In leading or planting a church, central to your calling is the proclamation of the gospel in words and works of grace. As Christians and leaders in the church we represent Jesus, do the things of Jesus, and tell others about Jesus. And we do that in "relevant" ways.
If you've read my blog for any length of time you know I'm a believer in cultural relevance in our churches. Perhaps a better way to say it is that I believe gospel-centered, biblically faithful churches are culturally relevant. Not everyone gets excited about this subject, and I understand their concerns because I have some concerns as well. But I believe cultural relevance is a necessary aspect of and tool for missional ministry in each of our contexts.
The Gospel must always be delivered into a specific cultural context. To be culturally relevant is to take the unchanging Gospel into ever-changing cultures. We do that by listening to and understanding the culture, learning to speak their language, connecting the Gospel to the idols of the culture, and showing the beauty and supremacy of Jesus. Read through Paul's approach to the cities of Iconium, Lystra, Macedonia, and Athens in Acts 14-17 and you will find an excellent model of a discerning cultural relevance.
Trouble starts with cultural relevance when we misunderstand its importance. Sometimes we believe being relevant means being missional, but it doesn't. The truth is we can be culturally relevant and ultimately go nowhere in helping people know Jesus or serving Him on mission. Relevance is an implication of mission, and a tool for the mission, but it is not the goal of the mission. Making disciples through the spread of the gospel is the goal. If cultural relevance is our goal, the Gospel is demoted and we lose confidence in its transforming power and necessity.
How does this happen? How do we wind up elevating cultural relevance, intentionally or not, to be an ultimate goal? Here are a few ways.
We elevate cultural relevance when we focus on personal or social transformation and not Gospel transformation. The Gospel message is not about trying harder to be a good person. Atheists, Mormons, and Oprah can help you be good. The gospel message is not about cleaning up our cities. Atheists, Scientologists, and politicians can improve our cities. Cultural relevance as a goal will encourage us to stop short of the most needed and deepest changes in our lives because because of the desire not to offend those in the culture. When it is the goal, we stay on the surface of change and avoid the heart. But if cultural relevance is a tool we will focus our work on the Gospel that says that we need to be changed from the inside out. We will focus on a ministry in which Jesus transforms lives.
We elevate cultural relevance when our sermons are so practical that they lack a Gospel priority. Of course I'm not saying that practical sermons are bad. I think sermons with practical implications and application are essential. Some are trying so hard to be practical in their preaching that their messages are easily understood, received and applied, but Christ is not made known. I seek to never preach a message that would not be true if Jesus had not died on the cross. Belief in a bloody cross and an empty tomb should be foundational to whatever practical advice we share.
We elevate cultural relevance when our outreach demeans others who preach the Gospel. I've seen the mailers from churches that say things like, "top 10 reasons every other church in this county stinks, but ours is great." They often use words like "relevant," "exciting," "fresh" and "real" to explain their ministries. If we are not careful, we can show confidence in our relevance, not in the Gospel. If the Gospel is at the center of our message and ministry, we will not communicate anything that allows people to devalue other churches that preach the Gospel. We will work with them and pray for them.
We elevate cultural relevance when personal evangelism is an oxymoron at our churches. Relevance as the goal makes our cool worship services the place where people connect and pastors are the only ones who tell people about Jesus. When the Gospel is the point and relevance is a tool, pastors will also equip God's people to take the Gospel with them into their communities. Sure, let's invite the neighbors to our worship services and ministries. But when done alone, it hinders the work of the Gospel.
We elevate cultural relevance when attendance is celebrated more than conversions. In one of our studies we asked a question about the conversion rate in new churches. We found that most churches never ask that question, and even if they ask they often give an inflated answer. One church from the study had done an incredible job planting multiple churches. They had the courage to survey all their people and ask the simple question, "Did you come to faith in Jesus Christ in this church?" The goal was 10% conversion growth in their new churches, but they found it was only 2-3%. Our focus can't simply be on our attendance, but seeing men and women come to faith in Jesus Christ.
We elevate cultural relevance when not offending seekers is often more important than telling the Gospel. God taught us a lot of things in the seeker movement. But it is hard to be perceived as sensitive when you talk about sin and death and the cross, the central elements of the Gospel. I think our focus needs to be "seeker-comprehensible": to communicate the Gospel clearly and understandably even as we communicate a message that is not sensitive or comfortable. Relevance is a tool that helps seekers comprehend the truths of the Gospel.
The good news is that cultural relevance and the Gospel aren't at odds. Relevance is a tool to be used by all churches from the painfully hip to the quietly liturgical, because it is the necessary consequence of doing things God's way. It is a missiological principle that helps us fulfill the goal of getting the Gospel to the greatest amount of people. Whatever community you find yourself in, use relevance with discernment and the Gospel with liberality.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.