The temptation to be relevant

June 15, 2015
Dave Blundell
5 min
Church & society
The temptation to be relevant

For the next three chapters, I will be borrowing from Henri Nouwen. His book “In The Name of Jesus,” based on the temptation of Jesus, targets three temptations of the professionally religious. His short book, written more than twenty years ago, is one of the best works I’ve read in my study of leadership, and it deserves to surface again. I will simply do my best to summarize. I have identified other temptations that plague the professionally religious and will highlight those in following chapters.

"Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. For forty days and forty nights, he fasted and became very hungry. During that time the devil came and said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.' But Jesus told him, 'No! The Scriptures say, people do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." - Matthew 4:1-4 (NLT)

Nouwen makes the point that by being tempted to turn rocks into bread, Jesus is being tempted to be relevant. He is challenged by Satan to respond to the perceived need at that moment while ignoring the greater need.

The temptation to be relevant is as alluring now as it was when Jesus was tempted and when Nouwen wrote his book. In fact, being “relevant” seems to have become the mission of the Western church. Out of an appropriate desire to reach people in an increasingly secular culture, we mistakenly believe the way to do this is to become as relevant or as likable as possible. The professionally religious have embraced the premise that our efficacy is attained by relevance. We plan programs as though God needs us to make His message more palatable or current. We present as if He needs our charisma or our creativity. That’s why so much time and money is spent on becoming well-liked by those outside the church–it’s a way of drawing them inside.

This attractional model still grips the methods of the Western church, and it is a huge rut that cripples our growth. The common thoughts in the planning meetings of today’s professionally religious are that it’s our job to build attractive and welcoming buildings, and it’s the people’s job to fill them. It’s the professional’s job to devise well thought of programs and it’s the people’s job to have them well attended. It’s our job put on a good show on Sunday mornings, and it’s the people’s job to invite their neighbor to church. And this is so often presented as the only real plan for the mission and vision of the church. We professionals will put on something relevant and you non-professionals will get bums in seats.

I see absolutely no biblical evidence or precedence for this model of ministry. Show me anywhere in the New Testament where a church cast a vision for a great new building or relevant program to invite unbelievers. Quite the opposite. People in New Testament churches met in homes and then were sent out into the world to engage with the broken, the sick, the lonely, and the needy. If anything, we were attracted to them first, not them to us. Today we’ve defined relevance with things like music, café seating, paint jobs, and coffee bars with the hope that a “cool place” will be enough to excite our people into bringing others. And when non-believers come to a cool place, maybe they will be interested in spiritual things because they will realize that we religious are not so weird. And, although some will be reached that way, it hardly sounds like the movement of power and transformation that the Church is capable of being.

I’m really thankful that God graciously uses so many expressions of outreach. Obviously, many people have come to Christ through all sorts of models. However, I don’t think this is what He had in mind when He sent His disciples into the world to preach the gospel, heal the sick, and perform miracles. I don’t think the idea was to make something so cool that people might then think church (and maybe God) was cool too. I think the idea was to:

“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” - 1 Peter 2:12 (NIV)

Our mission isn’t to be relevant. Our mission is to love God with all we are and love people as we want to be loved. And while I know that being relevant is touted as a means to that end, I think that relevance is more often a quest for likability, popularity, and being seen as successful to the world around us. I don’t know if the current professionally religious have the courage to make the priority changes that would allow people to have the time and money to engage in the lives of non-believers.

Programs have to be run, and buildings have to be paid for, so it would take considerable vision and audacity for leaders to lead by example and meaningfully engage with people outside the church. I’m not talking about a one-time blitz of standing in a parking lot handing out free water. I’m talking about investing your time and treasure in the place where primarily non-believers live...even if it needs to be at the expense of another church program (one that truthfully just exists for those who are already there).

Let’s stop hiding in the building and hoping people will show up so we can pat ourselves on the back and say we did “outreach.” We don’t need churches and organizations trying to get more creative in their efforts to attract more people by being relevant. Remember, we are not supposed to be attracting or drawing people to our church buildings. That was never the goal. We, on the other hand, are supposed to be drawing people to Jesus. They won’t find Jesus in buildings or programs, no matter how relevant. They will find Him powerful in His people if His people are found.

An excerpt from the book Professionally Religious.