Over the past several years I have heard and read much about relevant ministry, both in terms of the entire church and children’s ministry. Missiologists such as Guder and Bosch, to name a couple of seminal thinkers, have introduced missiological ways of thinking into the philosophical framework of contemporary church practitioners. To be missional, the thinking therefore goes, is to be relevant. Innovative practitioners in children’s ministry (many of whom will never write a book or article, or be featured prominently in yearly conferences) have rightly borrowed missional thinking and the need for relevance in developing more effective ways to reach the culture. But, what is relevance? I fear our definition may be at risk of becoming too narrow. Let me explain what I mean.
Typically, relevance is considered from the cultural point-of-view. That is, it is considered in terms of the self-aware perspective of the specific target cultural group. Clear as mud? Let me be even more specific with a precise example. In my ministry setting, my church is targeting a mix of families with a diverse cultural background: Vietnamese; Guatemalen, Mexican, Korean, Russian, Romanian, Anglo-Saxon, African-American, and many others. Most of these families in the apartment complex live below a certain economic standard which qualifies them for Section 8 housing. Over the past several months I have become aware of specific self-reported (by the children and to a lesser extent, the parents) disadvantages and advantages which are a part of their experience. These perspectives reflect what is relevant from their point-of-view. However, they do not entirely reflect what is relevant from God’s point-of-view.
We surely want to understand and become missionally fluent in the cultures to which God has called us. We want to hear their heartbeat, respect their unique cultural identities, and honor them as persons and as cultures. This principle applies also to sub-cultures within our own culture, whether they are generational, or sub-cultures which transcend generations.
It is here that we risk narrowing the definition of relevance. For example, in churches which are self-consciously postmodern (I shy away from the term emergent, because, to my knowledge, not all emergent-type churches have bought into post-modern philosophy), there is a trend to shy away from clear presentations of the gospel that share about the future hope of heaven and the future danger of hell. Instead, there is a tendency to focus on belonging before believing (a valid point of concern from which evangelicals should learn, but one which can cause misunderstanding and also, at its most extreme, espouse salvific inclusivism).
Thus, for many self-conscious post-modern Christians, relevance is getting to know someone on their terms without an agenda to convert them to Christianity. I am sympathetic to this way of thinking and I think there is value in learning from it. There is only one problem. Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). The Fourth Evangelist writes, “For God so loved the world, he gave his one and only unique Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). So, cultural relevance says, “Be sensitive to the needs of people in the culture who do not want to be blasted by evangelistic efforts which have no interest in them as a person, except as it pertains to making them a convert.” Biblical relevance, in my view, says, “I agree. Be sensitive to the needs of people who don’t want to be hijacked by aggressive evangelistic efforts which have no interest in real people. At the same time, those real people really will go to hell unless they choose to accept God’s free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The cross is relevant, even if it offends people. Cultural relevance demands that we be gracious and loving in developing real relationships with people, rather than simply treating them as notches in our theological score cards. Biblical relevance demands that we be so gracious, so loving, so serving, so giving sacrificially of our lives, that those same people will ask of the hope that is within us. We will have become relevant by becoming real and authentic as persons reflecting the character and life of Jesus.”
In children’s ministry we try to discern what makes children tick and how we might better reach them and their families with the Gospel. We use a lot of different metrics to aid us. We consider age-level insights learned from human development literature, cultural trends as learned from the marketing efforts of manufacturers and retailers, or through qualitative research studies by Gallup, Pew, or Barna. We learn from philosophical trends, the writings of those who deem themselves futurists (I only know of one bona-fide futurist; he is God), and the collective wisdom of fellow practitioners, to name a few. We strive to be relevant so that we can garner their interest and plainly make Christ known in their language.
My recommendation? Let’s not let the need for relevance limit our definition of what the word means. Websters is cited in Dictionary.com as saying relevant is the “relation to the matter at hand.” No human being can possibly know all there is to know about the matter at hand in terms of their own needs, both now and in the future. This is why God sent Jesus. This is why Jesus sends us; sends you. You have something to say to the culture in which God has placed you. They might not want to hear it. Your task is to love them, understand them the best you can, and to communicate in ways that they can clearly understand the undiluted message of the cross. That, in my view, is ministry relevance. It will look different ways for different ministries. But that is its essence. Now, off you go. Feed the sheep God has given into your care, and seek those whom he is calling into his fold.