How to Be a Culturally Relevant Church

As someone who’s been in and around churches for my whole life, I have seen more than a few church fads come and go. I’ve seen four generations wield influence and felt the seismic shifts each time the concerns of a new generation become paramount. But some things don’t change all that much. And in my particular tribe of the church, one of the things that hasn’t really changed for nearly 40 years, since it first changed our churches when I was a child, is a driving emphasis on cultural relevance.

For many people, the idea of irrelevancy is less tolerable than almost anything else. The idea that so many people sleep in on Sundays without giving any thought to what’s happening in their neighborhood church is hard to live with. The thought that our churches don’t have a seat at every table keeps them up at night. They are mortified by the possibility that someone might visit a church and fail to appreciate the music, find the production quality lacking, or see our gathering as a bit weird. For some, the church’s most significant performance indicator is whether the world around us likes us. If our culture is indifferent or hostile, they figure we must be doing something wrong. So they look to the culture around us and fine-tune their efforts to emulate what seems most popular. And all the while, the church’s influence within our culture continues to slip.

Maybe it’s time to stop trying to be popular. It’s really not working for anyone. And it’s a huge distraction from what really matters.

Every purposeful organization needs a mission statement. There’s a good chance your church has one. I hope it’s informed by what God’s Word outlines as our reason for being. In fact, I think the apostle Paul wrote a great mission statement for the church as a whole. It may not be as concise as modern business consultants would require, but it gives a clear summary of how we are to be with one another. It’s recorded in Colossians 3:12-17. Here it is in the New Living Translation; you can look it up in multiple parallel translations so you can compare them, using Bible Gateway:

“Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.

“Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.”

If you have a church that lives up to this vision, you can drop it right in the middle of any culture in human space or time, and it will be very, very relevant. It may not be popular, and it may not be powerful. But it will be compelling. And it will be attractive to people in need, people who recognize that all the answers they’ve known were responding to the wrong questions. People who are longing for a kind of loving community they haven’t found anywhere else. What could be more beautifully relevant than a collection of human beings who offer hope-filled answers, genuine faith, and loving embrace when suffering brings people to a place of spiritual hunger?

This world will never stop needing people who care, who follow Christ’s example, who forgive one another and live in unity. The gospel is not always popular—nor even understood. But it is the most relevant message of truth ever known.

It’s a tragedy when the church is focused on our reputation, desperate for cultural relevance, striving to be popular rather than to be what people need when they are ready for what the church actually is here to offer. Churches, are you trying to be relevant? Forget the fog machine, the light show, and the latest book with the latest model written by the pastor with the really cool hair. Seek to be a community that reflects God’s love, Jesus’ grace, and transformation through his Spirit. Meet the needs of hurting people with love, hospitality, and generosity. Your mission is clear.

4 Comments
  1. Kate says:

    Amy, this is such a beautiful application of the scripture. I pray that our churches seek the true kind of relevance paul speaks of rather than what they think a section of their communities want, and in doing so offend the rest.

  2. Candace McMahan says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Amy. Have you read “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” by Ross Douthat?

© 2017 Amy Simpson.