Stetzer identifies several things that happen when cultural relevance is not kept in its proper place.
We elevate cultural relevance when we focus on personal or social transformation and not Gospel transformation. The Gospel message is not about trying harder to be a good person. Atheists, Mormons, and Oprah can help you be good. The gospel message is not about cleaning up our cities. Atheists, Scientologists, and politicians can improve our cities. Cultural relevance as a goal will encourage us to stop short of the most needed and deepest changes in our lives because because of the desire not to offend those in the culture. When it is the goal, we stay on the surface of change and avoid the heart. But if cultural relevance is a tool we will focus our work on the Gospel that says that we need to be changed from the inside out. We will focus on a ministry in which Jesus transforms lives.
We elevate cultural relevance when our sermons are so practical that they lack a Gospel priority. Of course I'm not saying that practical sermons are bad. I think sermons with practical implications and application are essential. Some are trying so hard to be practical in their preaching that their messages are easily understood, received and applied, but Christ is not made known. I seek to never preach a message that would not be true if Jesus had not died on the cross. Belief in a bloody cross and an empty tomb should be foundational to whatever practical advice we share.
We elevate cultural relevance when our outreach demeans others who preach the Gospel. I've seen the mailers from churches that say things like, "top 10 reasons every other church in this county stinks, but ours is great." They often use words like "relevant," "exciting," "fresh" and "real" to explain their ministries. If we are not careful, we can show confidence in our relevance, not in the Gospel. If the Gospel is at the center of our message and ministry, we will not communicate anything that allows people to devalue other churches that preach the Gospel. We will work with them and pray for them.
We elevate cultural relevance when personal evangelism is an oxymoron at our churches. Relevance as the goal makes our cool worship services the place where people connect and pastors are the only ones who tell people about Jesus. When the Gospel is the point and relevance is a tool, pastors will also equip God's people to take the Gospel with them into their communities. Sure, let's invite the neighbors to our worship services and ministries. But when done alone, it hinders the work of the Gospel.
We elevate cultural relevance when attendance is celebrated more than conversions. In one of our studies we asked a question about the conversion rate in new churches. We found that most churches never ask that question, and even if they ask they often give an inflated answer. One church from the study had done an incredible job planting multiple churches. They had the courage to survey all their people and ask the simple question, "Did you come to faith in Jesus Christ in this church?" The goal was 10% conversion growth in their new churches, but they found it was only 2-3%. Our focus can't simply be on our attendance, but seeing men and women come to faith in Jesus Christ.
We elevate cultural relevance when not offending seekers is often more important than telling the Gospel. God taught us a lot of things in the seeker movement. But it is hard to be perceived as sensitive when you talk about sin and death and the cross, the central elements of the Gospel. I think our focus needs to be "seeker-comprehensible": to communicate the Gospel clearly and understandably even as we communicate a message that is not sensitive or comfortable. Relevance is a tool that helps seekers comprehend the truths of the Gospel.
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