Updated: Dec 11, 2020
The current trend that surrounds much of church growth movements is grounded on a pragmatic approach that is intrinsically linked to corporate America. Ministry philosophies and bible-training centers are built upon the notion that the church must be able to attract, draw, and gather a crowd in order to successfully engage in kingdom ministries. The attraction is not necessarily the Gospel message, the cross and resurrection of Christ, or the self-sacrificing good of His people, but rather the glitz and glamour of consumerism built upon the narcissistic tendencies of our society. The nature of this way of thinking flows out of a ministerial framework that assumes humanity's ability—in of himself—to come to grips with the message of redemption. More times than not, what is achieved is not a genuine faith in the work and Person of Jesus Christ, but rather a cultural-Christianity that lacks any real evidence of saving faith and/or costly allegiance. The commercialization of the church may very well be able to fill pews, but at what cost?
Though contextualization is a key component within effective ministry, the concept of over-contextualization must be analyzed and addressed. Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger most notably define this tendency by saying,
If we affirm too much of the surrounding culture, our ministry would lose the distinction of the message. This is the slippery slope of over-contextualization. . . All culture is broken, marred with sin, and in need of transformation (Eph. 2:1-4). The Gospel message is clearly countercultural in any given context and must always contain a clear edge of distinction.
The ideology that assumes effective ministry be contingent upon becoming like the culture is, ultimately, counter-biblical and out of step with Gospel ministry. Taking upon the church a consumeristic and entertainment-driven model of ministry is leveraging pragmatism that is devoid of any doctrinal and/or theological conviction. How the people of God are to reflect forth the glory of the Creator is mounted upon saturating oneself within the biblical narrative. It is within redemptive history where we can begin to distinguish how the covenant community of saints are to model-forth Gospel living.
How, then, is the church to reflect the glory of God in a broken and depraved world? The two themes that surface are holiness and love.
The current pragmatic approach operates on the notion that in order to engage in the culture one must become like the culture. The biblical content, however, points to the fact that in order to minister to the culture one must be distinct from the culture. Said another way, the saints must be set apart from the world in order to engage in the world for the sake of the Gospel message.
Like any trend-setter, in order to truly stand out one must disregard the fashion of his/her peers, and look beyond the horizon to gain a greater view for potentiality. Contrary to trend-setting, the church's distinction is not built upon an innate gifting nor intrinsic value, but rather the power that is found in the work and Person of Jesus Christ—the Gospel. It is the fuel, power, and source to the church's distinction.
Holiness. Holiness reverts directly to the upright nature of God. His purity, righteousness, and moral being is—in our minds—synonymous to holiness. Yet within the biblical scope holiness encompasses at least two definitions. The first definition can be confined to morality while the second can speak of the transcendence or rather the set apartness of God and/or His people. It is this second definition that I would like to stress for our particular purpose.
Leviticus 11:44 the Lord speaks to His people, Israel, in saying, "be holy, for I am holy." This phrase is found throughout the Old Testament and bleeds into the New Testament. Though it is referencing the moral vitality of the people of God, it also speaks of how that moral purity funnels toward a distinctiveness that will distinguish His people from other nations. Israel, and ultimately the church, is not called to attract the nations through external means, but rather is to reflect the character of God through internal transformation. John M. Frame concedes that "Israel's holiness, like God's, involves both separation and moral purity. They are separated from all the other nations as God's special people (Deut. 7:1-6), and they are to image God's ethical perfection (Lev. 19:1)." The Apostle Peter echoes this same phraseology in 1 Peter 1:16. Robin Routledge comments on this topic by saying, "Holiness, though, is not only about separation; it is also tied to relationship. Restrictions and prohibitions exist not to keep God away from humankind but to provide the means and conditions by which One who is Wholly Other may have contact with and enter into a relationship with His people."
The effort for relevancy outside the pursuit of holiness in Christ Jesus is merely a desire to engage in supernatural ministries via carnal means. This will not do! The pragmatic approach may derive from pure intentions, but ultimately is misinformed and misguided. If distinction from the world is the starting point to minister to the world, relevancy is not what the church needs, but rather holiness.
Love. Love is a positive affection that our society and culture embraces. From a worldly posture the ideology of love terminates upon emotive intuition and perceptivity. Yet the responsibility of the church is to not allow the patterns of this world to dictate the definitive approach on how love is perceived and, ultimately, how it functions. Love must come under the authoritative rule of the Scriptures.
Love, then, as an attractional force within the compelling institution of the church, cannot merely be confined to the emotive elements of the societal means. Love must be understood in light of the Person of Christ (for a more in-depth look click here). Love, also, must be seen within the wider Johaninne corpus. In light of the attractional element, love can be rendered from the notion that "By [love] all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn. 13:35).
Yet before society's definition of love is infused into this text we must see that John, the author of the fourth Gospel, gives his audience clear perimeters on how to understand a Gospel-centered love. Love is not merely subjective nor emotionally driven, but rather centered upon truth. From the Gospel narrative, it is clear to see that truth is not truncated as sheer proposition nor ideologies, but rather a Person—Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:6). Love, then, is grafted like a hand and glove with truth in order to point to the fuller embodiment which is Christ. In the beginning of his Gospel the Apostle John depicts the Messiah as coming "full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14). In his first epistle, John articulates "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments" (1 Jn. 5:3). Both of these instances convey the thematic flow of John's understanding of love and truth.
Therefore, in order to reflect the glories of Christ the church need not merely rely upon external matters such as "cool" music, smoke machines, or fancy gimmicks; but rather establish an emphasis upon the centrality of Christ in the gatherings of the saints. In turn, the love for Christ will overflow into a Gospel-love for and within the community of saints and beyond.
Gospel ministry is not about our ability to persuade non-believers to love Jesus. Humanity's depravity reveals to us that when left to ourselves we will "suppress the truth" (Rom. 1:18). The power of the Gospel is not built upon external means which we can necessarily attract individuals, but rather the proclamation of the Gospel to quicken the dead hearts of men, through the effectual work of the Spirit, to live in Christ.
Therefore, the Apostle Paul was not concerned with the latest fad, but placed his confidence in the heralding of the Good News. "And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:1-2). Paul's confidence was mounted upon the fact that God will save, and the responsibility of the servant is to be faithful to the message. The people of God, then, are not called to follower the patterns of this world, but to entrust themselves to the self-disclosure of Him who called them. D. A. Carson touches on this reality in saying,
Authentic Christianity demands more: a love for the God who has thereby disclosed Himself, a response to Him in obedience and faith. But it is futile to speak of loving and trusting and obeying this God if His words do not delight us and terrify us and instruct us and shape us. When they do, our worldview is progressively transformed and the culture of which we are a part, and which we pass on to others cannot help but diverge from the culture of those who embrace the processes of secularization. In such instances, Christ and culture are heading in different directions.
How the church will reflect forth the glories of God is through the indwelling Spirit's transformative pursuit to conform the saints into the image of the Son (Rom. 8:29). The church's attractional aim is not necessarily to draw a crowd per se, but rather to display His beauty. This is done not through external means, but through union with Christ to which holiness and divine love will be the characteristics that ooze forth from regenerate hearts. May the church not rely upon fancy methodologies to measure her efficiency, but rather place her hope in the work and Person of Christ to whom we are to preach faithfully in the power of the Spirit for the glory of the triune God.
1. This article is adopted and modified with approval from https://mcyoungyang.blogspot.com/2017/11/the-irrelevancy-of-relevancy.html.
2. Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger, Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 202.
3. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002), 28.
4. Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), 106.
5. D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 122.
McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie and the father to McCayden (12), McCoy (10), McColsen (8), and DeYoung (5). He is a Teaching Pastors at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.