“Maybe That’s What Christianity is All About?” A Few Critical Questions for “Relevant” Churches

A big crowd, but what really makes a church relevant?
A big crowd, but what really makes a church relevant?

Post by Nathan Rinne

Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. (Col. 4:5)

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Google tells me that “relevant” means “closely connected or appropriate to the matter at hand.” For churches then, nothing could be more relevant than the proclamation of the word of God.

What kind of impression is your “relevant” church giving? I have a story that I hope might be of some real interest to you.

Every year about three or four times a year, I get to teach an introductory course on the Christian faith where I work at Concordia University – Saint Paul (in Minnesota). The course is a part of our curriculum for all online students getting their bachelor’s degree (these are typically persons already in a career and looking to get more education).

One of the assignments in the class is for them to attend a worship service of their choice (I encourage them to attend an LC-MS church), and to report on the experience, following a rubric which asks them to reflect on what occurred in the service. Some of the most important questions asked in the rubric are the following:

Who is Jesus Christ understood to be, and what is His role in this community, according to this worship service and community behaviors?  Simply put, is Jesus primarily a friend, a good role model, or the Savior who suffered and dies to redeem people from eternal separation from God?  Further, what is the foundation for this church’s interpretation of Biblical Christianity (how Biblical and how Christian is it?).

Paul is focused: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…”, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins...”
Paul on relevance: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…”, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins…”

Many students choose to attend larger congregations, typically called “megachurches” — these are churches usually rooted in American Evangelicalism which feature auditoriums, a variety of programs for target groups, contemporary worship, etc. Some students are quite critical of these churches, but sometimes those attending – often their first time attending a church like this — have an emotional experience and are impressed (typical for those who attend these services, with their stadium-like atmosphere). What this means is that many who experience these churches, especially in the initial stages, think of these churches as being relevant.

There is a megachurch in the Twin Cities here that is quite popular. When it comes to the questions above, I have been under the impression that the preaching there – by megachurch standards at least – is better than most. Therefore, I was a bit taken aback by the impressions that one of my students recently received when attending it.

Before I share what she said, I want to note that this student is Hmong in ethnicity, and her family practices the animist religion (shamanism) the Hmong are known for. Nevertheless, she was one of my better students in the class – her work was top notch and she was constantly sharing excellent insights from her readings of the biblical texts.

Here is what she said about her experience (words used with permission):

Throughout the worship, God was referenced many times; however, the name of Jesus Christ wasn’t very much. Regardless of that, the service and the message were meaningful and full of faith and grace. As mentioned previously, though there wasn’t very much diversity in terms of different races and ethnicities, I felt very comfortable attending Eagle Brook. The volunteers and staff were nice and very friendly. My entire experience yield[ed] nothing put positive results. I don’t think I would ever convert religion or become a Christian; however, because I now have a greater knowledge of the faith, I would not mind attending worship service again at a later time. If God and the bible were taken out of the picture, it would have felt as though I was attending a life coaching event given by a great motivational speaker…..

At this point, I wrote the following comment in her paper: ‘in my mind – this is an extremely important and significant statement you make – read on”

….Then I got to thinking, maybe that’s what Christianity is all about.  Maybe the underlining message is about life events and having the right coaches in place to help guide through tough and difficult times. Some of those coaches could be God and Jesus Christ.

My comment: “Just another coach…maybe as good as the rest…”

Knowing that she would understand my concerns about Jesus being diminished in this way (based on things that would be communicated in the class lectures), here is what I went on to say to her….

….megachurches like this make me uneasy.

I am glad that you had a positive experience at the service. That said, I am always a bit more critical of churches like this…. One thing about them for sure is that they are designed to give persons a pleasant experience. I don’t know who made this You Tube video, but it does have a ring of truth to it:

If the pure message of the Gospel (see I Cor. 15) is not really the focus, you might just have a bunch of people who get happy once a week and who realize that “biblical principles” might help make for a happy life…Maybe the church even has its own health club and other great perks…  Salvation from sin, death and the devil? Determined to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified? Hearing the word of God read and spoken with some fear and trembling? Not so much.

Please don’t get me wrong: I am happy when people do hear the truth of God’s word, and I am very conscious that I am being critical and might come off as overly so. But I think that the larger-than-life big-box churches tend to distract from its true meaning. I will admit that students like this are rare, but I enjoyed reading one student recently say this of his small, traditional, country church: “I personally find that this church allows someone to connect with God in a more personal way because there are no fancy lights, music, and projectors in the way of this connection.” Simplicity and humility. Imagine that….

A former student, who clearly knew her Bible forwards and backwards, had a bit more fiery appraisal of this particular church (again, used with permission):

Overall, I felt extremely comfortable in this church, and I’m fairly certain this is how they wanted me to feel. The casual dress, the coffee shop, and the ambience of the auditorium all contributed to this. The problem is, church isn’t meant to only make people feel comfortable. In fact, there are many times in church I’ve felt uncomfortable – reprimanded and admonished by God’s Word through the sermon. In contemplating who is Jesus Christ understood to be and what is His role in this community, I came to the following conclusion: Jesus is viewed at Eaglebrook as a good role model and someone through whom we can learn some valuable and applicable life lessons. Personally, I don’t believe this church has the Bible, God’s authoritative Word, as the foundation for their interpretation of Biblical Christianity. It seems they have taken what the world considers easy and comfortable and fun, and built their church around this. They are certainly attracting many souls, but are these souls then being taught about Jesus – the Savior who suffered and died to redeem people from eternal separation from God?  Sadly, I fear the answer is no.

If my recent animist student’s reaction is any indication, this analysis is dead right.

If you are a “relevant” church – “mega” or not – I beg you to take heed. Please think carefully about what you are doing. Given the atmosphere you are promoting, how quickly and effectively are you able to get to this?:

"Not surviving", you say?

Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel. (Eph. 6:19)

FIN

 

Image: An picture of the inside of the Main Auditorium at First Baptist Church Jacksonville, FL.jpg by Fbcjax, used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License,

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