The End Of Relevant Church And The Rise Of Contextual Ministry

Chasing relevance makes our churches look the same in ways we should be different – from each other and from the culture.

“Cultural relevance” is a phrase whose time has come and gone.

I used to recommend that churches seek to become culturally relevant. I don’t any more.

No, I don’t want us to wallow in some old-time glory days that probably never were. But cultural relevance is not the answer. Especially since the phrase has so much baggage now.

In most situations the word “relevant” has come to mean “cool”. We don’t need cool churches. We never did.

Certainly it’s better to be relevant than stale. But the church needs to be better than relevant. We need to lead.

Be More Than Popular

Chasing cultural relevance reminds me of an episode from the old TV sitcom Third Rock from the Sun in which the aliens tried to blend in with earth culture by doing what was popular.

In that episode, the aliens watched only the highest-rated TV shows, wore the best-selling clothes, ate at the biggest chain restaurants, and so on. They didn’t do what they enjoyed, only what was popular. As a result, they became bland and bored. By the end of the episode they decided that being themselves was better than blending in.

Trying to be culturally relevant is turning the church into followers instead of leaders.

A relevant church may be following slightly ahead of others, but we’re still following. And it often makes our churches look too much the same in ways we ought to be different – from each other and the culture.

Contextual Is Real

A while ago I talked with Mark Collins, a friend who works for a denomination and pastors a small church in Canada. We were talking about the advantages and challenges of small churches when he said “We need to stop worrying about being culturally relevant and start being contextually real.”

Contextually real. That’s it!

Thank you for the ‘aha!’ moment, Mark.

Ministry is not about relevance, it’s about reality. And it’s not about responding to the culture, it’s about bringing the truth of the gospel into any and every context.

How have we missed this simple truth? And why would we want to replace it with being culturally relevant?

Here are a few possible reasons:

  • Cultural relevance is cool. Contextual ministry isn’t.
  • Cultural relevance is broad. Contextual ministry is narrow.
  • Cultural relevance is generic. Contextual ministry is personal.
  • Cultural relevance follows trends. Contextual ministry listens to people.
  • Cultural relevance creates insiders and outsiders. Contextual ministry invites outsiders in.
  • Cultural relevance celebrates success. Contextual ministry recognizes our hurts.
  • Cultural relevance can happen at a distance. Contextual ministry means getting our hands dirty.

Striving to be relevant is often more comfortable for us. It helps us feel like we’re in charge of something. That we have a few things figured out in a world that has grown increasingly difficult to understand.

Contextual ministry, on the other hand, is anything but comfortable. And it certainly isn’t cool. It puts us in charge of nothing. And it often raises more questions than it answers.

But contextual ministry has one advantage.

It. Is. Real.

Jesus Knew His Context

Jesus didn’t care about being relevant to his culture.

Not to the Jewish culture he was raised in, to the Roman culture that was oppressing them, or to the Greek culture that had framed so much of their thinking.

Jesus lived and spoke the truth whether it felt relevant or not, because truth is applicable in every context, even if it’s not always accepted there.

Instead of asking “what’s cool?”, “what’s relevant?”, or even “what’s new?”, our churches ought to be asking people “what context are you living in?” and “how can Jesus meet you there?”

We need to minister to people with the truth of the gospel.

  • Not as demographic groups, but as individuals.
  • Not by chasing trends, but by following Jesus.
  • Not by insisting on our comfortable traditions, but by providing an eternal answer within a rapidly-changing context.

Dealing with people rather than trends takes a little longer. But it’s worth it.

And I’ve come to believe it’s the only way we can really earn people’s trust so that they’ll allow us to share the deeper reality that’s only found in Jesus.

A reality that works in any context.

(Photo by Anubhav Saxena | Unsplash)

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