Thursday, October 04, 2007

Being Relevant

Why “New” Just Doesn’t Cut It

“I have always loved this particular hymn [‘Fairest Lord Jesus’], and though written in 1677, its message is still relevant today.”

I balked when I read those words in the booklet of a recently released hymns CD. What is it about our Christian culture that equates “new” with “relevant”? Just listen to the voices in the Christian market. We are obsessed with everything novel, fresh, different, innovative, and original. The ads, the local church promotions, the programs… Last week I heard a Christian radio DJ gush: “Coming up next, a sizzling set of hot new releases so fresh, they will rock your world for Jesus.” *yawn*

The conference Aundrea and I attended last weekend reminded me once again that relevant isn’t always new. Helen Roseveare is 82. Jerry Bridges is 77. John MacArthur is 68. John Piper is 61. In my assessment, the relevance of each speaker’s talk increased in proportion to their age. Perhaps we should suspect that the newer a thing is, the more risk it has of being irrelevant.

Reminds me of a book by Os Guinness I read a couple years ago: Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance. Just three pages into the Introduction, he writes:

After two hundred years of earnest dedication to reinventing the faith and the church and to being more relevant in the world, we are confronted by an embarrassing fact: Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant.

Ouch! Tough words. But if newness isn’t the answer, what is?

Guinness isn’t just a stone-throwing critic. He’s also a man who deeply loves the church and wants to offer remedies, too. He answers the question of how to find relevance with one word: faithfulness.
By our uncritical pursuit of relevance we have actually courted irrelevance; by our breathless chase after relevance without a matching commitment to faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity but our authority and our relevance. Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant.
In context, he is talking specifically about faithfulness to the gospel message. In other words, redefining and recasting the gospel in new and “relevant” ways is not the key. Relevance is not found by emphasizing those elements of the gospel that resonate with the culture and then excluding the rest—for example, making Jesus out to be the missing ingredient to a life of peace, joy, and prosperity and neglecting to mention that He demands repentance and He promises suffering.

It’s hopeless for us to try to sound relevant by singing a little harmony to the world’s same old melody. But that’s exactly what we do when we try to make Jesus the answer to a godless person’s same old idolatrous pursuits. When we reduce the gospel to “Want happiness? Try Jesus,” we’ve basically paraphrased every single product ad on the market. We’ve just swapped Jesus in for cosmetic surgery or a new condo.

How about if we offer them new goals entirely? A whole new paradigm to live from? A paradigm where they live for God rather than self, motivated by His grace rather than by their emptiness or guilt, and pursuing His awesome goals rather than their trivial ones.

Only the real, whole, unedited, unadulterated, unmodified, old school message of the gospel offers people something that relevant.

The gospel is relevant because it tunes people in to a Person bigger than themselves, and everybody longs to get themselves around true greatness. The gospel says, “It’s not all about you. It’s about God.”

It’s relevant because it turns people on to a cause bigger than their own happiness, namely, the unstoppable advance of God’s eternal kingdom on this earth; and everybody longs to live for something truly meaningful. The gospel says, “Forget your pitiful attempts at empire building, and come live for a cause that even hell can’t stop and even eternity won’t erase.”

It’s relevant because it confirms that haunting sense that we are not what we should be—it tells us we are sinful rebels against our Creator King. The gospel says, “Those whispers you hear inside are correct; you are guilty.”

It’s relevant because it assures us that our Creator King freely offers amnesty to all His rebellious subjects who will turn from their sin and flee to Him for mercy. The gospel says, “Full forgiveness, a clean conscience, and peace with your King can be yours… for free.”

And it’s relevant because it explains how the laws of the universe have not been violated by this stunning offer of forgiveness, but instead God’s justice was satisfied in the death of His Son so that His mercy can flow to His blood-bought children. The gospel says, “God’s wrath against you was fully spent, not withheld, but on His Son instead of upon you.”

Is it new? Nope. Been around for several thousand years. It’s just the old, old story that (as Mark Driscoll puts it) people suck, but God saves us from ourselves. And you can’t get much more relevant than that!

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