Churches today are making great strides toward reaching out to our contemporary culture and speaking to those within it. As a result, a new lexicon of redefined terms such as “living,” “practical,” “authentic,” and “relevant” have invaded our ministries.
Throughout my time as a teacher for adult and college ministries I have spoken and held leadership positions at various churches, both large and small, and without fail, I consistently encounter people who suggest that what is being taught in either the classroom or to the congregation is not “relevant” to their daily life. This line of thinking dismisses many scriptural subjects, including the Trinity, original sin, and the human and divine natures of Christ, that early church fathers ardently fought to preserve. Church “audiences” today desire a message that is less about God and more about human living and obtaining personal goals. More and more, Sunday morning messages focus on “how to manage your finances,” “how to be a better parent,” “how to evangelize,” and “how to apply apologetics to your co-workers”. These are the topics that congregations define as relevant today.
Having identified the issue, we must first tackle how we as the church define relevance. If one defines relevance as “the ability to apply a particular message or sermon, either immediately or in the foreseeable future, to a specific goal or task at hand,” then in and of itself there is no contradiction to classic evangelical theology. We must recognize, however, that the fulcrum of the debate hinges on the specific goal or task in question. If the goal is to know and understand principles that God has revealed in Scripture and desires for His children to know, then relevance in this case conforms to classical evangelical thought. If in contrast the immediate application is less about God and more about helping oneself reach one’s own personal goals, then that definition of relevance has become nothing more than a thinly veiled synonym for humanism, even if God is a part of those goals.
Sadly, many of today’s church lectures are being pervertedby a system of humanism that holds man as the central focus and God as a means of raising man up. Not only has the church at large accepted humanism as the gospel, but millions of people worldwide are disciples of this same type of self-help mindset so commonly practiced by secular authors and talk show hosts in our culture. Redemptive history has become the story of man regaining what he has lost, rather than a Holy God saving lost sinners through grace. The Bible has solely become a fix-it manual for our problems giving us the answers we need to reach our goals of self-fulfillment. We have become the focus, and Christ has become a means by which we satisfy our ambitions. But, a Christian self-help message is nothing more than that: a message about the self. We substitute Christian language so that we are free to declare that “we are good enough, smart enough, and doggone-it, Jesus loves us.” Why is this so attractive? It is appealing because it is a message that satisfies one of our deepest sinful longings: self-glorification.
Church leaders must diligently protect and declare that the central focus of Scripture is not on us. Scripture is a message of God progressively revealing Himself and His plan of redemption for His creation, so that we might know Him as He has sought to be known, and to respond accordingly. Many times, the appropriate application of the knowledge of God is just that: to know Him more, and therefore to worship Him more fully for who He is and what He has done. Our culture will always raise up something in place of God. May we endeavor not to do the same in our churches.
—Rusty Kelley, Jr.
Rusty Kelley, Jr., attended Westminster Theological Seminary in Dallas, TX and holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business. He is currently an investment banker in Houston, TX and writes for Common Grounds Online.