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Thinking Out Loud

Redefining the Church's Relevance - Part 1

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 15, 2016

Church's Relevance P 1"Paul, an apostle -- sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead -- and the brothers with me,

“To the churches of Galatia:

"Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel -- which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned.

"Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ."
  (Galatians 1:1-10)

One of the questions I hear most often these days is this one: "How can we make the church more relevant?" It is a question that comes up a lot. And I think it deserves careful thought. In fact, I've been thinking for some weeks about this, and how I might respond that would be helpful. A few days ago, I realized that to begin to respond to this question, we need to explore some more basic questions. And to do that, we have to do some theological thinking.

I don't know where you are on this, but theological thinking is not always welcome in today's church.

Several years ago, I was a speaker in a conference honoring John Calvin. After one of the speakers had finished her address, the man sitting next to me (someone I know well and like a great deal) whispered to his wife, "That was too theological!"

Now, you might be thinking what I thought at that moment. If you come to a conference on John Calvin you should expect it to be theological from soup to nuts. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was simply resisting a particular kind of language that has become strange in even some of the best corners of the church, so strange that we sometimes get embarrassed when that language is used. It's sort of like the fellow who wrote me in response to a blog a few years ago complaining that my use of the two classical terms differentiating the kinds of spirituality in the history of the Christian church (apophatic and kataphatic) was a sign of what's wrong with the Presbyterian Church today. (I'm going to confess to you that I really don't think vocabulary is the issue that keeps most people from coming to church.)

If I might try to demystify the word “theology,” however, I would say that theology is a disciplined, constructive and analytical thinking about our faith in God and the God in whom we place our faith. And when we turn our theological (disciplined, constructive, analytical) thinking to the question of the church's relevance, we find some really helpful lessons ready and waiting for application. These lessons date all the way back to the early church and the writing of the New Testament, but were refined and clarified by one of the greatest theologians of all time, St. Thomas Aquinas.

To cut to the chase, Aquinas taught that the most reliable way to make statements about God is by speaking analogically, describing that which is beyond human comprehension (God) by speaking of everyday things. This is what we do when we speak of God as Father and Son.

Here's the trick - and this is the point that will help us think theologically about relevance.

The primary reference point in a meaningful and reliable theological analogy isn't with the everyday thing. When, for example, we speak of God the Father or God the Son, we aren't saying that the human males we know who are fathers and sons define what God is. The primary reference point for the analogy is the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. Through the incarnation (birth, life, death and resurrection) of Jesus Christ, we discover what it means to say that God is Father and God is Son. In other words, we don't take a human father or a human son, multiply his characteristics by infinity, try to sift out the sin and frailty, and think we've come up with God the Father or God the Son. Instead, by faith and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we reflect on what Jesus Christ reveals to us about the character of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Another way to say this is the way the great sixteenth-century church reformer Martin Luther said it. If you want to know what God is like, run to the stable in Bethlehem, or stand at the foot of the cross. That's where we discover what “Fatherhood” and “Sonship” mean.

So, here's where the lesson of analogy helps us understand relevance. What's the primary point of reference in the question of the church's relevance? To what or to whom are we, as a people of God, called to be relevant?

One of my favorite television shows is "Yes, Minister" and its sequel "Yes, Prime Minister." It is an example of brilliantly written British humor from the BBC. In one episode, the prime minister is asked to present the name of a new bishop to the queen. He's not exactly a churchgoer, so he has to get a primer on the Church of England from the permanent secretary to the cabinet, Sir Humphrey.

Sir Humphrey explains to the prime minister that relevance has become the dominant issue for many leading clergy in the Church of England. The Prime Minister is confused. He asks, "Relevance? To God?" "No," says Sir Humphrey, "in sociological terms." To illustrate, he describes a recently built church that had, in its attempt to meet the interests of its community, built a gymnasium and a variety of places for all sorts of activities but somehow forgot to build a sanctuary where worship might take place.

Here's where the church's anxiety and insecurity can prove so disastrous in our very "me-centered" and "self-obsessed" culture: many people assume that the primary point of reference when it comes to relevance is the culture with its changing tastes, its fickle likes and dislikes, its sometimes trivial and superficial interests, and its often self-destructive desires and obsessions. Relevance of this sort has a very short shelf life. What appears most desirable today is obsolete tomorrow. What seems to be a meaningful trend fades into a fad in the twinkling of an eye. And the church which makes its surrounding culture its primary reference point for relevance must either spin like a hamster on its wheel perpetually chasing "the next big thing" or risk falling out of favor with the coolest people who will remind them that if they don't keep up, they'll become foolishly irrelevant. Unfortunately, of course, it is possible to stay up with the fad of the moment and still look silly.

Our primary point of reference as church is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We are called (and I know this is going to sound weird) to be relevant to God. It is sort of like the conundrum of service. If a pastor wants to serve her people well, her first thought is not about pleasing the people, but pleasing God. If we hope to have anything of value to say and do for the people around us, we cannot focus on making ourselves relevant to them.

I'm going to say something fairly categorical now, and I hope I'm not out of line. But I think one reason many churches have become so anxious is that they have become utterly preoccupied with trying to become appealing to the ever-shifting tastes of popular culture, often wringing their hands that they just don't seem to be attracting massive audiences. Meanwhile, they may have forgotten that their mission is the mission of God. We are in real danger of trivializing ourselves into extinction in a relentless quest to be cool, or cute, or attractive to the lowest common denominator. Meanwhile, we forget that our freedom to be a people of God, our joy and our confidence are not grounded in how successful we are in pleasing our culture or chasing after its every whim. Our freedom to be a people of God, our joy and our confidence rest in the good news of Jesus Christ, the power of his grace, forgiveness, mercy, goodness, justice and love.

Christians have, as the old hymn says, "A Story to Tell to the Nations." That story isn't reducible to a bumper sticker. Despite the fact that it is the good news of the gospel, it will not be heard and accepted as good news by everyone who hears it. For some, it will sound like bad news, especially if they just can't let go of hatred or vengeance, self-righteousness or self-loathing. Nor will the gospel attract everyone, especially if we preach it intelligently and thoughtfully. We need to get over this. We need to be faithful to God's calling of us to follow Jesus and leave the ultimate results and the future of God's church in God's hands.

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