Central to the mission of the Church is offering a compelling witness to the life-saving and life-transforming power of the gospel message. In other words, we are called to show the world around us that the message of Jesus is relevant, both in this life and in the next. Nevertheless, being “relevant” doesn’t always entail what we think it does.
Here are five marks of truly relevant churches.
1. Relevant Churches Don’t Mistake Style for Substance.
Too often, church leaders think that if they update the decor of their worship spaces, dispense with archaic language, and style themselves in a way that is trendy and cool, they have become sufficiently “relevant.” While these updates can be an important part of the church’s vision to become relevant to the lives of people in the community, they ought not to constitute the entirety of that vision, or even the most prevalent place within it. The nonbelievers in our community will not be convinced of the relevance of the Christian message by virtue of the fact that our worship services open with “a secular song” or our sermon seriescleverly model themselves after the titles of the latest movies and television shows. Skinny jeans (which, fun fact, aren’t even cool anymore) never won anybody to Jesus. Instead, nonbelievers are drawn to the message of Jesus by experiencing the power of his Spirit to transform the lives of the people who encounter him—regardless of the cut of jeans the pastor wears or whether the worship team utilizes a fog machine.
2. Relevant Churches Are a Present Force in Their Community.
For many nonbelievers, the most pressing question about the Christian faith actually isn’t, “Is it true?” Rather, they question whether it is good. For those who follow Jesus, we know that it is both. Nevertheless, the way that many people become convinced of the truth of our message is by seeing its goodness. In other words, people have to want the gospel to be true before they can believe that it is. This is where truly relevant churches thrive. The relevance of the gospel message is demonstrated not only in the way that believers faithfully speak of its truth but also in the way that they live that truth out in practical ways. Certainly, this involves a commitment to personal piety. But it also means working for the good of our communities. Relevant churches are the churches that tend to the tangible needs of their community, caring for the “least of these” and working for the common good.
3. Relevant Churches Don’t Answer Questions No One Is Asking.
Believers know that the truth offered to us in the Bible is eminently relevant. It touches every part of our lives, showing us how to become everything that God created us to be. However, we don’t always do a good job of demonstrating its relevance in the way that we speak about it or teach it. Despite how fascinating Bible nerds may find it, I don’t know any nonbelievers who are dying to listen to a 10 minute exposition of a map showing the geographic borders of the kingdom of Israel in the ninth century BC. Relevant churches take care not to spend their time answering questions that nobody in the community is asking. Instead, they speak to the timely issues of our day with the timeless truths of Scripture, showing how God cares about the things that matter to us most and provides the best path forward in everything that we do.
4. Relevant Churches Care About Depth of Connection More Than Breadth of Reach.
When pastors and church leaders meet with each other at conferences and other cooperative events, some of the most common questions they ask each other are related to numbers.
What’s your average weekly attendance?
How many weekend services do you offer?
How many staff members do you have?
What is your annual budget?
These questions aren’t unimportant. Attendance numbers, building capacities, staff sizes, and budgetary constraints are all considerations when evaluating the best strategies for the unique contexts of our churches. Nevertheless, when these numbers are used as a measuring rod of success or faithfulness, they become an end unto themselves—the goal we pursue even more than we pursue seeing lives deeply formed by the way of Jesus. Relevant churches aren’t most concerned with creating systems and initiatives that will get the most people in the door. They are most concerned with what they are doing to not only draw people to Jesus but to help them see all the ways in which Jesus wants to shape and reshape the way they see the world, the practices they keep, and the lifestyles they lead. This isn’t always the case, but when churches focus more on the “long obedience in the same direction” to which Jesus calls us, numerical growth can be slower or more meager. To be sure, slow numerical growth isn’t necessarily a sign of greater health or deeper spirituality. Lots of small churches are deeply unhealthy and irrelevant to their communities. Nevertheless, when church leaders focus on growing deeper with their congregation even more than growing wider in their influence, that’s when they have the opportunity to become a truly transformational (and relevant) presence in their community.
5. Relevant Churches Don’t Compromise Truth.
As American culture continues to change, many of the cultural values of our day are increasingly at odds with the teachings of Scripture. But the key to becoming a relevant church is not abandoning the countercultural aspects of our faith in favor of offering something more palatable to those seeking an encounter with God. Instead, our key to relevance is found in doubling down on these values, and doing so in a way that models radical love, selfless service, and prophetic wisdom not only to those who agree with us but to those who disagree with us as well. As certain traditional values of the faith are increasingly being characterized as bigoted and regressive, may the people who have a personal encounter with our churches be shocked, if not mildly confused, by how loving, inviting, caring, and sacrificial we are toward them while still holding to those views. Nothing could be more relevant than a consistent testimony of the truth, wrapped in a kind of love that the world could never offer but desperately needs.