The Red Herring of Relevance and the Idol of Brand-Name churches
“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment and worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” Matthew 9:4
In the previous post, I discussed the difference between the essence of the gospel and the cultural baggage that we attach to it. The post was mainly addressed to folks who might not have considered which parts of their faith have a biblical basis. Unfortunately, there has been a trend lately for those of us who have learned to practice this sort of spiritual inventory (which is healthy and good) to wage an internal ecclesiastical culture-war (which is not healthy or good). This post is addressed to that crowd (including myself). The bottom line is this: traditions in church are expendable, unity is not. While human nature causes us to attach unwarranted significance to extra-biblical cultural elements, their unnecessary removal can cause more harm than good. Want to take down the decorative cross in the sanctuary? After all, the early church didn’t worship with images of crosses in their gatherings. What if it causes deep hurt to half of the members of the body? Is it worth it?
The best example I can think of church culture-war has occurred nation-wide in the past two or three decades and concerns music in the church. The normal, healthy and good intentions of younger generations birthed contemporary styles of worship, which were not readily accepted my many traditional churches. Individuals and entire churches reacted to this challenge in different ways. Some have recognized difference between the expendable nature of cultural forms (wineskins) and the eternal nature of worship (wine). (At this point, I may be stretching Jesus’ parable in Matthew 9 further than the text allows…exegetes correct me if I’m wrong!) This “new wineskins” crowd accepted new styles of worship because of the felt need for relevance. Others rejected modern worship outright and have stubbornly clung to the old wineskins. Some have even gone so far as to propose that contemporary worship has the power to lead otherwise healthy Christians into sin! http://www.bbnradio.org/wcm4/english/tabid/703/Default.aspx
How important is relevance? Maybe we can conceive of relevance on a spectrum. On one end are those church bodies who make relevance the flagship of their meetings. You know the ones I mean…coffee bars, covers of secular tunes during the service, the removal of any traditional “churchy” symbols or furniture from the worship center. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that some of these people are able to create a culturally relevant worship space without sacrificing the essence of the gospel message. It is a false dichotomy to think that we can’t be relevant AND biblical (although some of them have clearly jettisoned the baby with the bathwater). At the other end of the spectrum are the same folks who attach spiritual significance to the wineskins themselves and reject anything resembling the “world” as anti-Christ. They are guilty of clinging the dead cultural weight that can hinder people from coming to Christ along with the wine of the gospel. Some may even worship the hymns and traditions instead of the Christ who inspired them. One group is prone to worshipping the wineskin and effecting change simply for the sake of change, the other is prone to maintaining extra-biblical traditions simply for the sake of tradition.
What is clear Biblically is that unity is far more important than relevance. While there is New Testament support for approaching ministry in a culturally relevant fashion (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) we see far more material calling us to walk in unity, grace and love. When there were drastic changes to the format of early church worship, it seems to have been out of necessity (they were prohibited from using the synagogue so they met in peoples homes) rather than an intentional shift to become more palatable to non-believers.
There are some positive results of intentional relevance. But some unintended consequences of this intentional relevance are not good: people begin to view church as a product, a building or an experience, instead of the Bride of Jesus. This is true for people inside and outside of the church. Bigger, more successful churches brand themselves. Their brands can accidentally eclipse the gospel and the person of Jesus. Church brands can become an idol. The methods of successful churches suddenly become the formula for all, instead of the Head of the Church universal leading each local church individually. Consumer Christianity emphasizes the need for Christians to “be fed” instead of learning to feed themselves and others on the pure food of scripture (Luke 4:4)
On the contrary, new testament discipleship is decentralized, organic, Spirit-led and Christ-centered. I am convinced that if we spent as much energy on corporate prayer for repentance and revival as we do on being intentional about the external forms of worship, we would see a drastic change in the hearts of our congregations. If we spent more time connecting with God than we spend crafting a church product for consumption, we might see an organic, Spirit-led church born in our midst, without walls. The seat of Church authority might shift from the brand-names of mega-pastors back to the Bible! We might see the distinction between the professional clergy and the laity blurred. Men might rise up and feed their own families spiritually, instead of buying into the lie that church leadership is up to the ordained and the worship service is an object of worship in and of itself! If we take our eyes off relevance and place them on Christ, we might see a thriving Bride of Christ, lacking the tendency to squabble and divide culture into secular and sacred, because, “the earth is the LORD’s and all the fullness thereof.” I pray that we might be obedient to the Holy Spirit’s commandment through Paul to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Ephesians 4:2 (Romans 14 is also very instructive on the question of church and culture.)
Ecclesiastical trailblazers, beware sacrificing the unity of Jesus’ bride for the sake of relevance. The Christian religion is not a progressive religion. Neither is it a regressive religion, in the sense that it should be stuck in the past or bound by tradition. We must go back to the simple fundamentals taught us by Jesus, and we must look forward to his soon return. But the essence of New Testament discipleship is grounded in it’s eternally existing and unchanging founder. Pushing change for the sake of change is like using a chainsaw where a scalpel is called for. The sheep know the voice of the shepherd! If they are trained to listen biblically, in time, Jesus will lead his church to where they need to be culturally. If we are united under the leadership of Christ, he will tell us what the wineskins should look like and how to keep them from bursting.