Faithful Relevance

The following was presented as a message for an all-city worship gathering at Sioux City, IA on October 24, 2010.


When I was asked to be a part of this conference several months ago, I was very pleased. I think you’ve got a really good thing going here in Sioux City – doing a worship conference primarily with local folks. The value of building relationships and learning from people in other churches and denominations is no small ideal. I would love to do something similar in Sioux Falls.

But when I learned that the theme of the conference was to help churches be more relevant in their worship, I had conflicting feelings. On the one hand, God has put me in a position to witness tremendous changes in the church since I began music and worship ministry back in the 1970’s. Most of those changes have occurred through the church’s pursuit of relevance and resonance with the changing culture. I believe that some of the changes that we’ve made have moved the church forward. The biggest positive that I see is that Evangelicals are now talking about corporate worship over a broad scale. Prior to the late twentieth century, corporate worship wasn’t a primary topic of interest for us. But as I consider where we’ve come, I also believe that our hot pursuit of relevance without reflection has weakened the Church. So I approach this topic of relevance from a critical, but hopefully, redemptive posture.
Relevance isn’t the problem. If we define relevance as “the quality of relating to a matter in hand with pertinence and appropriateness,” then the followers of Jesus should be, of all people, the most relevant (Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness, 12). He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. Relevance is essential to the Mission of God. But seeking relevance for its own sake and without careful reflection is a cultural trap that can endanger the essence of the Gospel. Evangelicals have been all too prone to step into it. Since we’ve jumped on the relevance bandwagon, we need to carefully consider where it might be taking us.


In Exodus 32:1-6, we find the well-known story of the people of God really messing things up by making and worshipping a golden calf. A close reading of it, however, reveals an appropriate warning regarding our pursuit of cultural relevance:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him."

Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt."

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD." 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

Most of us know that story well, but have you ever considered that the people genuinely thought that they were worshipping Yahweh by making and giving homage to the golden calf? Notice in verse five that Aaron declares “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” That’s a specific reference to Yahweh. Realize that these people had not known the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for generations. Their experience with the Exodus out of Egypt and the beginning of their journey through the desert had just begun. They had been surrounded by a culture of idols and they were just doing what they had been conditioned to do in worship. What they did was entirely consistent with their culture. They were…relevant! But they were dead wrong…literally, for about 3,000 of them.

There is a powerful warning for those of us who lead the Church in her worship in this story. We must remember that it is God who prescribes how we worship. We must be clear that our worship honors the God of Scripture and history rather than some other cultural idol of distraction. Christian corporate worship does the Story of God. We must be sure that the Gospel we celebrate in our gatherings is faithful to Scripture and the faith passed down to us by those who have come before us. We like to say that we are faithful to Scripture, but we tend to be dismissive of tradition – of those who have come before us. That’s a problem and I’ll address that in a moment.

But I have another concern regarding our pursuit of relevance. It doesn’t take a university study funded by research grants to tell us that our culture is obsessed with the young. We don’t even need George Barna. It’s all around us. Our advertisements, our music, our cosmetics - good grief – even the development of Viagra is symptomatic of our aversion to old age. And the Church has followed the same path of youthful orientation since the middle of the twentieth Century. Since that time we’ve seen the rise of youth-oriented para-church ministries such as Youth for Christ and Young Life, and in the church, youth ministers. Most obvious, is that the music of the church has changed to accommodate youthful tastes. A former colleague has labeled this the “juvenilization of ministry.” And much of this is a positive development for the Kingdom of God. It is in childhood or adolescence that most people make the life-choice to follow Christ. It is right to give a good deal of attention to our youth, since they will be carrying the Mission forward. But the danger in fully accommodating ministry and the Gospel to a youth-obsessed culture is that our growth and maturity in Christ will be stunted. The church will be like the Corinthians, of which Paul said, “…when I was with you I couldn’t talk to you as I would mature Christians. I had to talk as though you belonged to this world or as though you were infants in the Christian life.” (I Corinthians 3:1) I’m afraid that for the American Evangelical church, that indictment rings all too true. And much of the cause is that we have accommodated all to easily to a youth-oriented culture without carefully reflecting on what we were doing.


Now there is, of course, another side to this equation. We can be an impediment to the Gospel by being irrelevant. I think the biggest example of having blinders to cultural changes was the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Reformation. Martin Luther did not act in a vacuum. The culture was changing radically in the early sixteenth century. The Renaissance was in full bloom and people were beginning to think for themselves. Belief based solely on Church councils and papal declaration which the people were obligated to believe was eventually going to be challenged. Church leaders were obsessed with their political power and mired in moral compromise. They had their head in the sand and missed what God was doing in the hearts and minds of the people. There is no virtue in being irrelevant.

Languishing in irrelevance has typically not been an Evangelical problem. Since the Wesleys, we have always been motivated by the imperative of bringing the Gospel to every person. To fulfill that mission, Evangelicals have always been pragmatic entrepreneurs. And as we have been quick to embrace new measures to move the Gospel forward, so we have been quick to toss aside tradition.

That’s unfortunate. Being rooted in tradition is the best corrective to diluting the Gospel in our persistent pursuit of relevance. But when we jettison tradition (which is in complete alignment with the modern spirit of our age) we are simply being arrogant and ignorant. Do we really think that we have a better understanding of the faith than Augustine, Luther, Wesley, or Isaac Watts? Can we in our relative comfort assert that our ideas of approaching God are superior to those who, in many cases, paid for their convictions through martyrdom? By jettisoning tradition wholesale, we are impoverishing ourselves.

A few years ago, when I was teaching at Huntington University, Mark Noll was the plenary speaker at a symposium on Christ-centered education. For many years, Noll taught Church history at Wheaton College. When he visited with us, he had been recently hired by Notre Dame University. In a seminar with the Huntington Faculty, Noll was asked how it was going since he was an Evangelical Protestant and Notre Dame is a Roman Catholic institution. He replied that Catholics have what Evangelicals need – roots with the historic Church, and Evangelicals have what Catholics need – a vibrant personal faith. I think his response is right where we need to be.

In his wonderful book on worship leadership called Worship Matters, Bob Kauflin writes a complete chapter on the necessity of holding relevance and rootedness in balance. I couldn’t agree more. The rich liturgical forms and hymns that we have inherited from two thousand years of church history would go a long way in helping us keep the Gospel pure and in deepening our faith. Let me give you some examples.

Most Evangelicals don’t recite historic creeds. We say our only creed is the Bible. Well, I grew up with that “creed” and I think that it’s a bit short-sighted. The ancient Church fathers who formulated the creeds did it with a great deal of “blood, sweat, and tears” based completely on scriptural revelation. All of the historic creeds are biblically faithful. If they weren’t, they would have been relegated to the historical trash heap of heresies. What if we took the time to recite an ancient creed like the Apostle’s or Nicene creeds, or maybe even the Te Deum every time we took Communion? For most of us, that would be monthly. I suggest that we would be amazed at the richness we would find in reciting those ancient creeds together.

Another traditional form that Evangelicals are averse to is set prayers. We don’t like other people putting words in our mouth or in our heart. Hmm… Most Evangelicals (aside from some Mennonites) have no problem reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag. I did not grow up with high church liturgical forms and set prayers. But when our work schedules allow Diane and I begin our day with prayer based on a monastic daily service. It ends with this prayer, which we pray together: “Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with your mighty power that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.” It was written hundreds of years ago. It puts words in our mouths. But it is the fire in our hearts that makes it fresh every morning. We don’t need to be afraid of set forms or prayers if our personal relationship with Christ is strong and vital. And isn’t that what it means to be Evangelical in the first place?

Another way to stay rooted is to sing hymns, set to match the musical language of our people. Most hymns were conceived as poetry and then set to a tune. The music, and how we do it, is secondary– as long as it matches the essential mood of the text. It is the words that are enriching. Consider, for example, this seventeenth century hymn from Isaac Watts:

I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath,
And when my voice is lost in death,
Praise shall employ my nobler powers;
My days of praise shall ne’er be past,
While life, and thought, and being last,
Or immortality endures.

Happy the man whose hopes rely
On Israel’s God: He made the sky,
And earth, and seas, with all their train:
His truth for ever stands secure;
He saves th’oppressed, He feeds the poor,
And none shall find His promise vain.

The Lord has eyes to give the blind;
The Lord supports the sinking mind;
He sends the labr’ing conscience peace;
He helps the stranger in distress,
The widow, and the fatherless,
And grants the pris’ner sweet release.

It is said that John Wesley sang that hymn on his death bed.

There are inexhaustible treasures available for those who draw upon the riches of Church tradition.


To be relevant is to be connected to the surrounding culture in an appropriate and meaningful way. The Gospel is relevant to every culture and every age, for it is the Story of the Lord of time and the King of kings. Church leaders throughout time have demonstrated the timelessness of the Gospel and its limitless reach to every culture:

• Paul told the Athenians about their “unknown God” (Acts 17:22-31) and adapted his approach to be “all things to all people that [he] might win some.”

• Martin Luther was a reflection of his changing times and used the new technology of the printing press to spread his message.

• John Wesley’s innovation was street preaching where the common folk were and it was a scandal to the established church. He also strongly appealed to personal experience in an age where the importance of the individual was beginning to emerge.

• And what can we say about those who adapted song styles to carry the Gospel? There is a long line of those who helped to make the Gospel resonate through music of the culture: Martin Luther, the Wesleys, Moody & Sankey and all other revivalists, which leads us to today with modern Praise and Worship.

But all of these giants of the faith balanced relevance to the culture with faithfulness to the Gospel. May I suggest then, that we not pursue relevance for its own sake; that is simply being trendy. That’s a treadmill that will produce no real progress for the Church except disillusionment. Instead, let’s pursue “faithful relevance.” It is a concept that holds the two imperatives of a pure Gospel connecting with significance to the surrounding culture in dynamic tension. “Faithful relevance”:

• Communicates the Gospel without confusion. The Gospel is not distorted or diluted by accommodation to culture. The Gospel transcends culture. French philosopher Simone Weil has said, “To be always relevant, you have to say things that are eternal.” (Guiness, 105)

• Is local rather than franchised. During the 80’s and 90’s Evangelicals franchised their way of doing ministry based on successful mega-church models. Some of that is still occurring. Relevance can’t be franchised. Relevance is always local because localities are always unique.

• Balances tradition with innovation. Tradition is the best corrective to our cultures’ never-ending quest for the new. Traditional forms and substance can be given up-to-date clothing without diluting their essence.

• Seeks to find its place in the greater Story. One of modernism’s biggest flaws is its tendency to jettison the past, glorify the present, and overstate the future. In so doing modernism has no story, but is stuck in a self-centered whirlpool that has no destination. The Christian Story, on the other hand, has a history, a present, and certain future. With “faithful relevance” we will consider our part in the greater narrative and live accordingly.

In the end, we are called to be faithful carriers of the Gospel to the people in our time and community. The Incarnation is the most compelling claim for the cause of “faithful relevance:” “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 NASB) May we truly connect with our culture so that they may see Christ, fully, undiluted, beholding His glory – full of grace and truth.


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