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Thinking Out Loud

Redefining the Church's Relevance - Part 2

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 22, 2016

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (II Timothy 4:3)

Churchs Relevance part 2Since the cultural dominance of mainline Protestant Christianity began to decline (1959, if you were wondering, at the same time that participation in every other voluntary association requiring considerable investment of time and energy in local chapters began to drop off), we have focused more and more attention on gaining and retaining market share by concentrating on the changing interests and desires of various audiences we hope to attract.

Notice, I'm not saying we focused our ministry even on the needs of people. Our concern has been market share. We may mask our intentions by strategically sprinkling in theological terms like “evangelism” and “ministry,” but we know we're still talking about marketing however we may pretend otherwise. This has led us to a most peculiar place in which our freedom to be a people of God, our joy and confidence as a community of faith, has been steadily replaced by fear, anxiety and a compulsion to please every potential audience in the hope that by "becoming all things to all people" we might save ourselves from the indignity of irrelevance.

Thus, Eugene Peterson issued in 1987 his broadside to fellow ministers. (Eugene was then the longtime pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland.) What Eugene had to say, however, shouldn't just be heard as a critique of pastors. Indeed, many of the people who most appreciated his words, and who resisted most courageously the problems he attacks, have been pastors. We should hear his comments as a theological critique of us all.

"American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. ... The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper's concerns - how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money. Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping: religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists. 'A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,' says Martin Thornton, 'but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre'." [Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), pp. 1-2.]


In order to become the place that trains saints and emancipates them from mediocrity, we need to recover an insight Dietrich Bonhoeffer once shared with his students in a class he taught on Christology. “Who” questions have priority over questions of “how.”

What do I mean by this?

In Bonhoeffer's lectures, published in the United States under the title, Christ, the Center, he warns his students not to get caught up in the questions that have bedeviled and distracted theologians for centuries like, "How is it possible for Christ to be both divine and human?" Or "How can God be one and three persons?" Rather, said Bonhoeffer, focus your entire attention on the actual, living, personal encounter with Jesus Christ. When we meet Christ, hearing a sermon or a testimony of someone's experience of grace or reading the Bible or worshiping and praying, inevitably Jesus Christ is asking us the same question he asked his followers long ago, "Who do you say that I am?"

All of the "how" questions are subordinate to getting that question of "who" right.

To whom is the church relevant?
To the changing fads and fancies of our culture? If that is our answer, we will chase after them until we have worn ourselves out with worry, anxiety and self-parody. And we will not be fulfilling our vocation toward the people surrounding us either, but will just be giving them more of the culture of which they are already familiar.

To whom is the church relevant?
To the God who in Jesus Christ calls us to that abundant life which God shares with us through the power of the Holy Spirit?

It could be that the greatest gift the church has to offer people in today's culture runs precisely against the grain of what this culture demands, because the thing this culture demands is spiritually, emotionally and physically killing its people. What I am about to suggest would turn relevance on its ear, but it might just be the key to following the God revealed in Jesus Christ in our time and place.

In a recent article published by New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan shares his insights about what happened to him as a thoroughly connected citizen in the digital world. The teaser for this article says, "An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you too." But this teaser barely scratches the surface of Sullivan's essay, and it may be the most important essay any pastor or church leader reads this year.

Just to give you some background, Andrew Sullivan owned a profitable and extremely trendy company that trafficked in news and information. He and his team collected information from a wide variety of sources and sent it out with witty, pertinent commentary throughout the day.

I'll let him describe what he did:

"For a decade and a half, I'd been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I'd cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I'd spend weeks manically grabbing every scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long." (Andrew Sullivan, "I Used to Be a Human Being," New York Magazine, September 18, 2016. Accessed October 12, 2016. http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-technology-almost-killed-me.html.)


He was the king of relevance, in other words, a master of multitasking. Even when he was sitting alone with his laptop, his brain was full of voices, full of noise, a cacophony of data and ideas and arguments. He was everywhere at once in his mind, and seldom conscious of his actual existence at any particular moment. He was the very embodiment of what many people believe the church must be more like if it is to be relevant to natives of the digital age.

Sullivan, this early adopter of all things digital, writes: "If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out."

What few vacations he took became occasions to sleep. His dreams were versions of his working days. His friendships atrophied and dropped away. Finally, after four successive infections, his doctor warned him that he was literally killing himself. "And so I decided," writes Sullivan, "after fifteen years, to live in reality."

What follows in this fascinating article is the story of Sullivan's journey back to being a human being. He began to live again. He re-developed friendships and found community. His path led through the spiritual practices of mindfulness meditation, learning to live in this world the life we are given without judgment, moment by moment paying attention to that life with gratitude. He discovered that he had been surrounded by noise, distracted by clatter, so that he didn't have to deal with his humanity, with the inevitable regrets, guilt, unresolved grief, the detritus of relationships lost, all that makes up the human soul and consciousness. He began the hard work of knowing himself again, and learning to be attentive to those around him. He gave up relevance for the sake of his humanity and his spiritual/emotional/physical wholeness. As he writes, I can't help but see the image of the return of the prodigal, who "came to himself" dining among the pigs.

Emerging from his brokenness, Sullivan addresses us, the church. He writes:

"If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary." (Sullivan, "I Used to Be a Human Being," New York Magazine).


Sullivan’s appeal to the church deserves to be marked, read and inwardly digested by every leader of the church today.

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