Monthly Archives: October 2017

Relevance and Intelligibility

Modern Christian champions of relevance mean many things by the term. One use is the concept of intelligibility. When calling for the church to be relevant to this generation, they mean that its message must be understandable, clear, and intelligible.

Thus far, no objection. No command exists to make the Gospel obscure or arcane. If the Christian message is to be applied to anyone’s life, it’s necessary that it be intelligible.

But it’s at this point, as Christians think about not only communicating accurately but successfully, that many a Christian takes his eye off the ball, and the meaning of relevant shifts from intelligible to plausible.

Intelligibility and plausibility are related, but quite distinct. When something is intelligible, it can be understood by the average, rational human. When a matter is intelligible, nothing is incoherent, garbled, or indecipherable to an average intelligence. Plausibility refers to how likely something is to be true. It describes something qualitative: how believable something seems to a person. Why something is plausible to a given mind has to do with many things, not all of which are related to its intelligibility: the presuppositions or worldview in place, the inclination of the heart, and the often unrecognised motives and desires. We find something plausible both because of what we think could be true, and because of what we desire would be true (or untrue, as the case may be).

When churches do not make this distinction, they can make critical errors in evangelism, missions, and discipleship. Making the Christian message intelligible is a question of good communication. Making the Christian message plausible to an unbeliever is a question of moral persuasion. The Christian message is relevant, so therefore it ought to be made intelligible. But its relevance does not always mean it will be plausible.

Christians should seek to persuade. Paul certainly did. At the same time, Paul made it clear that certain forms of persuasion were morally unacceptable.

But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor. 4:2)

For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ. (2 Cor. 2:17)

“Craftiness” “deceit”, and peddling, all speak of methods of persuasion that are manipulative, deceptive, or subversive to the Gospel.

Manipulative techniques get one to decide in favour of the message through the introduction of other motives: fear, guilt, carnal lusts, are the bait. Manipulative altar calls, appeals to self-preservation, or desires for wealth and comfort may be persuasive, but they fail as Christian forms of communication.

Similar to manipulation is deception. The idea that the Gospel message can be hidden, or smuggled in, while masquerading as another message is deceptive. Clothing the Gospel in popular entertainments, games, amusements, and other pleasures, so as to insinuate its message, is deceit. Paul refused to persuade through deception, and insisted on being open with his motives for preaching the Gospel.

Finally, if the message is subversive, it undermines the meaning of the Gospel while simultaneously claiming to promote it. By appealing to sinful desires, endorsing worldly attitudes, or encouraging what the Gospel saves us from, such a presentation subverts the entire message of the Gospel.

When some Christians say the Gospel must be relevant, they mean using “staged wrestling matches, pie-fights, special-effects systems that can produce smoke, fire, sparks, and laser lights in the auditorium, punk-rockers, ventriloquists’ dummies, dancers, weight-lifters, professional wrestlers, knife-throwers, body-builders, comedians, clowns, jugglers, rapmasters, show-business celebrities, reduced length of sermons, restaurants, ballrooms, roller-skating rinks, and more.” (MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel)

None of this will make the Gospel relevant. In a twisted way, it will make the Gospel seem more plausible to those for whom it is foolishness. But the irony is, by trying to make the Gospel plausible to those for whom it is foolishness, the church must use, yes, you guessed it – foolishness. Which in turn, makes the users of foolishness…fools. Paul chose rather to be a fool in the world’s eyes by preaching the wisdom of God, than a fool in God’s eyes for preaching the wisdom of this world.

Relevance and Importance

When some people speak of “making Christianity relevant”, they are referring to demonstrating Christianity’s importance and applicability. They fret over the fact that unbelievers and the wider culture dismiss Christianity and religion so easily. Secularism provides people with enough food, shelter, conveniences, comforts and sufficient diversionary amusements to keep them morally anesthetised from the pain of contemplating ultimate questions. Today’s secularist finds it all too easy to ignore questions of eternity and Christ, an attitude which was less common to previous generations who felt their mortality more acutely. When noticing the disturbing ease with which unbelievers ignore God, some Christians feel that ‘the church has become largely irrelevant’ and that it must ‘establish its credibility and demonstrate its relevance to unbelievers’.

Here is a jumble of truth and error. On the one hand, it is clearly true that few ages in world history have possessed such irreligious attitudes. Today, you can grow up in a secular culture and live most of your life feeling that religion is a strange practice performed by strange people. It’s undeniable that the average secular unbeliever does not see how church, Scripture, or worship is germane to his life. In that sense, the things of God indeed seem irrelevant to him.

On the other hand, the Bible explains this phenomenon. It does not say that the fault is with the church for failing to contextualise the Gospel adequately by adopting every available cultural form to clothe the Gospel in. Instead, it describes human beings as intractably set against the lordship of God. Romans 1:19 explains that the knowledge of God is part of created human nature. John Calvin put it this way, “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty.”

What does man do with this knowledge? Verse 18 tells us. He suppresses it. What dictators do with bad press is what the human heart does with continual evidence that God is, and God is a judge. Secularism just makes it easier for people to do what they have always preferred to do: ignore God.

In other words, the problem is not that an unbeliever cannot see how Christianity is relevant to him, because of some inadequacy in Christianity or its evangelism. The problem is that a man cannot see Christianity’s relevance after deciding that he will not see its relevance. This is a willful overlooking (2 Pet 3:5), a chosen rejection, and a blindness by shutting one’s eyes. And if this natural, stubborn blindness isn’t enough, Satan compounds this with added blindness (2 Cor 4:4).

When a man is blind, we don’t speak of making potentially dangerous obstacles in his path relevant to him. They are relevant to him! Given his propensity to injure himself by walking into them, nothing could be more germane, important, applicable or relevant to him than those obstacles. A neighbourly thing to do would be to tell the blind man what he’s about to walk into.

Christianity does not have to be made relevant. It is relevant. Nothing is more relevant to a creature made in God’s image than his standing before his Creator. Matters of life, death, eternity, goodness, evil, justice, and the soul are relevant to every man. Christians cannot make these things more relevant to a man than they are. We can only speak of them clearly, and live soberly and righteously in this present age. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can change one’s perception of the message from foolishness to wisdom (1 Cor 1:18).

Having said that, there are ways that the church can make the message of the Gospel seem less relevant. When it clothes its message in trendy slogans and commercial schtick, it appears as if it is one more product being marketed. When it uses entertainments and amusements to create interest, it appears as if its message is weak and in need of marketing props. When it tries to appear wise and noble in the world’s eyes (or cool, hip, trendy, sick, whatever the word), it appears as if it is a sycophant of the world, limping between two loyalties. All of this shouts louder than words can say, “Yes, unbeliever, your dismissal of God is justified and normal! We, too, are bored with the plain Gospel! But look! We have some shiny attractions which we’ll give you, if you deign to patronise us with your attention!” Instead of confronting the believer with his moral rejection of God, we treat his sin as natural and normal, and beg him to come for other reasons. Christianity does not become less relevant when Christians act this way, but it does compound the problem by giving unbelievers even more hardness to their hard hearts.  The unbeliever intuits, “The Christian doth protest too much.” Such ways and words do not sound much like Paul:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. (Rom. 1:16)

Relevant or Current?

When some people speak of the importance of relevance, they don’t mean relevance at all. After all, relevant, strictly speaking, merely means ‘pertinent to the matter at hand’. Relevance needs an object: relevant to whom or what matter?, we may ask.

The fact that some people use the word relevant as a quality not requiring modification demonstrates that they really mean something else by it. One particular usage is perhaps the most common: describing whatever is current as ‘relevant’. If something is current, it could have several qualities. It could be something currently in use. It could mean it is a new development. It could mean it is fashionable, trendy, en vogue. It could mean it has been adopted by the youth, the trend-setters, the celebrities (those famous for being famous). Yet all of these share one unquestioned value in the minds of the relevance-devotees: novelty is good.

Ours is a world where “new!” on the product’s packaging boosts sales. “Brand new season” is supposed to invite wide-eyed excitement. “Never before seen” is a moniker of greatness. We check our phones for updates hourly. This is the age where the new is true, and the true is new. Only the recent is decent.

We shouldn’t be surprised. If Darwinism is true, then the latest development is always the most advanced. If science is man’s saviour, then the newest gadget is necessarily the best. In such a world, you are permitted to say these words with a sneering disdain: old, tradition, custom.

Actually, the logic behind equating relevant with current contains three premises.
1) We need to bring practical value to this world.
2) What is of practical value to this generation must be current.
3) We are only relevant to the degree we are current.

With some qualification, the first premise is hardly objectionable. The second is the most problematic, but it represents the spirit of the age. Our culture practises chronological snobbery, a term coined by C.S. Lewis and defined by him as, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

Lewis goes on: “You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

The Christian view of reality has no partiality toward the current age. The fifth commandment itself, in commanding reverence and obedience to parents, is implicitly demanding respect for the past: honouring the accumulated wisdom of one’s parents gained in the decades they are in advance of you. And to be sure, their wisdom was not self-taught, but came from their parents, who received some from theirs, so that we find the command to honour one’s immediate parents is really a command to honour one’s ancestors. God’s people were even to honour ancient landmarks, to rise in the presence of the aged, to regard the gray head as a sign of gathered wisdom. So convinced were the Jewish people of the value of tradition, that Christ had to confront them with their unwarranted obedience to man-made traditions. This seems a far cry from modern evangelicalism, with its anti-traditional tradition. At least we can say that enough Christian voices are out there reminding believers that a church with no understanding of the past is amnesiac.

While no Christian would argue the importance of bringing value to the world, a Christian steeped in Scripture recognises the difference between what is permanent and what is current. Permanent things may or may not be currently popular (2 Timothy 4:2-4). But what is true, good, and beautiful is permanently pertinent to the life and well-being of a creature made in God’s image. Something current, on the other hand, may be one of countless spasmodic experiments in novelty that a godless culture will produce. The church that weds itself to a particular generation finds itself a widow in the next. Nothing is as irrelevant as a trendy church.

Those who build with gold, silver, and precious stones, are permanently relevant. Those enamoured with the wood, hay and stubble of the fashions of the day, may find little is left of their ministry at the Judgement Seat of Christ.