulty relating to baby busters and millennials who don’t have that same kind of devotion to church. The younger generation has a different worldview and experience, so new churches find it easier to relate without the expectations of an older church. New churches don’t have to do something “because we’ve always done it that way.”

I don’t have the answers to the postmodern situation, but am considering the possibility that the best approach might be to enter into patient talks about spirituality, faith, and purpose. A new generation of people are eager for dialogue and aren’t necessarily looking for specific answers but rather for the process of working through their own spirituality. This is a critical moment for the church to meet them where they are rather than insist that they walk through the building doors before having a conversation with them. Pontius Pilate’s question “What is truth?” uttered 2000 years ago is still being repeated in a variety of ways and settings. We know that Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8) and the Good News still rings true. Let us continue making the effort, dealing with the struggles, and celebrating the joys that come with being a Christian in 2007.

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One thought on “The Church’s Search for Relevance

  1. Ircel says:

    Danny, I think you have nailed it. If our churches aren’t missional, relational, and incarnational, we will never be part of the missio dei (mission of God)in a hurting world.

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