Cultivating a relevance that leads to diversity

June 8, 2017

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Mark Hearn

Mark Hearn is the senior pastor of First Baptist Duluth, Georgia. Previously, he was the Senior Pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. He has been President of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana and a Trustee for Lifeway Christian Resources. Mark earned his Master of Divinity degree from the … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24