Is the Church Still Relevant? In a generation when it seems the church is in decline (especially here in the United States), it’s important to ask this question. Have we as a society grown beyond the need for the church? Many Christians today believe they are perfectly able to worship God on their own. They don’t see the need to be in a church. And with the scandals that have plagued churches in recent years, with the advent of online access to Bible studies, sermons, Christian blogs, and other religious information, it’s getting harder and harder to find reasons why the church is still relevant.
It used to be that the church was responsible for 95% or more of all charity work done in a local community. Now the government has largely taken over that role. And with other charity organizations such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and a plethora of Christian thrift stores and charities filling in most of the void left, the church simply doesn’t have much left to do. So other than continuing to preach and teach the word of God, how do we stay relevant in a society that seems to no longer need us?
God says to the church at Ephesus, “I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” Then He tells them to “Remember…repent…and do the first works…or else…” He gives them a warning to return to the first works. And the first work is mentioned in Matthew 28:19-20. The first work isn’t charity; it isn’t doing crafts; it isn’t fellowships or camps or retreats. It’s getting folks saved and discipled. That’s something only the church can do. Charities can’t do that. The government can’t do that. Only we can do that together as a unified body of Christ. Can individual Christians go soul-winning? Certainly. Can individual Christians study the Bible and become better disciples by increasing their level of separation from the world and to God? Absolutely! But there are things that a Christian simply cannot do by himself or herself.
God’s plan was to institute an organization of people who would work together toward a common, shared goal. They would be singular in vision and purpose, but have different callings and abilities with which to achieve that goal. The apostle Paul said, “I press toward the mark of the high calling of God.” God had a calling for Paul’s life, and it involved the church! Paul simply could not fulfill his calling apart from being a part of a body of believers who aided him in fulfilling his task. And as they aided him in fulfilling his task, he aided them in fulfilling their task! It was (and still is) a mutually-beneficial relationship.
Here’s how Paul put it to the church at Ephesus: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the edifying of the body of Christ; Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man…” You as an individual believer cannot be perfected (made complete) without the church. Part of the Great Commission involves going into all the world. You can’t do that as an individual believer. But when you join a group of like-minded people, you can pool your resources and together send people to the far reaches of the globe to fulfill God’s calling. Those apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers can’t do their work and fulfill their calling unless they have somebody in the pews to preach and teach to. Just as you are incomplete without them, they are incomplete without you!
A complaint often heard is, “There’s nothing to do at the church.” It manifests itself in a lack of programs (usually for young people) or in a lack of opportunities to serve. And while the former may be true, especially in smaller churches, the latter is never true, no matter the church size. If you are a believer in Christ, then you have a job to do given to you by God. Your primary job is to take the material given to you by the church (the gospel message of Christ) and give it to others who don’t have that message. And as it is the church’s responsibility to baptize new converts (the first reports of conversions taking place in Acts also mention that they were “added to the church”), your responsibility is to get those new converts to the church so they can be baptized and discipled by the church. Does your local assembly have materials that you could get either for free or for a price that you could give out to others?
As you begin to see the need of others for salvation and discipleship, and as you begin to work to add new believers to the church roles, your own relationship with Christ will grow. You will find things in your life that hinder you from reaching the goals God has set before you, and you will begin to weed them out. That’s the process Jesus talks about in John chapter 15, vs. 1-8. And as you rid yourself of those things that hinder you from being a more effective witness, God will begin to increase your ministry and effectiveness for Himself.
He will begin to open new doors for you. He will call you to higher levels of service, such as one of the things mentioned in the list above. But it all starts with attaching yourself to a local body of believers and then giving the gospel to those around you so you can get them into church as well. After all, where do you think teachers and pastors and evangelists and prophets come from? Hint: they don’t just fall from the sky. And while everyone is not meant to hold one of those roles in the church, everyone is meant to participate on some level.
Does that mean we should stop doing everything else and just focus on witnessing? Not necessarily, but we certainly need to make witnessing and discipling our focal points. For example, I recently visited a church that was putting out a “pumpkin patch” on the church property. While the main focus is getting the gospel to every creature, one method of doing that at the moment (it is October, after all) is by selling pumpkins. Every person who comes to buy a pumpkin also gets a gospel tract. Not only are they fulfilling the Great Commission, they are also doing it in a way that attracts people to the church. So having things like a basketball camp or a men’s retreat might be good things. But they should be done such that the focus stays squarely centered on making and discipling new converts.
Be upfront about it. Don’t hide from or be awkward about trying to share the gospel. That’s our job. That’s our one thing God gave us to do. If it was important enough for Him to give His life for it, it’s important enough for us to be bold and unapologetic about it. I used to deliver pizza when I was younger. At some point, God began to convict me that I should offer people a tract when I gave them a pizza. I didn’t sneak it into the box or fold it into their change. I made it a separate transaction. “Here’s your pizza. Oh, by the way, can I offer you a gospel tract?” And while some would turn it down, most accepted it. I never got mocked or spat on or anything that many Christians are afraid of. Even if people don’t respect your message enough to take it, very few will disrespect you personally for trying to share it.
And while some would turn it down, most accepted it. I never got mocked or spat on or anything that many Christians are afraid of. Even if people don’t respect your message enough to take it, very few will disrespect you personally for trying to share it.
Many churches try to mimic the world. We mimic their music (if you like this secular band, you’ll really like this Christian band!), their styles, and their language. Many churches have traded their King James Bibles for modern versions because the modern versions reflect how people really talk. We play modern music because that’s what people like to hear. The pastor doesn’t dress differently from anyone else because he doesn’t want to appear intimidating. But in our attempts to mimic the culture, we have made ourselves culturally irrelevant. If we aren’t any different from the culture around us, why would people care to hear anything we have to say? This is the same thing that plagued the nation of Israel. They became culturally irrelevant by mirroring the cultures around them, and God cast them out! When we leave off doing our first works and being a peculiar people, when we cease to “come out from among them and be…separate”, God says He will remove our candlestick!
But in our attempts to mimic the culture, we have made ourselves culturally irrelevant. If we aren’t any different from the culture around us, why would people care to hear anything we have to say? This is the same thing that plagued the nation of Israel. They became culturally irrelevant by mirroring the cultures around them, and God cast them out! When we leave off doing our first works and being a peculiar people, when we cease to “come out from among them and be…separate”, God says He will remove our candlestick!
To be culturally relevant, the church must be able to offer something no one else is offering in a way that no one else if doing it. When you think of Pepsi or Nabisco or Ragu, you think of iconic brands that offer something unique to their customers. They have a unique product in a unique package that is marketed to a unique group of people. And that’s how they stay relevant. They don’t look at something successful and try to imitate the product; they look at something successful and ask, “How can we make our product sell on the same level?”
If Ragu started making cookies that looked, felt, and tasted like Nabisco cookies, would anyone buy them? Probably not. Why? Because we already have Nabisco cookies. If your church looks, feels, and sounds like the world, why would anyone take the time to hear you? Why not simply turn on the television at home and hear something similar there?
People turned out by the thousands in some cases to hear Christ, not because He was just like everybody else, but because He was totally different from everyone else! Nobody was saying what He said, the way He was saying it. And the fact that He was different (He spoke as one with authority, and not as the scribes) made people curious enough to hear what He had to say.
If people go away from your sermons back to normalcy, have you really done your job? If no one pays attention to your words for more than five minutes after you get done talking, have you really said anything worthwhile?
When the woman at the well left Jesus, she went into the town and began telling people what He said. Because He was real with her, He was relevant to her, and by extension to her town. And people came to trust Jesus as the Messiah because they wanted to hear Him for themselves. When Paul stood up to speak at a synagogue, a lot of people decided to listen. And when they left that day, they talked about him to their friends, neighbors, and relatives. We know this because the following week, the whole town came to hear him speak. Why? Because he had told them something of eternal importance. If you aren’t giving people something of inestimable value, why should they bother to listen? What do they have to talk about with their friends and family?
Paul said, “I am become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some”. Paul was willing to use modern methods to preach the same message. Our message should always be consistent. Our focus should always be on the gospel of Jesus Christ because that is what wins souls and changes lives. But we should constantly be on the lookout for whatever method we can use to share that message. That doesn’t mean changing our values (our music, our standards and convictions, or our Bible version), but it does mean we can do things differently.
Don’t be afraid, for example, to use digital media. I’m sure when electricity first came out, there were many who preached against having a sound system. When radio first came out, there were probably preachers who railed against radio to preach the gospel. The same thing surely happened when television first appeared on the scene. And now that the internet is out, there are those preaching against digital media as a viable method to witness for Christ.
Likewise, we tend to stick to methods we know have a proven track record for spreading the gospel. We go out and witness to people rather than inviting them onto our property with something they can find useful.
Is there something inherently wrong with having a church car wash? When people come to have their car washed, witness to them while they wait. Where else can they go?
Invite people to bring in their unwanted items and have a church rummage sale open to the public. When people hand over their money for an item, hand them a gospel tract. You do them a double service: they get a wanted item at a low cost, and they get the gospel! And every time they see that item your church sold them, they will think of you. There are lots of things even small churches can do to extend their reach and influence without compromising their values.
A relevant church is a church that looks for new ways to preach the same message. It is a relevant church that gives people opportunities and material to spread the gospel. A relevant church invites and welcomes new people and then quickly equips them to win others. And it is a relevant church that uses every method at its disposal to show people they care.