Relevance has been the pragmatic goal of Christian ministry for way too long. You’ve heard the sentiment: “The church needs to be more relevant to mainstream culture.” “Christians need to show how the Bible is relevant to daily life.” “A postmodern world needs to see that Jesus is relevant.” You would think that the Great Commission was, “Go therefore, and be relevant to all the nations.”
At what point did Jesus become irrelevant?
Truth be known, Christians have been trying to make Jesus relevant for a long time. The next several paragraphs may seem like gross overgeneralizations. These statements are not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of all Christian activity; they are generalizations to show how we got to this point in Christian history. So, here we go!
The 60’s and 70’s were marked by “end of the world” Jesus. America came out of the Korean War, and Vietnam was waiting on the other side. The threat of nuclear war was constantly in the news. America and Russia were locked in an epic battle of good verses evil. More than any other time in history, people saw how quickly the world could end. Nuclear bombs. Warring nations. Fascist dictators. As a country, we were reeling under war protests, free love, recreational drug use, and the demise of the traditional family structure. With so much instability, it wasn’t hard to sell “end of the world” Jesus.
The late 70’s and early 80’s were about “moral majority” Jesus. To counteract the moral decline of a nation, conservative Christians united to become a force in the political discussion. Some prominent pastors spent almost as much time in their church as they did in Washington DC. Just kidding! Maybe. Depending on the church you went to, you would have thought that Jesus was a socially conservative, right wing Republican, who was “proud to be an American.”
The 90’s meandered a bit. The moral majority lost steam or interest (maybe both). Church crowds were dwindling. Denominations were trying to stop the decline by finding their own identity. They didn’t want to be associated with those offensive Christians down the road (whoever they might be), so they tried to carve out their own identity. Rebranding was the thing to do. As culture changed, truth became more relative and less objective. The 90’s saw the rise of “postmodern” Jesus. Everything was about connecting with the postmodern world. Does Jesus resonate with postmodern people? Can you still preach a bloody Gospel and be effective? How can we present Jesus to a postmodern crowd?
The 00’s were about finding common ground to gain an audience for the Gospel. A good way to find common ground is to be passionate about the same things as the people you’re trying to reach. There was a lot of emphasis placed on Jesus as protector and advocate for the poor and marginalized. Much of the mission work shifted from evangelistic crusades and starting churches to digging wells and providing basic medical care. For the record, it’s easier to tell your non-Christian friends that you’re going to Africa to dig wells than say, “We’re going to share the Gospel.” The 00’s were about “common cause” Jesus.
That brings us to our current period. This decade is about “kinder/tolerant” Jesus. As the anti-bullying campaigns swept society, “kinder/tolerant” Jesus is a good fit. He is so tolerant that He never speaks harshly to anyone (except some religious people, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, those annoying vendors in the temple courts, the lady He called a dog, his own disciples, etc., etc.). Ahh…who’s counting? Kinder/tolerant Jesus is expected to never offend anyone. He is expected to champion LGBT causes, fix racial strife, advocate for illegal immigrants, and be the hope of conservative evangelicals. And He is supposed to do all of that without offending anyone!
Do you see the problem?
In our attempts to make Jesus relevant, we have defanged the Lion of Judah. While ringing the relevance bell, we’ve highlighted parts of Christ’s character while downplaying the rest. Is it possible that to gain an immediate audience and minimize uncomfortable conversations we’ve shortchanged Christ and prostituted the Gospel?
We have to stop and ask some basic questions. Are we helping or hurting the cause of Christ? Is the kingdom of God expanding? Is the true message of the Gospel clearly ringing in our churches so that it can be publically proclaimed in our communities? Are Christians living Spirit filled lives marked by the power of God?
When will Christians stop custom crafting Jesus’ image and just say, “Jesus is Lord! He is who He says He is. You may not like Him. You may disagree with Him, but you can’t ignore Him. He is God in human flesh. He came to earth, lived a perfect life, died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin, and rose from the dead that we might have eternal life. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He loves you so much that He died for you. He is so gracious that He will give you what you need even if that’s not what you want. He is so powerful that He can create a universe, calm a storm, and raise the dead with the power of His Word. And yet—He is so honest that he will confront a sinful woman, rebuke a prideful man, and intentionally offend half-hearted followers so that they will know their own heart.”
Does that sound like someone who’s concerned about being relevant?
The world doesn’t need this decade’s slant on Jesus; they need Jesus. And they need all of Him. For that matter, we need all of Him. We need the parts of His character that make us feel safe and loved. We need the parts of His character that make us squirm with discomfort and cause us to pause in reverential awe. We need the water walking, table tossing, truth telling, death defeater to lead us. We need every part of who He is to control every facet of who we are.
We have the greatest message in the world: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But the world will never hear the full truth or recognize the true Savior if we continue to share the parts we like and avoid anything that seems uncomfortable.
Here’s one final thought. There has been an unintended side effect of teaching relevance. While trying to show Christianity’s relevance, we’ve robbed the church of the truths that actually make it relevant. Christianity is not relevant because it applies to daily life; it’s relevant because Jesus is our life.
Stop trying to make Jesus relevant; He’s always relevant. Instead, make Him real. Live daily in intimate fellowship with Christ and allow Him to live fully through you. If that happens, He will be glorified, we will be sanctified, and the world will be satisfied.