Last year I posted this video, “What If Starbucks Marketed Like a Church?”
It made me squirm uncomfortably. How many things does the church – do I – do that unnecessarily alienates people rather than welcomes and enfolds them? This movie clip challenges me to make God and church accessible and relevant.
Unfortunately, the temptation is to become so relevant to the culture that the church’s identity is compromised. Kevin Flatt recently wrote an article in Christian Courier that counters the advice churches explicitly and implicitly receive to accommodate to cultural and/or other pressures lest they die in obscurity. Based on his research into various traditions, he concludes:
Not only does accommodation fail to save churches, it hurries the very decline that it is supposed to prevent. A growing body of sociological and historical research into church membership and commitment over the past 50 years has concluded that the strongest churches are those that are serious about what they believe, maintain clear boundaries [against false teaching], and expect sacrifice from their members. Churches that water down their beliefs and lower their standards lose members. (Flatt’s article appears in the 23 Aug 2010 issue, p. 2)
David F. Wells echoes this in his book The Courage to Be Protestant, arguing that becoming too relevant to the culture may make us irrelevant to God! In an article in The New York Times, this quote from Wells appears:
The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God…
The further irony is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.
I wonder: What are things we do as church in an attempt to be relevant that actually undermines our identity and mission? What things appear irrelevant or unintelligible to people on the outside but are nevertheless simply part of who – and whose – we are? I’ve heard of churches that do away with calling people to confess their sins because talking about sin makes them uncomfortable. Old hymns have been put aside to make way for upbeat contemporary songs, even though many of the hymns are more theologically sound. It’s tempting for preachers to avoid parts of Scripture that may sound politically incorrect.
In some of these ways, we may simply have to choose to appear irrelevant: Confess our sins (and receive the assurance of God’s forgiveness!); choose songs on criteria other than their popularity; preach both the comforting and challenging parts of the Bible. Having said this, however, we cannot create an environment where irrelevance is pursued as a virtue in and of itself (as is parodied in the coffee shop video clip). Irrelevance should not be a goal, though sometimes it may be a result of obedience to God’s Word and Spirit.
I guess it feels a bit like a tightrope for me. I want to make the Gospel appealing – a “pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” But I cannot make it so pleasing, so relevant that people can’t tell the difference between it and everything else with which our culture entices them.
Do you have any thoughts or success stories about balancing on this tightrope?