Is Relevance a Liberal Assumption?

Tim Brister —  November 9, 2007 — 11 Comments

While the Board of Trustees were in town for the SBTS Heritage Week, Mark Dever held a IX Marks lecture in Broadus chapel in which he opened up by speaking to the issue of relevance in gospel ministry (I was in attendance). Writing for Baptist Press, Garrett Wishall quotes Dever who said,

“I would like to suggest that the most fundamental problem in the church is not that we are not relevant enough in relation to the world, but that the church is not distinct enough from the world. Our churches must reflect the character of God.”

I remember Dever also arguing that churches are becoming “culturally determined.” In light of this, Wishall notes,

The idea that the Gospel must be made relevant is a liberal assumption which, if taken to its end, can result in the theological liberalism of Friedreich Schleiermacher, the father of Protestant liberalism, Dever said, adding that numerous church models seek to be relevant and do not reach the unorthodox conclusions of liberalism but remain unhealthy because they are based on an unbiblical definition of success.

Dever then goes on to explain a little of what he means by “an unbiblical definition of success.”

“The problem with the seeker-sensitive model, emerging church model and even the traditional model that say, ‘Get as many people into a room as possible and share the Gospel with them,’ is that they view success in light of visible fruit,” he said. “All three of these approaches say, ‘Change your techniques and let’s get some numbers.’

“Instead of being directed by [visible] success, we should be directed by faithfulness. We should say, ‘If the Lord doesn’t like our product, we will change the product.’ We shouldn’t take the idea that if we don’t have X number of conversions in our church, then we must be doing something wrong. I am glad Jeremiah didn’t think that. And I am glad that Jesus Christ didn’t think that. Let us remember that we are following the One who was crucified as a revolutionary.”

So I am curious as to what you think. Is relevance inherently a theologically liberal idea? Is it possible to reflect both the character of God and the culture in which you live? Can churches be culturally engaging without being culturally determined? Biblically faithful and culturally fruitful?

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11 responses to Is Relevance a Liberal Assumption?

  1. I think we want to be careful not to turn the word relevant into some kind of buzz word or pejorative term. Or at least I don’t want to do that.

    I had a lightbulb moment regarding relevance about 15 years ago. I remember sitting in a church service on a Sunday night listening to a preacher who took his text from Job. The sermon was essentially topical in nature as the actual context of the passage in Job was never addressed. And even in the sermon itself there was a disconnect. I knew that I was getting absolutely nothing out of this message. I looked around me at the people who were gathered. Nobody really looked engaged. They were politely sitting, thinking about other things, waiting for the preacher to finish. The sermon itself made no attempt to connect to the listeners. It could have just as easily been preached 100 years ago (perhaps it had been).

    My exact thought at that time was “This is totally irrelevant–not just to me, but to everyone in here.” Yet, at the same time, I believed Job to be an extremely relevant book of the Bible regarding the human condition.

    So I made a decision that night. When I preach or teach, I want my messages to be relevant. I never want to fill time, present empty words or impart knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I want to connect to my listeners from the very beginning and lead them down a very carefully laid path that will end in something that is meaningful and relevant to their lives.

    This can be done without gimmicks, without cleverness that draws attention to me. The scriptures are living and active and I believe can engage anyone in a relevant manner in any age.

    How is that kind of relevancy wrong?

  2. The whole discussion is somewhat convoluted. How can relevance be a liberal assumption? The Bible is relevant because God wrote it. No one makes it relevant. And no preacher has to make a sermon relevant. I’m so curious as to why pastors feel they must make a text relevant. It automatically is. It is God’s Word to man. So, on the one hand, a desire to be relevant is not liberal. It’s biblical. On the other hand, we don’t have to worry about the whole affair because the Bible is inherently relevant to every person, every culture, every generation.

  3. Tim,

    “Relevance” is one of many buzz words in the Church today that obviously doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.

    In the way Dever seems to be using it in the quotes above, yes, it (relevance) seems to be a theologically liberal idea.

    But then, I think that Capitol Hill Baptist is quite relevant insofar as I define relevance. They have taken great advantage of the web (9 Marks interviews, T4G blog, podcast, etc.)…that seems relevant to me. As well, Pastor Mark seems to be well aware of the goings on in both the Convention and the evangelical church at large.

  4. Is relevance inherently a theologically liberal idea?
    I guess it depends on how you define “relevant” and how you define “liberal,” but my basic attitude is “not necessarily.”

    If by relevant you mean that you want to express the gospel in terms that the culture you’re surrounded by can understand, that’s not liberal, that’s biblical.

    If you mean the modern version where you look so much like the culture that you can’t tell the difference between the culture and the church, that’s not liberal, that’s sin.

  5. I really have learned much from Mark Dever and his writings, but I sometimes want to remind all of us that we have a “culture” in the church whether we like it or not. This culture does not exist in mid air, untainted by “the world” – It is frustrating to see guys wearing suits, standing in a certain type of building, speaking English, singing music played with a certain flow and instrumentation all while saying “culture is irrelevant” – we need to realize that there will be a culture “in the church” the question is what will it reflect. I doubt very much we will preach in koine Greek and dress first century style to be “faithful” to God.

    We always live in culture and some of the culture is not wicked – it is simply what people have created, under Providence, in a certain time and place. Some of it is wicked, some of it just wears blue jeans.

    Style is not sin, adopting the sinful views, attitudes and practices of a culture would be sin. Liberalism adapted Christian theology to modern “scientific” assumptions of the 19th century and did violence to the essence of the gospel…much as some Emergents are doing today. But to say that relevance does not matter is just so silly. Think about us saying: I am pray every day for the irrelevance of the church and the gospel to all of those around me!

    What we want is relevance with faithfulness…we must be in culture, but prophets within culture.

    Now, what Dever is likely reacting against is this monkeying of the world we see in churches. Where people adopt culture in an inauthentic way. Where churches start wearing a cultural costume trying to appear “native” while not authentically “being” so. I have an example I will blog on this today…there is a sickness that Dever is reacting against, my fear is the healthy church guys naively swing the pendulum too far.

    What I pray to see is Christians living counter cultural kingdom lives as “natives” in culture. Missionaries always want to see “indigenous” leaders – this is my prayer as well. Whether in the back country or the big city. We need faithful, theologically driven, passionate, Kingdom culture building servants working relevantly in all cultures of the world. Neither a sell out becoming captive to culture, but following a different King while swimming in the same streams.

    Now relevance when it becomes an idol is a sickness that knows no bounds, but when I use the term I simply mean that the gospel should be “understood” to people in culture. From a reformed perspective, Tim Keller has been a better guide for me on this than others.

  6. No, it’s a ridiculously simpleminded thing to say that “relevance” = “liberalism”. And if this skewed definition is true, then Christ and the church should be liberal. What exactly is the point of this. I mean, if relevance is liberal or secular or whatever, then what are you supposed to do – crawl back into a Christian ghetto and make sure you have no impact on anything in the culture? We can’t be the salt and light of the world by being separatist fundamentalists.

  7. When I think about the connection of Schleiermacher and contemporary forms of relevance, what comes to my mind is how liberal seeks radical accommodation to make Christianity palatable to the world in which Christianity in its purest form is antithetical. For Schleiermacher, it was Romanticism; ergo, Christianity is a feeling of dependence; for Kant, it was the Enlightenment; ergo, the Kantian/Copernican revolution; for Kierkegaard, it was nominalism; ergo, the birth of existentialism. All three of these men would have said they were trying to rescue Christianity and make it more relevant in the age in which they lived. The outcome, as we all know, is that they changed the essence of Christianity in the process.

    In light of that, my guess is that Dever is speaking to the postmodern and pragmatic assumptions of culture and how contemporary versions of Christianity are trying to accommodate to the ideological milieu in order to rescue Christianity and make it “work” for our generation. For postmodernism, it is the emerging church movement; for pragmatism, it is the church growth movement.

    Now, you all have made some important observations which I cannot all speak to; however, Reid is right that we should not swing the pendulum across to another extreme in a Hegelian dialectic manner. Rick is right that the word “relevant” is a loaded term that needs qualification, as do most words in our day! The Puritans of whom Dever is a modern-day example knew their “culture” well and were excellent at taking biblical truth and applying it to their lives (e.g. making it relevant). So in that sense, I would have to say that I do not think Dever is saying we should not be relevant. I would think, rather, he is referring to the reformulating and rewriting of Christianity in order to conform to the times in which we live (of which examples include McLaren, Pagitt, Jones on the pomo side, and Osteen, Schuller, and Hybels on the church growth side).

    But that’s just my guess. ;)

  8. Timmy,

    You made a terrible comparison… Osteen and Hybels.. Is Hybels a church growth guy, yes. Is Osteen a church growth guy…NO.. He is a false gospel guy. Osteen preaches a false gospel and Hybels does ministry in a way you and I don’t agree with. The two should not at all be put in the same boat. I just wanted that to be stated. There is a big differece in someone having a different method of ministry and someone preaching a false gospel.

    Osteen isn’t church growth… He itches the ears of his people. he is self-help and prosperity. Does his church grow because of this yes, but not because of methodology… It is because of his theology(or lack of) I suggest putting Warren in the place of Osteen.

  9. “You made a terrible comparison… Osteen and Hybels.. Is Hybels a church growth guy, yes. Is Osteen a church growth guy…NO.. He is a false gospel guy.”

    It’s unfortunate that there are examples of cultural accommodation to be found from both these men, which is why, I think, they’ve been lumped together. Departure from the gospel is departure from the gospel.

  10. What the liberals forget is thet the Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t have to be made relevant, it is relevant; for all people in all places at all times. It is their myopic quest for cultural relevance that is irrelevant.

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  1. The Boar’s Head Tavern » - November 9, 2007

    [...] This summary of Mark Dever’s recent comments at Southern Seminary demonstrates the great cleavage in evangelicalism today. Interestingly, we talked about Osteen with my Advanced Bible kids today and they thoroughly understand the difference between a God centered and a man centered starting place for doing theology. Posted by: Michael Spencer @ 11:12 am | Trackback | Permalink [...]

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