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How Relevant Is Too Relevant?

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Unless you’ve been hiding in dead, country churches for the past decades, you’ll know that there is a movement in the Evangelical church to be relevant to the culture around us. Obviously, there is nothing inherently wrong with being able to effectively communicate with the people in our society. Since the days of the apostles, Christians have gone to extraordinary measures to learn about the cultures they are living and preaching in. Missionaries have studied foreign cultures to find ways of sharing the gospel of Christ in a way indigenous people will understand. The book “Peace Child,” for example, shows the brilliant way Don Richardson adapted beliefs held by a native culture in order to preach the Good News to the people. And of course the apostle Paul was known to say “as your own poets have said…” He used what was relevant to the people as a starting place to share the Christian message.

Relevancy, then, is not a bad thing. However, I do believe it can present a sort of “slippery slope” that we must be careful to avoid. Where is the line between relevancy and sinfulness? How relevant is too relevant?

Immediately after the horrible events of September 11, pastors around North American and probably around the world used those events as a starting place for messages of hope and encouragement. They took an event that touched people in a way nothing else in this generation has, and used it to share the Good News that only Christ can offer. That was relevant to what was happening in society and impacted people’s lives. Though September 11 did not result in a long-term influx of people into the churches, it did provide an opportunity for pastors to reach many people at least temporarily. I believe that was relevance at its best.

On the other hand, when the film The Matrix was released, I remember reading several articles about pastors who used images from the movie and details from the plot to portray the gospel. If you have seen the movie you know that there is a strong spiritual theme that runs throughout it – a story of a “messiah” figure who saves people who generally are quite content to be living out death. It sounds great, except the movie was rated R for extreme violence and lots of bad language. Despite this it formed the basis for many sermons preached from pulpits of Christian churches. I believe this example goes beyond relevance and becomes sinful. By condoning such a movie pastors were encouraging people to watch a film that is sinful. You can argue all you want – it is awfully difficult to biblically justify watching such movies.

FoxNews recently published an article discussing several new ministries which seek to help pastors see the relevance in modern film. They find themes in the movies and suggest ways pastors can build sermons around these themes. “As to how the religious movie sites reconcile films’ sex, violence and profanity with good Christian values, those involved in the effort point to the Bible. ‘The Bible is filled with stories that are ugly, violent and rapacious,’ Newman said. ‘There are lots of cautionary tales designed to be lessons.’” This, of course, is a common argument. People will argue that since the Bible has stories about killing, sex and even rape, this gives us license to experience such stories in other media. To this I would say two things. First, God is the author of the Bible and presented information we absolutely needed to know. There isn’t a word of the Bible that we do not need and there is nothing excluded from the Bible that we absolutely do need to know. We cannot justify sinful behavior with this argument. And second, the Holy Spirit went to great lengths to ensure the stories in the Bible were not overly graphic. While we read about the rape of Dinah, we certainly do not read about it in great detail. Furthermore, the Bible contains no graphic visual images to pollute our minds. Reading the article a bit further we read “For one “Collateral” scene Newman cautions: “If you choose to use this whole clip, you must be aware that Vincent uses the word ‘sh_.’”” Wonderful. Now we have swearing in church for the sake of winning unbelievers. While I am sure many unbelievers would be suitably impressed that a church allows swearing from the “pulpit (or silver screen, in this case”) this can hardly be considered godly evangelism.

Perhaps it all comes down to this statement, again from the article: “”They’re out to attract an audience,” said Gabler of church leaders. “Their competition is Hollywood.”” Churches are in competition with other forms of entertainment to fill the pews. When you look at church in those terms, I suppose you do need to show violence, special effects and sex in order to bring people in. The only problem, of course, is that church is not entertainment. Nowhere in Scripture do we find God telling the church to provide entertainment or even to be fun! The purpose of the church is to build the faith of believers while sharing the gospel with unbelievers. It is to equip believers to share the Good News with unbelievers. That Good News is not entertaining. It is dead serious. All eternity depends on that news. We can try dress it up and make it look all pretty, but we do so at the sake of the message.

Is it important for Christians, and pastors in particular, to have an idea of what is happening in the culture around them? I believe it is. I remember several years ago hearing a sermon where a pastor said “even the churches have their own rocks and their own rolls.” Clearly he had no idea even what rock and roll was! But what about having a Bible study in a Hooters restaurant? Again, we’ve gone too far in the other direction.

In order to connect with people around us we need to have some common ground and burying our heads in the sand will not allow us to be relevant. However, when we compromise our beliefs in order to attempt relevance, we go too far. There is never an excuse for sin. Never. While we should make great efforts to reach people with the gospel message, we must never do so at the sake of our beliefs.

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