There are all kinds of symptoms of a dying church, but there is one primary cause for demise—losing relevance in the local community. Scattered across metro Atlanta are church buildings that once were filled with congregants being nourished with God’s truth. Now, they are in various stages of deterioration due to lack of funds because of dwindling church attendance. What caused this plight on our city’s spiritual landscape? It was the inability to remain relevant in a changing environment.
I once heard this phenomenon referred to as “the frog in a kettle.” This descriptive analogy is that when you place a live frog in a vat of warm water it will not jump out. The warm-blooded animal enjoys its surroundings and soaks in the soup. If the temperature is increased incrementally, the frog will not react, eventually being boiled alive by virtue of its failure to respond. In case study upon case study, churches in our locale failed to recognize the changing environment around them, ultimately leading to the demise of their congregations.
3 steps to relevance
- Become a student: The first step to becoming relevant is becoming a student of one’s changing community. Our area is changing so rapidly that it is difficult to keep up with the data. When I first moved to Duluth, the fastest growing people group was Korean immigrants. I pass a dozen Korean congregations on the commute between my home and FBC Duluth. More recently, there has been a large influx of South Asian people from India and Pakistan. A new Hindu temple has been constructed less than a mile from our church. There is also a rapidly growing African community. In 2015, we had four families come to First Baptist Church Duluth from Nigeria. This week, as I write this chapter, we have added new families from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Uganda to our fellowship. Our changing community continues to be a radical case study.
- Seek understanding: Once one comprehends the change taking place within a community, one must seek expertise in understanding new cultures that populate that area. International missionaries have referred to this process as locating the “person of peace” within the new culture, based on the words of Jesus in Luke 10:5–6. This person may not yet be a Christian, but is nonetheless willing to share key cultural information that will aid in presenting the gospel. God has provided numerous persons of peace in my path to enhance my understanding of cross-cultural relationships. Often this began within my prayer life, asking for God to send me someone of a particular people group who would be a champion in helping me reach their native people. These person-of-peace relationships may begin as a simple friendship and evolve into a full-blown ministry partnership.
- Be an advocate: A third step in becoming relevant is being a visible advocate of community leaders. We found that the same issues facing our church were happening in every arena of community living. Therefore, we wanted to clearly communicate our support for our city government by being one of the sponsors of the mayor’s state of the city address. We desired to show support for our local school system by providing a teacher appreciation brunch on faculty work days and taking on volunteer roles in schools to relieve parents and allow them to enjoy their child’s program or sports activity.
Churches are often seen more for what they are against than what they are for, but FBC Duluth has a desire to be for our city. In supporting community leaders and initiatives in Duluth, we can be seen as a helpful change agent in our city. This mind-set can be seen in the prophet Jeremiah’s words to God’s people about how to live as exiles in Babylon:
This is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper.” (Jer. 29:7)
“If your church ceased to exist this week, other than your members, who would notice?”
God doesn’t want us to be against our cities but to be for them, partnering with city leaders and working for the welfare of those around us. I told our leadership team that we will know we are experiencing success when they begin seeking us out for the answers to community issues.
By God’s grace, we have seen this process begin to happen. No-strings-attached service is recognized and appreciated. I once heard a conference speaker ask, “If your church ceased to exist this week, other than your members, who would notice?” That mental exercise has been a highly motivating part of our efforts and I can share with joy that there would be many in Duluth that would feel a void if FBCD ceased to exist. That mutually caring relationship keeps a church relevant and pays the price for continued ministry impact for the community.
What relevance is not
To talk about what relevance is, however, we must talk about what relevance is not. Too many churches have capitulated on serious issues in an attempt to be “relevant.” Relevance is not submitting to the new sexual norms of the culture. Relevance is not watering down the gospel. Relevance does not mean letting the rock band perform for an hour on Sunday morning and squeezing in a ten-minute “conversation” about a vague, Christian-sounding topic with a couple of Bible verses pulled out of context. In order to be relevant, we must remember that the most relevant thing to every person of every ethnicity in every city for all time is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Many churches, in the effort to be relevant, have focused on creating a gospel culture apart from gospel truth. This destroys our ability to be in the world but not of the world, and welcomes the world into our pulpits. On the other hand, many churches have hoped to maintain gospel truth with no regard for a gospel culture. This preaches to the world a gospel of condemnation, rather than a gospel of love, which is really no gospel at all. True relevance is preaching gospel truth and embracing a gospel culture; it rejoices in diversity and works for the welfare of its city.
The modified article is an excerpt from Chapter of 9 Technicolor: Inspiring your Church To Embrace Multicultural Ministry.