Has the western church become irrelevant to the culture? In one sense, when we consider God’s purpose for the church and the fact it was He who established it, we would have to say, “Of course not.” In another more easily ignored sense, when we think about how far adrift so many of our congregations have strayed in terms of understanding, much less relating to, the culture redemptively, we are forced to admit that absolutely, we have become irrelevant to a large degree. I want to point out that there are others who are doing a wonderful job of connecting with the culture in missional ways in their local settings. Yet I get the sense that they are the minority, rather than the norm.
Consider the following and see how they apply to your church.
1. Take a look at the demographics of census.gov in relation to your city and county and neighborhood. Are these the people your church is reaching? If not, why not? If yes, what are you doing to make that happen? And if they were never reached, would your church notice the difference? Would anyone even care?
2. Take a look at your church’s financials, specifically the budget allocations for missions and local outreach, compared to allocations related to property management and staff salaries. Based on these numbers, what are the ministry priorities of your church? Do they line up with the stated mission and core values of your church? Is there an overbalance of priority placed on facilities as opposed to helping the poor, feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, and meeting the needs of children and widows?
3. Consider your church’s strategy for outreach. Is it primarily devoted to marketing which drives people to the church campus for special events and regular services? To what degree are parishioners encouraged to be the presence of Christ in their local neighborhoods? What does this look like practically on a daily basis? Is outreach seasonal or lifestyle oriented within the normal flow of daily living in the community? In short, is outreach a leader-led program with a definite beginning and end or a culturally infused ethos which is part of everyday life?
4. Consider your church’s philosophy of volunteerism. Are parishioners primarily asked to volunteer for positions which the church needs to have filled in order for ministries to run smoothly on campus? This question is especially relevant for children’s ministries. Is there any substantive encouragement for people to volunteer their time in creative expressions of ministry which do not necessarily have corollary benefits to campus ministry? Do parents have permission to say no on occasion? If yes, are you sure?
5. Consider your church’s attitude toward the world. Is there an us vs them mentality? Is there a kind of evangelistic militancy with a turn or burn twist if a person does not respond according to a prescribed theological script? Or is there a sense of conversation in which intelligent believers dialogue with those outside the faith respectively and redemptively? Are non-believers allowed to belong to the community before they believe? Or must they first believe before they belong in any real sense?
6. Consider your church’s vocabulary. If a non-believer walked into your congregation’s worship, would they easily be able to understand the vocabulary? Or is there a large specialized vocabularly which they first would need to understand?
7. Does your church primarily cater to a consumer mentality, offering goods and services to congregants which they can pick and choose based on their perceived needs? Or does it primarily encourage them to offer themselves to the community to meet its needs, understanding that their needs will be met as they love God and each other in creative, unselfish ways which defy predictable market driven forces?
8. Consider your church’s reputation in the community. What are locals saying about your church? Is it the church which drives tinted window SUV’s into a neighborhood whose inhabitants can barely afford the bus, as if to hint at the disparity of the two worlds? Is it the church who finds ways to help their neighbors with small unheralded acts of kindness? Is it the church which seems to shrug at the need for rigorous financial and moral accountability? Is it the church which secretly finds ways to help the poor and homeless around them? What is the prevailing theme in their conversations? From the perspective of the locals, is your church’s message relevant because of the caliber of your kindness which permeates all you do? Or is the message lost because of a lack of real relationships due to a greater priority of focusing on what happens on campus, rather than what could happen in the community? Is your church and integral part of the community, or is it simply located there as an isolated anomaly with no real relevance to the community’s ebb and flow?
9. Does your church operate on the cultural assumptions of the 50’s and 60’s, believing that the people will come if there is a good program for them to enjoy? Or is there a bunker mentality which suggests that the church should insulate its members from the world? Or is there a missional attitude emerging in the conversations taking place in your midst, compelling your people to takes risks and being the presence of Christ even in the dark places; you know, the places Jesus would go and for which he was criticized: bars, homes of the culturally depised, in public places with those who have been culturally shunned, and so on.
Is the western church irrelevant to the culture? I am afraid that to a large degree it is. Yet I see many hopeful signs. I observe the significant ministry happening here in Portland in the heart of the city through various churches who fuse social justice and biblical teaching cooperatively, rather than as an either/or practice. I consider the exciting things beginning to happen at teaching churches such as Willow Creek and I am greatly encouraged. May their tribe increase all the more through conversion growth as their people capture the shared vision of missional connective living in their local communities. I rejoice concerning the churches around the world who set admirable examples for us in the West, challenging us to set aside our addiction to consumerism and put our neighbors first in love and kindness so that the message of Christ can bear fruit in their hearts on account of our witness. Irrelevance is a difficult malady to overcome. No amount of typical marketing will accomplish the task. However, people in the world will be moved by the narratives of kindness, sacrifice, humility and giving which are beginning to emerge in the stories we share; they may even be moved to believe, so long as we share with authenticity the life of Christ, rather than revert to second and third tier theological priorities which usually only distract, rather than instruct.