How to reverse the emerging irrelevancy of the church

Is the church becoming culturally irrelevant?  A new report released this week by Barna suggest the answer is ‘yes’.  One hundred and fifty years ago when a town was built the church would be at the center.  Rather than a place of community gathering, the church today is often viewed by officials as a drain on tax revenues.  At the same time, many members of the community view the church as only concerned about itself.

What happened to the relevancy of the church?

We could point to a declining culture.  We could point to a faithless media.  But I think those are scapegoats.  Honestly, I think we forgot our first love.  The reason so many people have a problem with the church is because they stopped seeing loving people caring for neighbors in need.  For some churches, saving souls became checking boxes to move someone to heaven, rather than being deeply concerned about that person’s present circumstances.  We would never say that.  The vast majority of churches don’t believe that.  But too many many churches have an implicit bias against culture which prevents them from living in the sacrificial service of others.

Why people don’t see the relevancy of the church.

Are we known by our love?  That is how Jesus said we would impact the world (Jn. 13:34-35).  But too often we place politics ahead of people.  One example.  A student came to me this week hurt by his church.  He was sitting with other students when a pastor and a worship leader sat down for coffee.  They began talking about how important it was to build a wall and keep Mexicans out.  As one of the few Mexicans in the church walked past, they quickly added not all Mexicans were bad.  They went on to talk about deportation, illegality and the drain on jobs.

The student is Hispanic and he was hurt.  He went to school with the Mexican man’s family.  He knew his father was in deportation and his uncle was undocumented.   I’m certain as these leaders sat drinking their coffee, they did not realize the hurt they were causing.  But that’s the point.  The world is watching.

This mostly white church sits in a mostly Hispanic community.  Like churches before them, will they grumble about a changing neighborhood?  Will they flee the neighborhood?  Or will they see neighbors made in the image of God and seek to serve the community.

Philip Yancey writes,

“How easily we forget that the Christian church was the first institution in the history of the world to bring together on equal footing Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free.  The earliest Christians broke down barriers.” (Church Why Bother? P. 30).

We should be about destroying dividing walls of hostility, not building them.

What contributes to the lack of church relevancy?

We live in an age of fear, yet we contribute to that fear as we pull ourselves into gated churches protected from the evils of a secular civilization.   Why?  Don’t we know that we are supposed to be salt and light to the world? (Mt. 5:13-16) But we can’t be salt and light if we hide in our churches.   We have made faith so personal, we have forgotten how to be people on mission living out the great commission.  We somehow think if our theology is perfect enough, people will be drawn to Jesus.  But that’s not what Jesus said.

Jesus said, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Mt. 5:16.

Jesus didn’t say your good “theology”.  He said good “deeds”.

What the new Barna Report says about the cultural relevancy of the church.

Only 24% of American’s view Pastors positively according to a report released by Barna this week.  On the plus side – you still beat lawyers.    23% say pastors are “not very” and “not at all” influential in the community.  This is perception.  But perceptions matter.  The good news is we can change that.

The data demonstrates a strong desire to see pastors and the church engaged in society.  Those polled want the church to be relevant in relationships, racial reconciliation and community.   They want to see the love of Christ in action.  Take two minutes to click on the image and view a video by Barna summarizing the findings in a powerful way:

church relevancy

The video concludes with a strong admonition: “Show up and be spurred forward.”  Show up and meet needs in your community.  Don’t just talk about the Kingdom – demonstrate the Kingdom.

Pastor Tim Keller says it well:

“When a city perceives a church as existing strictly and only for itself and its own members, the preaching of that church will not resonate with outsiders.  But if neighbors see church members loving their city through astonishing, sacrificial deeds of compassion, they will be much more open to the church’s message.  Deeds of mercy and justice should be done out of love, not simply as a means to the end of evangelism.  And yet there is no better way for Christians to lay a foundation for evangelism than by doing justice.”  Generous Justice, p. 142.

Reclaiming the relevancy of the church

THE GOSPEL IS ALWAYS RELEVANT.  The only hope of the world is a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.  That relationship should compel loving service toward others.  The world can challenge our words, but the actions of humble servants over the centuries has always made a difference.  If we want to recapture our voice, we must recapture our love.   Love speaks louder than words.

If we want to love our neighbors then we should get to know our neighbors.   That will happen by demonstrating loving concern for their needs.  Do you have immigrant neighbors?  Recognize the fear which exist in their neighborhoods and provide practical safety plans to help.  Don’t know how.  Come to Restore 117 and we’ll provide you with tools.

Do you have neighbors with criminal records?  Why not help them through employment, license, housing and other issues?  Not sure how.  Come to Restore 117.

Do you have neighbor victims of domestic violence or family problems?  Why not provide sound guidance and direction for them.  Restore 117 will help.  Want to engage millennials?  They care about justice.  Start a Justice for All group to engage them in taking action in the community.  Go deeper in understanding the intersection between the gospel and justice.  Better understand the issues of refugees and immigrants.  Get equipped to love your neighbor at Restore 117.

Serving the legal needs of neighbors is not the only way to embody Christ’s love in a community.  But it is powerful.  Seeking justice for neighbors in need is a visible demonstration of the Kingdom.

Love your neighbor.  Show up and be spurred forward.  Together, let’s be relevant.

About Bruce Strom

I am a lawyer, pastor, CEO, and author of Gospel Justice who builds communities of justice minded Christians to free people from legal burdens so they can flourish. I didn’t always care about justice. I was busy as the senior partner of a successful multi-office law practice. But I missed something. God was less concerned about me building my kingdom and more concerned about how I was advancing His kingdom. I left private practice to start Administer Justice to serve the least of these with their legal needs. Over 20 years later, churches, lawyers, and individuals across the country are joining a movement to Administer Justice for those in need.