Unintentionally there seems to have been a blog thread developing. The story goes something like this:
We began with thinking about our culture (here) which entails making difficult decisions (here), and then considering that by not addressing this we contribute to church decline (here). But church leadership also has to deal with difficult congregations (here) who have their own story (here) of trying to live in a secular world and who really struggle to know how to be relevant (here). The problem being, of course, that churches are poor at equipping Christians for living in an ethical wasteland (here).
So what topics do you think our church leaders should be wrestling with, what issues would you like to bring to your leaders and get an intelligent conversation to help you in your thinking - not necessarily an answer, because of course, all decisions are ultimately our own.
Here are a few suggestions of the issues that I, at least, am wrestling with in terms of how to articulate a Christian, biblical, rational, and logical understanding: feel free to suggest your own.
I'll leave the last one as a stand alone bullet because it has so many dimensions:
Living in a city its easy to forget what an ethical wasteland it is. An example (from here):
Popular (and controversial) evangelical pastor Rob Bell appeared on Oprah's Soul Food Sunday this weekend and shared why marriage is so important - for gay and straight people alike.
Said Bell: "One of the oldest aches in the bones of humanity is loneliness....Loneliness is not good for the world. And so whoever you are, gay or straight, it is totally normal, natural and healthy to want someone to go through life with. It's central to our humanity. We want someone to go on the journey with."
When Oprah followed up by asking Bell when Christianity would "get that," he responded: "We're moments away...I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defence, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and co-workers and neighbours and they love each other and just want to go through life with someone."
OK, so apart from the fact that Bell has just said the Bible is irrelevant and not authoritative, what's the problem here? Well, the problem is that, using the name of Jesus Bell is defining a code of ethics that suits his preferences, and making culture the defining measure of ethical authority.
Does that disturb you? How would you respond?
For myself, I frequently encounter three arguments in relation to this hot-button topic:
The answer, I believe, does not lie in direct rebuttal (even though I think these arguments are reasonably easy to rebut). Direct rebuttal usually leads
to confrontation which is a small step away from condemnation. Instead my approach is usually to steer the conversation toward the assumptions. Then we can see if the arguments have strength.
And on that last point, Jesus stands for holiness, perfection, and the intended normality of our originally created nature. Jesus teaches that our created purpose is to be in relationship with a perfect God, the same God who defines the created normality, and its clear that practising gay relationships are not part of God's intended normality.
Lastly, many arguments presume on the inner goodness of man, and deny the fallen nature. Therefore, when an action (e.g. practising gay lifestyles) co-opts a good value (e.g. love), this presumes that because there is love in the action it can't be wrong. This reasoning simply fails all common sense tests.
I do not condemn anyone in the LGBT community. I stand with the LGBT community as an individual who equally has to deal daily with the complexity of being a failed creature, however this is manifest.
In this my focus is to (re-)become the creature I was intended to be, by the grace and the strength I find in Jesus. My focus is not on where I've come from, or where I am, but where I am headed - its my trajectory that’s important, not so much my current position.
If you take exception to that, I suggest (genuinely) talking to God (after all, He's the one who created normality).
What's that actually mean - "Be Relevant"? Churches and Christians are continually being challenged to be relevant.
My question is, "To who, how, where, why, and when"?
I ask because most often churches seem to exist to please the pews and perpetuate the institution. OK, that's being cynical and we can all point to exceptions, but you and I also both know that much of what happens inside the church is disconnected from the real world .
If it is true (and I believe it is) that "The Church is the only organisation that exists for the well-being and fraternity of its non-members" (William Temple), then what does relevance mean?
Even churches (like mine) who are sincerely seeking to serve the community, struggle with irregular and poor attendance, wrestle with how to retain seeking visitors, and don't know how to be sustainable without burning out the leadership.
The problem is, are we at all relevant to the people around us? Relevant is defined as "bearing upon or connected with the matter in hand". The matter at hand, of course, is the well-being of people - and being-well means to be connected to God. So a relevant church must be one whose activities connect people to God. Basically its simply the great commission and all that: Jesus' "came to seek and save the lost", and Paul's "I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some."
Relevance! Huh. Easy to say, hard to be.
Some churches try to do this by turning the message into something that plays to peoples desires, like prosperity teaching or liberation theology. Other churches resort to professional music performances with slick and entertaining sound bites of sermons, or else they promote comforting cotton wool ideas like "Love is all you need". In doing so they twist orthodoxy to accommodate sliding morals out of a fear of scaring anyone away. Still other churches get around the difficult issues by never talking about them.
Jesus was not in a game of telling people what they want to hear just so that they would stick around. Jesus was about teaching people what they needed to hear, and if they walked away, then so be it.
So a relevant church is about uncompromisingly bringing Jesus to bear on the matters at hand in the best way possible.
If we want to be relevant, it comes down to how we phrase a key question. Instead of saying "While keeping our beloved conventions and traditions, how we can become relevant?", ask this question: "What do we need to be(come) so we have relevance, and after that we can ask about which of our traditions and conventions could be used to bring added value?" Its a structural reboot that takes the courage of the total sacrifice of all I hold dear in order to follow God's agenda. What have you got to lose?
Because that's what Jesus did. Jesus didn't look at people through the lens of traditions, when he bothered to look at traditions it was through the lens of people's need. And he was especially scathing about the massive accumulation of human devised rules and patterns of behaviour in the religious culture. So lets put aside all those, put aside convention and tradition for a moment - don't arbitrarily throw it away because some of it has great value - but for the sake of discussion put it aside for now. (But don't put aside biblical orthodoxy - on that we will be uncompromising.)
Now: what does it mean to be relevant in our city-focused and relativistic culture? It means beginning by engaging with where people are, and what the people are occupied with. What are the issues on their minds, and the inner fears they won't easily disclose? Ask yourself, "What are the conversations going on in the pubs, the restaurants, the tea rooms and cafeterias, the work place, the living rooms, and even privately in the bedrooms?"
A case in point: This year's Valentine's days saw the release of "50 shades of grey". This was the biggest box-office opener of all movies in recent years. You can bet that on Monday morning this came up in lots of conversations! If you're the Christian at work, how do you (representing Jesus) join that conversation? Well, at least you can draw on the conversation you had about it at church? You did you have a conversation about it at church, didn't you? Hmmm.
What are all the other conversations? Recreational sex. Global economy. ISIS. Climate Change. Tea party idiocy. Middle East unrest. Nuclear proliferation. China's growth. Fear, loneliness, and suicide. Drugs and addictions. LGBT and sexual identities. Alien in-migration (not extraterrestrials). Racism. Gender inequality. Rape. Unemployment. Crime and security. Homelessness. Poverty. Justice. Corruption. Tax evasion. Politics. Sex (again).
What would Jesus say if he joined these conversations (and for sure he'd be there: in the pubs, in the living rooms, on the sports fields)? Since you and I are Jesus to this world, what would you or I say? That's a first step in relevance - bringing Jesus' perspective into the important conversations that people are having, and that means knowing Jesus' perspective.
So if the conversation, and our message in conversation, is the first part of relevance, what's second? To deliver a message, there needs to be a messenger. In Jesus' time he called all sorts of messengers; fisherman (Peter), tax collectors (Matthew), and the intelligentsia (Paul). Each spoke into the community for which they were equipped, and they spoke in Joy, in compassion, and not in condemnation.
So relevance-part-2 is being a messenger who can connect with the culture of those being reached. In my churches culture that means being equipped to be able to transparently interact with:
1. A lifestyle based on technology and media which hold together a virtual world of relationships. Read this and see if you best fit the questioner or respondent.
2. A world view that holds no absolute authority, where self-pleasure is (the?) priority, and happiness an ultimate goal in life.
3. Attitudes of relative morals; "if it feels good, it probably is good, and who are you to tell me otherwise".
4. Relationships based on gratification and an idealistic objectification of pleasure (steered by the media).
5. An upbringing where ambition and acquisition are glorified, despite the costs.
6. Conversations where lifestyles are not to be questioned so long as no-one is perceived to get hurt.
7. etc., etc.
You know (or should know) your communities conversations. And so the real question of church relevance is this: Will you let Jesus take you down a road where many of your beloved conventions are stripped aside, where courage and compassion is needed to bless rather than judge, where we might need to go into the lives of people we'd rather avoid. It means we'll have to find Jesus' response to hard questions, be willing to become the messenger that speaks in a way that will be listened to in the places where its needed on the topics of importance.
Grace. Now that’s relevant.
Also see the updates at the end
There has been a contribution for an alternate story line, please feel free to submit your own ideas
In the 5 churches where I have been a member since I became a Christian, the one commonality has been the inevitable grumbles that emerge from the congregation. Occasionally its legitimate, most often its casual and unthinking throw-away lines about something that doesn't sit well with a persons preferences, and occasionally it will blow up into a crisis over (perhaps) a real issue of concern.
The Bible says to do everything without grumbling, so when an occasional grumble (from myself included) comes along I usually think "Ok, not a good one, but then none of us are perfect".
What if the leadership grumbled out loud? Well, good leadership won't. But I sometimes wonder, as I sit in church and look around, what might the leadership grumble about if I was able to magically remove their spiritual grumble filter.
Perhaps we might hear things like one of the following, which draw on my experiences of 40 years of church participation (with my apologies for any over-generalizations, and I'm certainly not suggesting that any one of these are pertinent to you, the reader!):