Voices: The downside of relevance

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Let me lay all of my cards out on the table here at the beginning.

I am a young pastor of a small, rural traditional church in Central Texas.

I completely believe in evangelism and pray for revival.

I thank God for many churches who are reaching men and women and children who would never walk through the doors of my church.

I praise God for churches who do church differently than we do in order to reach their community. The work of so many churches to reach out to a new generation should be praised.

But I have a concern that our focus solely on being “relevant” can keep us from loving the full body of Christ.

The danger of missing the whole body

We must contextualize the gospel, but we must not sacrifice the wisdom and gifts of those in our church in order to be “relevant.”

This sole focus on relevance is a part of a larger movement to see the pastor as CEO instead of shepherd. The move to see the pastoral office as entrepreneurial has led us to see the church more as a business than as a body. It has allowed us to see people only as numbers and the purpose of the church as only making those numbers grow.

When this occurs, it is easy to see those whom we perceive as keeping us from growth, mostly our older saints, as hindrances instead of help.

When the church becomes our start-up business instead of the body of Christ, we miss the power of the gospel to unite us in our generational diversity.

Many times, the call for “relevance” has relegated our senior saints to the sidelines because they are the past. When we try to usher older saints out of leadership and paint their opinions and concerns as not getting the mission, then we miss the mouth of the body of Christ filled with the wisdom of the lived experience our church needs and the hands of the body of Christ that nurtured us, hugged us, raised us and planted the truth of the gospel in our hearts.

We miss the full body of Christ when relevance takes precedence over the unity of the church.

It is true that a church only filled with senior adults could show a church stuck in the past, but it is also true that a church filled with only young adults can show a church with a narrow view, susceptible to making the same mistakes of the past.  

Being “relevant” focuses all of our attention on the whims of the now and the uncertainty of the future. It causes us to only see the past and those who led in the past as hindrances rather than examples and people with gifts our body needs now.

We need senior saints

Senior saints have fought the battles, they have ministered to the hurting and they have reached their community and loved those in need.

When pastors come in and discount all they have done, we make a huge mistake. They know the community better than we do, and most of them will still be ministering in the community when we are gone.

Now, to be fair, I know of no one who actually calls for us to dismiss the past or to move past the contributions of senior saints, but much of our current leadership writing and church growth talks and conferences have this implication. To be “relevant” carries a notion of discounting the past. We must not do that.

Also, one last caveat: there are real situations where some may hold a church back from reaching their community because they want things to be like they used to be. This happens. It is a real struggle in many places, but this does not mean we should sweep the experiences and advice of those who have built the churches we serve.

Listen and be faithful

My advice to new pastors anywhere is to sit down with the men and women who have loved your church year after year, decade after decade, and listen to them.

Most desire the church to reach new people. Most want the church to grow. Honor their ministry. Honor their wisdom. Ask questions and be patient. Love them well by recognizing their place in the body of Christ.

We need our older saints. Their love for our community and their wisdom of years walking with Christ will help us be faithful, and that is more important than just being “relevant.”

Zac Harrel is pastor of First Baptist Church in Gustine, Texas.

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