Not long ago I was asked by a church board to comment on an interesting question. How does the Gospel become contemporary to the current culture without losing its power?
I am tempted to answer this question in simplistic terms. However, this type of answer might be perceived as dismissive and just exasperate the earnest inquirer. These are challenging issues for the church/pastor. They are especially perplexing in the culture in which we live because we live in what Dr. Francis Schaeffer called the post-Christian era. He meant that Christianity is not viewed as relevant by our culture anymore. The world simply thinks that Christianity is old-fashion, worn-out, out-of-touch, indifferent and intolerant to today’s needs.
There was a time when our culture viewed Christianity as germane to the everyday life of most people. That did not mean most people were regenerated, but it did mean that most people viewed the church as a significant institution with a meaningful message and ministry. Those days are long gone. Today, many people simply view the church as out of step with modern life.
The contemporary evangelical church in America has taken the approach of seeking to become more culturally relevant to counter this idea. The church has labored and struggled to make the Gospel message applicable to today by seeking to put the Gospel into modern forms and structures. Music styles, drama, film and discussion groups have been put into place seeking to bridge the cultural gap.
This approach has met with limited success in the evangelical church of today. Despite the use of popular styles and structures to convey the Gospel, people are not flocking to the Lord for salvation. We are not seeing people saved in any greater numbers in our culturally relevant churches of today than we were in our stilted traditional churches of yesterday. In fact, we are seeing fewer people come to Christ even as more may be coming to church.
A little historical perspective does help us when we realize the deadness of the church in England and America before the first Great Awakening. Along came Whitfield and Wesley, who moved beyond the cultural norm of preaching ‘religion’ (inoculating the masses against the true Gospel) within the walls of the established church. Their Gospel preaching worked when it was no longer encrusted with traditions that muffled the true message, AND was infused by the unction of the Holy Spirit. They had the power (the unction) for effective preaching (the function). The Second Awakening, 1820-60 also used some new methods to reach out to people but it was again the core message of the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit through prayer that was the potency of the Gospel. And at the end of the 19th century evangelists used the compelling poetry and music of song writers like Ira Sankey and Fanny Crosby to awaken people to the essential message of the Gospel. And there were those, especially in England and Scotland, who were staunchly against the use of musical instruments such as piano and organ in the church.
In Paul’s ministry there was a question raised about cultural relevancy. Some said that a man had to be circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 20:15). That was cultural. That was Jewish. It was an attempt to accommodate Jewish people and make the Gospel relevant to them through embracing something that was very much a part of their culture. How did the early church respond? The church decided that embracing a matter of Jewish cultural identity was not the best way to reach people with the Gospel. In this case, being enamored by their immediate cultural customs would have meant embracing circumcision. But that would have taken the early church further away from the gracious core of the Gospel message (See the book of Galatians).
Perhaps what is needed far more than relevancy is revival. The True Gospel is relevant in of itself. Charles Spurgeon once quipped when asked how one should protect and defend the Bible, “The same way you would protect a caged lion, let it loose and it will capably defend itself”. Set forth the true Gospel and the embedded power will do the work it was intended to do. After all, it deals with the sin nature which is universal and it provides the only answer there is to the questions every person has about eternity. If you put the Gospel in an old-fashioned tent-meeting with an accordion and out-of-tune piano and “hell-fire and brimstone” preaching, the Gospel is still relevant to the needs of all. Of course, I am NOT advocating that the church do that. The Gospel is no less significant when it is presented in a contemporary music style or when it appears in a contemporary venue. The truth of the Gospel is always relevant, no matter how it is presented.
The church must do what it has always had to do – find ways to be culturally relevant while still remaining firmly connected to Biblical truth. The church/preacher must always approach the Bible text realizing faithful and effective hermeneutics will require the preacher to build bridges spanning several gaps and to move his audience across these bridges to the understanding and application of Bible truth. The gap of language, the gap of time, and the gap of culture must be spanned. This is not always easy to do but it is one of the vital responsibilities of the preacher/pastor. If he does not lead the sheep across these bridges with him he leaves them to wander helplessly in the religious and cultural morass to their peril and his shame before God.
In concluding I quote Dr. Francis Schaeffer in Death in the City: “Our attitude must be that of Jeremiah weeping over Jerusalem, yet in the midst of his tears speaking without mitigating his message of judgment to a people who had had so much yet turned away.” In other words, we must remain firmly anchored to the Gospel truth and be those who speak “without mitigating the message,” yet at the same time weep over those who have turned away. Perhaps more than just new methods we need more tears for the lost. Having ministered almost 30 years in different cultures, countries and continents I can confirm that tears translate from country to country, culture to culture and generation to generation.