The search for relevance

Making the Gospel relevant is a favourite phrase in church circles. But perhaps it’s an unhelpful expression.

The Gospel is always relevant.

The Gospel is the truth that God wants us to know; it’s the real red pill, Truman’s epiphany, Millie kissing Guy. As God’s self-revelation, it’s impossible for the Gospel to be irrelevant.

But while we cannot make the Gospel more relevant, we can stop concealing or obscuring its relevance. Or put positively (thanks to the ever optimistic Grant Maclaughlan), we can strive to effectively reveal the Gospel’s relevance.

‘Making the Gospel relevant’ is therefore better reframed as a request for improved communication from the Church. It asks the Church to speak effectively within our context. The question is not the relevance of the Gospel but rather, how relevant is the church’s announcement of the Gospel?

One way to ensure the irrelevance of the church’s message is to miss out the Gospel altogether.

Sometimes the church focusses on practical responses to the symptoms of brokenness in the world world e.g. poverty, relational disintegration, violence and environmental degradation. But we can fail to remember the ultimate God given solution to these issues: the Gospel! Of course, the Gospel demands action. But action must be grounded in a reliance upon the self-giving of God, otherwise it’s simply an expression of ourself. And if the core message of the church becomes ‘us’ instead of ‘him’ then hope is lost and the church is irrelevant.

Another way that the church obscures the Gospel is in perceived hypocrisy. This is a constant threat for Christians, because we regularly fail to achieve the standards that we profess. And such failure can undermine our message. However, the Gospel is not about our present perfection, it’s about God’s presence, goodness and forgiveness for sinful people. The real hypocrisy is not found in our frequent failures but in our pretence of superiority or a lack of forgiveness towards others.

Humility is therefore a key characteristic for those who would announce the Gospel.

But humility can be confused with uncertainty. And uncertainty is not a virtue, it’s another path to irrelevance.

Probably every Christian doubts. But in recent years, it seems like doubt has come to be considered a sign of mature faith. I am grateful for Holy Spirit’s work in rounding the rough edges of immature belief and strident evangelism. I am grateful for the loving discipline of God which by the Scriptural scalpel has both wounded and healed. But my doubts are my own and they are neither virtuous or noble. Doubt is a fact of spiritual life, but it is not commended by Scripture. Instead we are encouraged to be ‘sure of what we hope for and certain of what we cannot see.’

The Gospel is not well served by our doubts and uncertainties but by our humble reliance on a God that is faithful and trustworthy even when our grasp of him is weak.

And finally, the church does not become more relevant by becoming indistinguishable from the surrounding culture. This is often stressed but it’s also difficult to untangle.

Because we are called to communicate well in our context. That means understanding and speaking the same language as our neighbours. And that requires a degree of assimilation and inculturation. But as we embody the speech and concepts of the world around us we risk becoming less distinct and less relevant. The challenge for the church is to live according to the values and expectations of God’s Kingdom but to share the Gospel in a way which is both challenging and accessible to our context.

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