Does your church or ministry have the “right” kind of relevance?
I wasn’t in church leadership when “relevant” became a buzzword. I assume it entered our church leader vocabulary with the invention of the “seeker sensitive” model. I grew up attending church, and I can confidently tell you that relevance and sensitivity were NOT the goals of my childhood church.
Obstinance perhaps. But not relevance.
Not that my church upbringing was all bad. I’m grateful for the faith foundation my parents anchored into my heart at such an early age. It’s paid significant dividends over time and helped me avoid adding excessive baggage to my life journey.
But man, it didn’t feel relevant. And when I left my childhood home, I didn’t feel taking church with me was, well, relevant.
The churches of my youth burned rock music tapes (Yes, tapes – give me a break, I’m 48!). They boycotted nearly everything fun. Heaven forbid you dance. You could drink…yourself straight to hell. I was once threatened with being sent home from a youth group trip for holding hands with a girl. I didn’t have the heart to tell my youth pastor what all the other teens were doing on that trip!
With that as a backdrop, enter the relevant church – a counter to legalism.
Today’s Dirty Church Word
Most new models are reactions to current and perceived antiquated approaches.
The push for relevance took a distinct evangelistic tone. It was a response to what came prior. For the relevant church, what once felt 100% edification became nearly 100% evangelistic.
Fast forward two or three decades, and we now vilify “relevance” in church circles. To be relevant today is to be weak on truth, indistinguishable from culture, and open to anything and everything.
And I get it. I spent most of my professional Christian life working at a “relevant” church. I’ll admit a portion of the external criticism was correct. The relevant church model has faults. As does every church model. As did my childhood church model.
Relevant churches are often deemed “bible-light” and overly gracious (if that’s possible). When I became the lead pastor of Watermarke Church (now called Woodstock City Church), I was told the community referred to us as “Watered-Down Church.” Let me rephrase that. Only churches and Christians from “truth” churches called us that.
Our broader community didn’t. They attended and invited friends in droves. We grew from a few hundred to nearly 5,000 for our Sunday morning services as a portable church in a school. We baptized hundreds of people each year and watched people from almost every faith (and non-faith) background imaginable take faith steps.
Admittedly, we could have been better at deeper discipleship. Again, every model has flaws, especially when the model is a reaction, or over-reaction, to another model.
Moving To An Extreme
Our problem is one of balance, not approach.
Have you noticed how challenging it is for anything to remain in balance? This is partially our issue with relevant churches. I assume every church working to be relevant in their community wanted to grow disciples, too.
But these feel like opposite sides of a pendulum. Our innate human tendency is to swing from one side of the pendulum to the other rather than find a healthy, balanced middle position.
Look around. Extremism is everywhere! Why? Because we struggle with balance.
The relevant churches of the 1990s and 2000s swung too far to one side. They were probably a bit out of balance. The anti-relevant, “missional” churches did the same in the opposite direction, swinging all the way to become mostly evangelistically irrelevant.
Reclaiming The Right Relevance
The right kind of relevance is found on neither pendulum extreme.
Let’s admit that being relevant is essential. If for no other reason, remaining relevant keeps us from becoming irrelevant. The fastest way to not reach our community is to be disconnected from their needs, wants, problems, and issues.
What’s the secret to reclaiming relevance: We start by understanding the difference between being relevant IN your community and relevant TO your community. That’s the dividing line for finding balance.
There’s a massive difference between being relevant IN your community and relevant TO your community.
A church working to be relevant IN its community will appropriate the community’s culture to connect. A church working to be relevant TO its community will sincerely care about the needs, wants, problems, and issues, offering hope as the solution.
At the extreme, relevant churches became more focused on being relevant in the community. They attempted to use the culture to reach culture. Conceptually, this is a good strategy, but as we’ve said, it’s challenging to remain in balance. So the culturally relevant church model swung so far that the goal became relevance, not discipleship or engagement.
But we can’t swing to the other side of the relevance continuum and spread the Gospel, either. The “Good News” can sound terrible when disconnected from relationships and felt needs.
Seeking relevance can become an issue. Ignoring relevance is a much more significant issue, though. What we need is a plan to remain relevant to our community while keeping sight of our comprehensive calling.
Here are 4 relevant strategies to reclaim relevance:
1. Be FOR your community.
My friend and former colleague Jeff Henderson wrote the book on how to do this well. And he did it well at Gwinnett Church for many years. In Jeff’s words, “for too long the church has been known for what it’s against. It’s time to become known for what we are FOR.”
One of the most relevant things you can do as a church is be FOR those whom God is for. This isn’t about incorporating secular music into your service again. It’s about loving and leading in a way that brings hope and healing to those far from God.
If you still need to, get Jeff’s book.
2. Incorporate age- and stage-appropriate programming.
One of the most irrelevant things you can do is force people to endure church programming designed for someone else. Your resources and scale will determine how many categories you can create, but work towards programming unique Sunday experiences for preschoolers, elementary, middle, and high schoolers.
If you can’t do this in full, can I make what may seem like an insane suggestion? Program your church service for kids and students first. Yes. I know that’s nuts. But think about it. When you program for one group, you alienate (or bore to death) all other groups. Which groups are you most willing to bore in your church service? Kids? Students? Or adults who should be perfectly capable of growing spiritually on their own.
If you force kids and students to endure church, they will walk away from the church the minute they can.
3. Teach the Bible to people rather than teaching people the Bible.
This sounds like a cute, tweetable statement, but it’s a critical element of relevancy. I fully believe that knowing how to find a Bible verse is irrelevant if the verse cannot be applied to life. Our goal is biblical application, not information. It’s called Christianity, not Bibleanity.
Teaching people how to apply the Bible, not just how to find passages in the Bible, is one of the most relevant things you can do in your church.
Quick Side Note: I mentioned previously that our church was the target of much Christian ridicule. I often heard the Christian schools in our community complain that the kids from that “watered-down church” couldn’t find a Bible verse if they had to. However, I would also hear the kids from our church lived out Bible verses in these same schools daily.
Information without life application feels, and is, irrelevant.
4. Build a church model of incremental next steps.
Having easy, obvious, and helpful next steps for a person’s faith journey is one of the most relevant things you can do. This means that wherever a person is on their faith journey, we need to design a church model that offers onramps for everyone and moves them forward incrementally and sequentially.
A faith journey is complex, but let’s momentarily picture it as a moving sidewalk. If we put God at the end of the journey, we want to build a sidewalk that allows anyone to step on and begin moving toward God. In our case, movement is created as we inspire and equip people to take their next best sequential step.
If you don’t offer steps for everyone, you’re only relevant for a portion of your community. If your steps are too broad, they become leaps, rendering them irrelevant to many in your church and the wider community. The secret to the sidewalk is creating sequential and incremental steps that people see as possible and profitable.
If this feels overwhelming or unachievable, start here: Grow Church Engagement.
This is our aim. We do not want to fall to either extreme. We want to reach our community and grow disciples by meeting them where they are and inspiring them forward along their faith journey.
If you enjoyed this, you may also want to read “Relevance” Isn’t A Dirty Church Word.
Or, if you don’t feel sure any of these models will work for long, check this out: Why Adding “For Now” Will Keep You Relevant Forever