By Jim Tune
Relevance is a good thing. Relevance is about trying to communicate the gospel in an understandable way to a particular culture. It’s absolutely essential if we are going to reach people who don’t know Jesus.
But relevance has its limits. In his new book Disappearing Church, Mark Sayers describes three cultures. The first is pre-Christian. The second is a culture that’s shaped by Judeo-Christian values. The third is post-Christian. To communicate the gospel to the first culture (pre-Christian), we need to find relevant ways to speak the gospel. The same also applies when we speak into the second culture, which still holds to parts of a biblical worldview. The problem? We are increasingly facing a third culture that is hostile to Christian faith.
In other words, relevance works when the problem is one of comprehension. When the problem is open hostility, we’ve reached the limits of relevance. A different approach is needed.
I’m excited about the culture in which we live. I love that most people don’t pretend to be Christian anymore. Many people haven’t heard the gospel, and there’s nothing like seeing people get it for the first time. You will never hear me wishing to go back 50 years to nominal Christianity. Today is a great time in which to live and serve.
But we need to face the facts. The world will not believe the gospel just because we think of more relevant ways to communicate it, or because we run bigger and better programs. We still need to pursue the right kind of relevance, because I want people to understand what the Bible says. But we shouldn’t be surprised when relevance reaches its limits.
I’m convinced we need to go deeper. We need to accept that we won’t always win culture’s approval. We need to become comfortable with beliefs that seem out of step with the way most people think. We need to go deep into the gospel and develop deep root systems, so we get our identity from God rather than cultural approval. And then we need to show, through our lives and churches, that the gospel is true. As Peter said, “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).
I’m still pursuing relevance. I want to speak as clearly and understandably as I can. But I also realize that, increasingly, our problem isn’t relevance, but a culture that rejects what the gospel has to offer. Let’s develop deep gospel roots that will help us survive and thrive when we reach the limits of relevance.