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.