“Relevance” Isn’t A Dirty Church Word


THIS IS AN IMPORTANT POST FOR CHURCH LEADERS OF ANY KIND - Senior Pastors, XPs, Students and Children, etc. If you are in church leadership, I suspect you want next year to be your best year. I'd love to help you turn that hope into reality. After all, hope isn't a strategy! POST DETAILS: Too many churches have misused and abused the term "relevant." One thing is for sure: We don't want to be irrelevant! This NEW POST addresses this question: How relevant is YOUR church?  We talk about measuring relevance, and I offer you 5 practical steps you can take to move your church to better engage with your entire community. If you find this helpful, please pass this along to any and every other church leader you know. Merry Christmas! Here's to making things better!!

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As we finish the year, our attention eventually turns to the upcoming year. We’ll make some version of New Year’s resolutions. Or, at a minimum, we’ll consider our hopes and dreams for next year.

I have some personal hopes for next year, too, but I also have hopes for you. If you’re a pastor or part of a church team, I hope this next year sees your church and pastoral leadership become the best it has ever been.

If you’re a leader in a church, this post, and my hope, is for you:

Some reality first: Churches close daily, leaving communities with one less faith community. 

More subtle than closing, churches by the thousands become irrelevant in their communities every day. 

I know. I know… Stop it with the “relevance!” 

The word “relevance” has been thrown around so much. Too much. This word has been used to justify terrible theology. Entire church models were created in the name of relevancy. The “seeker sensitive” movement was a move of relevance.

But the word is not the problem. We know this because no church is striving for irrelevance.

Jesus was relevant and attractive to the broader community. Just look at the enormous crowds that followed him. Yes, before you comment, Jesus called people out for following only to consume. But we can’t and shouldn’t ignore that Jesus was relevant to those who needed him the most. And by the way, lovingly leading people to a better way of life is one of the most “relevant” things we can do! 

Relevance isn’t a dirty church word. If anything, we should all make “irrelevance” the dirty word. The more relevant we are, the better we’ll reach our community, engage people on a faith journey, and create space for God to transform lives. 

I believe that’s why churches exist. 

How relevant is YOUR church? 

And I don’t mean “gut feel.” We can measure relevance.

For a church, relevance means we are connected and concerned with what our community is. Relevant means outsiders see us as a place and a people where hope and help can be found. Relevant means the unchurched in your community see your church as a place that speaks to their issues, offers solutions to their problems, and meets their felt and unfelt needs.

Basically, relevant churches meet people where they are and lovingly help them move to a better place.

We evaluate relevance by measuring the gap between where you are and where your community has moved.

Therefore relevance can be somewhat measured, not with a ruler, but in trends, steps, and stories. 

For example, relevant metrics may include:

  • The percentage of guests attending each week.
  • The percentage of nonbelievers or unchurched attending each week.
  • The percentage of people stepping into faith-curiosity experiences (at North Point, we used Starting Point).
  • The stories of people who felt comfortable engaging before they believed.
  • The percentage of your people inviting their unchurched friends, neighbors, and coworkers.


This is a quick snapshot of options. If your church doesn’t experience guests, unchurch people, and initial steps, there’s clearly a relevance gap. 

The Point: If the non-church people in your community are not present in your church, there’s a strong possibility that your church is irrelevant to your broader community.

How do we become more relevant? 

Perhaps we should start with, “Do you even want to become more relevant?” I’m going to assume you do. 

So how? How do we become more relevant? 

I wish more churches would ask this question! It’s nearly impossible to accomplish the Great Commission and remain irrelevant to our community.

Let’s first consider what a relevant church looks like, then we’ll think about how to get there.

As I travel around the country consulting with churches, coaching pastors, and preaching, I’ve seen plenty of churches. From what I can tell, relevant churches:

  • Are full of people from all faith (or lack of faith) backgrounds.
  • See people progress from consuming to contributing by offering a clear and incremental pathway for discipleship progress.
  • Prioritize faith progress at any pace.
  • Are seeker-comprehensible but not seeker-sensitive.
  • Pay attention to and engage with the surrounding community.
  • Create sermon series and message content that speaks to all people, not just church people.
  • Speak to the entire community in every communication medium, including the church service.
  • Invite and embrace all people, all questions, and all skepticism.
  • Refuse to arrogantly believe their church, pastor, or denomination has cornered the market on theology or interpretation.


Relevant churches design an intentional and strategic plan to continually close the gap between what you currently offer and what your community needs. Remember, relevance is measured in the gap between where you are and where your community is.

Here are 5 steps you can incorporate to close the irrelevant gap: 

Step 1: Find out what your broader community really thinks.

Too often, we ask our church people how they feel about their church. News flash: They like it. That’s why they attend it. It’s like a restaurant asking its raving fans if they love the restaurant. Of course they do!

You need to ask your surrounding community, not just your church community. How? Well, we are around people in our community all the time. What if you paid 20, 30, or 50 unchurched people from your community to attend your church and complete a survey about their experience? Basically, give them a $20 gift card to attend one time and provide you feedback. (FYI: Create a standard form for feedback. You’re not looking for, “It was good.” That’s unhelpful.) You may be surprised how many unchurched people will help when you ask them for their unfiltered feedback without any strings attached.

This information is invaluable! And you can use it to… 

Step 2: Design a church model for everyone in your community.

Too many of us have a church model designed by church people for church people. We need a ministry model designed with everyone in mind. This means we need to build a strategy that follows a holistic discipleship journey.

This was easier to accomplish 15 or 20 years ago. When Christianity was cultural, the “ought to” and “should” drove most people to, at a minimum, associate with a church. Many attended church out of some family or community expectation. There was a general feeling that the church benefited the community. When Christianity was cultural, even the nonbeliever and unchurched people in our community weren’t necessarily opposed to churches or Christians.

Those days are GONE. And you don’t need me to prove it. Today, nonbelievers and the unchurched in your community do not like or trust churches, pastors, or Christianity. They are indifferent to faith and often believe their community would be better off without Christianity.

The implications of this community evolution are massive. For one, our church models must evolve to where our community has arrived. If your church model assumes cultural Christianity, you have an irrelevant church model.

Specifically, we must offer environments and experiences for people all along the faith continuum. We must offer spaces for skeptics to be curious without feeling criticized. We must provide everyone with on-ramps to participation. We must offer incremental engagement steps that are practical, obvious, and helpful for this full spectrum of attendees. And most importantly, we must help outsiders like us and trust us before expecting them to engage with us.

Do you need help remodeling your church model?
The pandemic didn’t kill our church models. Our strategies slowly stopped working as Christianity ceased to be cultural. 
It’s time to evaluate our current approach and consider new, modern options.
Your church and community need a new discipleship approach that is ATTRACTIVE to outsiders and GROWS the faith of insiders. 
Improving your approach doesn’t have to be daunting. The better you understand how each physical and digital church channel is best utilized, the more clarity you’ll have.
When the rate of change in your community exceeds the adaptability of your church, the only outcome is irrelevance.

coming in January, 2023:

Remodeling Your Church Model

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Step 3: Implement your new and more relevant church model.

This can’t go without saying because we have too many strategic plans on shelves. If it only took great intentions, we’d all lead thriving organizations. Great intentions don’t create thriving organizations. Great intention without intentional action doesn’t change your destination.

You must do more than design a better ministry model. You must implement the change.

I’ve been around churches too long to assume this can happen easily. No doubt you’ll face resistance. People like their church just the way it is. After all, they attend it, so what’s wrong with it?

In a way, when we suggest the church needs to change, many congregants hear they need to change. Or, at a minimum, that what they love isn’t good. Or good enough.

There is so much psychology to change, especially in the church. You cannot allow the current insiders to restrain you from reaching the growing number of outsiders. The Gospel has no bounds. The Great Commission doesn’t fill up. Only when every person in your community follows Jesus can we consider our job done.

Put your intentions into action.

Related Post: The Difference Between Change and Transformation

Step 4: Evaluate your language and adjust your assumptions.

Most communities are more biblically illiterate than their preceding generation. And biblical literacy isn’t improving, by the way! We can no longer throw out phrases in our welcome, worship set, offering moment, or even in our messages that assume people know biblical stories and characters.

For example, we can’t say, “The Bible teaches it, so we believe it.” That was true for most people in the 1960s. But not today. But this necessary adjustment is more profound and subtle. We can no longer use phrases like “a burning bush experience” without context. We can’t assume people know that David and Goliath isn’t a sports underdog analogy.

Relegate the quick-hitting biblical references to the spaces where you have time to unpack contextually. I.E., The sermon. Or dump them altogether. 

Step 5: Explain what’s happening.

Suppose we want to create a space that is relevant to all people. In that case, we can’t assume anyone knows or understands our traditions, internal language, or normative behaviors. Imagine being an outsider to faith, showing up at a church, and experiencing:

    1. Adults dunking other adults underwater, 
    2. Taking a mid-service appetizer of bread and a tiny juice cup, 
    3. Standing, then sitting, then perhaps kneeling, and standing again, and finally
    4. Collectively chanting a “benediction.”

Seriously. You’d first feel uncomfortable. Then most certainly not come back.

Nothing against Catholicism in any way, but my first experience with mass was nothing short of off-putting — and I was a Christian pastor! I didn’t know when to sit, kneel, or stand. I didn’t know how to respond. I wasn’t allowed to partake in communion. And I have no idea what the Latin sermon was about. 

Again, at the risk of offending my Catholic friends, how is this engaging or relevant to those who desperately need the saving work of Jesus in their life? 

I’m not suggesting that you remove baptism, communion, or the benediction. I fervently suggest you explain what is happening before and during the process. 

If you baptize someone in your church service, take a moment and explain why we baptize. I don’t mean preaching a baptism sermon, but simply saying, “We believe baptism is a public display of an inward change. Baptism represents Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Today, we are celebrating Sarah placing her faith in Jesus, and we are baptizing her publicly as a statement of her belief.”

That took 15 seconds. And you just explained the weirdness away.

A Quick Summation 

Churches have done some foolish things in the name of “relevance.” I suspect more churches have missed incredible opportunities to reach their larger community in fear of relevance. 

Relevance isn’t anti-Gospel. Remember, Jesus doesn’t ask us to clean ourselves up before we come to him. Quite the opposite, in fact. Jesus reserved his harshest judgment for the self-righteous. To be a relevant church for our entire community, we must take specific and actionable steps to close our irrelevance gap. And, every year, we should check to ensure the gap isn’t growing again.

Related Post:

Why Adding “For Now” Will Keep You Relevant Forever

5 Strategies to Better Reach Your Unchurched Community