Over the last 20 or 30 years, the idea of churches being culturally relevant has dominated Christian culture and has been one of the most important issues in philosophies on evangelism and outreach. As churches seek to communicate the Gospel, they often look to Jesus as having been culturally relevant and base evangelistic programs and practices on this idea.
However, if we were truly following the lead of Jesus, there would not be people like Julia Duin, author of Quitting Church, predicting that, “in 15 years, present trends continuing, the church in America will be half of what it is.”
Could our methods of culturally relevant evangelism actually be missing their mark?
Come vs. Go
It’s odd that most of the conversations on relevant evangelism seem to be focused on church programs and gatherings and that many of our efforts are an attempt to make church into a place that people will come and feel comfortable. But isn’t the whole point of evangelism that the Church gets out of its comfort zone and goes to the people?
This is how Jesus starts the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go …”
This issue reveals the bad ecclesiology—the theology of what church is—that many Christ followers have. We often distort the idea of what a biblical church is. Jesus never wanted us to attract a bunch of non-Christians to some building or meeting. He wanted us to be an attraction outside of the church walls. And He wanted Himself to shine through us where we all work, live, play, shop and do life together.
This issue also reveals misplaced theology of the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5). The way we do evangelism today in many churches, consciously or unconsciously, communicates that sharing the Gospel should be left for the professionals. “You want your friend to know Jesus? Why don’t you bring them to our next outreach where he can hear it straight from our amazing, seminary-trained pastor!”
This isn’t the way Jesus worked. He didn’t set up a tent somewhere and invite everyone to come out for a revival every Friday night. Instead, He went out to where the people were. He sent His disciples out, untrained and confused as they all were, to spread His message. The Church began, not because everyone was invited to an outreach, but because the disciples were out living life together when the Holy Spirit moved through them (Acts 2).
How can churches empower people to evangelize? Instead of holding a Super Bowl party next year at your church, challenge your church to each hold one in their homes and invite friends or co-workers. Don’t have your church throw a big concert or event; instead have members hold a block party for their respective neighborhoods. Or, instead of the annual church spring-cleaning, have your church organize a service day for your community and invite other organizations to join you. These are the lines along which we need to think.
Consumer vs. Disciple
Many Christians have stretched the definition of relevance in the same way that society has stretched the idea of tolerance. In the church, the word “relevant” has become an ideal where non-believers who come to church should be entertained, awed by a facility, enjoy a quality band, love the speaker and be attracted by the allure of a more modern God. We look at the culture around us and do church in a way that people can connect with easily and want to come back to week after week. This is a good thing, right?
The problem with relevance in the manner described above is that, in a sense, it works. People do indeed come.
But why do people come?
And more so, what happens after they have been coming for some time?
After charging His followers to “go,” Jesus’ next command is to “make disciples.” Jesus wants all people everywhere to follow Him so closely that they begin to act, speak and think just like Him, and He wants the Church to model this. Sadly, our current view of relevant evangelism too often falls short of creating disciples of Jesus and instead often fuels a consumerist approach to spirituality that actually borders on idolatry.
When we focus the majority of church time, energy and money on new buildings, cool programs, trendy music styles and quality sermons, the focus shifts from Jesus to continually keeping people happy and entertained.
Instead, changing our terminology from culturally relevant to culturally aware helps us have a better understanding of what relevance really means.
Paul paints a fantastic picture of this in his sermon to the people of Athens (Acts 17:16-34). He did not embrace their culture of idolatry in order to make people comfortable; instead he was aware of it and took time to understand it. By studying the inscriptions on the idols and reading their popular philosophies, he used both of those things to tell the people about Christ and to call them into a different way of life. By being aware of the ideas and stories within a certain culture, it helps us to better communicate the difference of living in the world and living as a disciple of Jesus.
Do vs. Be
After commissioning Christians to “go make disciples,” Jesus tells us two more things: baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, and teach. Looking at the original Greek in this passage, we find something rather thought-provoking about these commands.
According to Strong’s Lexicon, “to baptize,” means to dip repeatedly or to immerse. Also, “name” was understood much deeper than just a title. Instead, it represented everything that a person was about: their character, interests, authority, deeds, wants, desires, etc. Could it be that Jesus is saying to Christians that we are supposed to go and live our lives in such a way that we immerse people everyday in Jesus?
Then, after we are told to baptize, we are told to “teach others to obey everything He commanded us.” Who were the teachers of Jesus’ day? Rabbis. And what was their main method of teaching? They would have people follow them around, watching and listening to everything they did until they learned to do the same things on their own.
Evangelism is not something we are supposed to do; it’s something we are supposed to be. If we ourselves have been immersed into the character and values of Christ, then by simply living our lives, we are immersing others into that same Jesus. It is theologically incorrect to say that evangelism isn’t your thing and that you only do it once a month at the outreach event. It is something we all should do every day.