The Theory of Relevancy

Is there a secret formula that will suddenly get the message across and popularize the gospel?

J.R. Spangler, Associate Secretary, Ministerial Association, General Conference

TERMS and suggestions such as "learn to com­municate," "dialog with the modern mind," "make your preaching relevant," "update our message," et cetera, are blowing about like dan­delion seeds on the wings of spring. The problem with these lin-guistic calisthenics is that some unwary soul may get the idea that some additional ingredient, unknown by our Old and New Testament forefathers, needs to be mixed with our message. Is there a secret formula that will suddenly get the message across and popularize the gospel? Is there some hidden pushbutton we haven't found yet, which if found and pushed will jam the baptismal pools of our church with eager believers?

Peter and PaulPentecost and Mars

I constantly ask myself the question—How relevant was Peter on the day of Pentecost when he cried out that his audi­ence was responsible for crucifying Christ? Or take Paul on Mars' Hill who "related" by claiming his hearers ignorantly wor­shiped the true God. How relevant was Christ when He told bigoted, Rome-hating masses that they ought to "love their ene­mies."

To sinful-natured man, God's truth never has been relevant and never will be—"the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Rom. 8:7). There is no communication between truth and error, right and wrong. The two are incom­patible. To talk about a God of love was just as foreign to the minds of men in Abraham's day as it is in our day. To preach Christ crucified and the crucifixion of self was just as repugnant to the mind of a sin-soggy Roman two thousand years ago as it is to the 1967 mind of a lost New Yorker.

Answering Questions People Don't Ask

Another verbal smoke screen is the charge that the church today is answering questions people don't ask. I've pondered this point for some time and have wondered what questions did Christ answer that peo­ple were asking? He was incessantly talking about the heart and a heavenly kingdom in which few were interested. His stories and parables focused on eternal realities, not the popular discussions of the times. He consistently refused to become involved in theological football. He left these ir­relevant discussions to scribes and Phari­sees.

What an Answer!

Once a man came to Jesus and asked Him to settle a legacy dispute between his brother and himself. Family wills loom large in the minds of most people. Christ's response to this seemingly most urgent mat­ter was not only irrelevant but almost in­sulting from a human standpoint. His cli­mactic appeal was "Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." What an answer! So foreign, so inconceivable to the greedy and grasping. What heartbreak would be saved if this counsel were strictly followed. Again, how many of us would tell the rich to go sell what they have and give to the poor? Such extremity is so unrelated to the facts of life!

The Masterpiece of Irrelevancy

Taken seriously, the Sermon on the Mount is a masterpiece of irrelevancy. What person in his right but sinful mind would ever rejoice when reviled and persecuted even for a good cause? Who would ever dare equate murder with anger? In a sex-crazed world, where is the so-called normal man who would agree that lustful admira­tion of a woman spelled adultery? Further­more, what "new-moralist" would accept the principle of plucking out an eye if nec­essary in order to avoid total destruction. Even Job's counsel would be "-undialogable"—"I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?" (Job 31:1). Or take the "turn your left cheek" concept or the "give away your cloak also" idea. This is a seeming lack of com­munication from any human standard.

When Christ Communicated

About the only time the people thought that Christ really communicated was when He fed the thousands with miracle bread and fish. This act hit the headlines, and the disciples themselves began to feel that Christ's movement was now getting under­way. In wisdom the Master declared to the dismay of all, "Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled" (John 6:26). Then He concluded with a most irrelevant thought, "Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which en­dureth unto everlasting life" (verse 27).

The "Irrelevancy" of Noah

One of the most irrelevant preachers on record was Noah. He asked a lot of ques­tions people weren't asking and gave as many answers people weren't wanting. He persisted in talking about a coming flood, which both the scientists and theologians of his day claimed was impossible, unthink­able, and certainly not relevant to the world and its needs. I have often wondered just how Noah would "relate" if he were among us today, facing a far greater event to take place than a mere world deluge!

Massive Unresponsiveness

Part of our problem lies in a mass-con­version concept. Are we being influenced in our thinking by massive unresponsive­ness to the gospel and thus feeling we are not communicating? Are we overlooking the infinitive value of an individual, responsive soul here and there? Is this situation lead­ing us to use our preaching time merely communicating knowledge but not a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus? Truly irrele­vant preaching is that preaching which does not hold the saving power of our Lord. The thrilling themes of redemption and prophecy related to the return of Christ are what the world needs in this rocket age. For certain, the majority don't want to hear these things any more than the majority wanted to hear Noah's message. Our call, our commission, is not to scratch itching ears, but to warn, to plead, to make ready a people for the final crisis, which is already upon us!

Relevancy of the Cross

The concept that makes the gospel rele­vant yesterday, today, and tomorrow is the cross of Christ. The wisdom seekers and sign seekers still live on. The cross continues to ever be a foolish stumbling block to these. To change our message for the sake of these will result in losing those who would glory in nothing except the cross of the Lord Jesus. Any attempt to make our truth more acceptable by mitigating or eliminating the crucifixion of self will only end in horrible disaster.

Improvement Needed

Where we, as ministers, need to improve our "dialog" with modern man is in our own personal lives. Spiritual giants never fail to communicate Christ. The prayerful, studious, and ever-dependent-on-the-Lord type of minister is the relevant man today. It is not the uniqueness of message presenta­tion or persuasive gimmicks that pro­foundly move men to God. The man pos­sessed by the power of the Holy Spirit who lifts up the crucified One in a simple, clear, direct manner is the man of the hour. The man who visits, prays, and pleads for the souls of men because he loves them is build­ing a church "where the action is." The space-age church may be filled with mem­bers whose talents and abilities are being utilized in a far different manner from that of the man a millennium ago, but when it comes to true religion—nothing has changed. It is the same gospel, the same truth, the same principles lived out in a twentieth-century life. Making Christ real to the people demands that Christ reign supreme in us. It is only in this way that relevancy ceases to be a theory and becomes a reality.

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J.R. Spangler, Associate Secretary, Ministerial Association, General Conference

April 1967

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