Can the church be "relevant" and thrive?

The temptation to be merely relevant, which risks a compromised identity

Jay Gallimore is president of the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Lansing, Michigan.

We cannot help but notice the mega-churches around us. They have highly visible ministries, so well executed that everything about them seems to breathe success. Then we observe our own churches, many small and struggling, and we cannot help wondering what's wrong.

In some respects, we are unnecessarily hard on ourselves. When we are, the view we take of our Church tends to be one-sided, so that we ignore the undeniable strengths with which God has gifted the Seventh-day Adventist Church worldwide. We too easily forget God's great providence in our past, and especially in the present.

So before we rush to make hasty comparisons with other churches, we need to count the blessings that have made us what we are, and assess the larger picture of God's favor in the Church we serve.

Evidence of God's presence

Flying international flags, as a megachurch does in my neighborhood, does not in itself make an enterprise international. The truth is that such flags may belie a longing to have the global ministry that Seventh-day Adventists already have. Our humble beginnings would never have predicted the phenomenal global growth with which God has blessed us. Each year the number of Seventh-day Adventists compared to the world population increases, and the growth of the Church is not just in terms of member ship per se.

It's good and it's encouraging to consider the breadth and depth of the Adventist world presence. Our global educational system, with the flaws we know it has, is nevertheless a class act. What other church has the kind of health ministry ours has? Then there is ADRA with its far-flung ministry, along with thou sands of local Community Service centers around the world. There is an impressive infrastructure of youth camps across North America and elsewhere. And while many Christian groups have successful evangelistic outcomes, there is no one who succeeds at public evangelism globally as we do. Our beautiful churches dot the land. Our camp meetings are places where thousands gather for spiritual refreshment.

What about the impact of the publishing ministry of our Church? The magazine you are reading is a minimal fraction of the literature books, journals, pamphlets, periodicals circulating the earth in all kinds of languages. And then there's Adventist World Radio and all kinds of other broadcast ministries, both denominational and lay operatives, along with an exploding Internet presence. And the list could go on. Are the approaches and growth strategies of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as ineffective as some may sincerely perceive them to be?

Yet some may say, "Look at North America. While our membership is growing in ethnic communities, our growth in the mainstream is very slow, and in 'middle class' communities these mega-churches are succeeding. If we don't do something, we are going to lose a great deal of talent and support that are badly needed to move the world Church."

Do our changes hurt or help?

Without question, these are urgent concerns, but will our creative energy be spent on change that hurts or helps? Do we opt for change believing that change alone will bring results? Do we really know what the Church should or will be like when we are done changing it? Have we carefully considered the will of God Himself? Or are we just telling Him what results we want? Have we actually studied how the Bible and the gift of the writings we hold dear actually define success?

For the last ten or fifteen years some Adventist congregations have been experimenting with the growth methods of some of the megachurches. Out of this has come "celebration worship," which many have believed would transform a time-warped Seventh-day Adventist Church. Some of these well-intended ventures have proved disappointing and damaging.

In one high-profile case, the senior pastor of a 1,000-member Adventist congregation left the ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and joined with those who have traditionally denounced the Adventist Church and its faith. One of the leading elders of this congregation started another congregation that worshiped on Sunday.

The Church went through further confusion and sadness, especially when two new pastors were dismissed over doctrinal issues. As a result, the congregation went through several splits. Decline in attendance and membership followed until the remaining members could no longer keep up the payments on their large new facility.

Certain attitudes, values, and theological premises are characteristic of these movements. They may be described this way: "Adventist congregations should not be afraid to replicate the methods and worship forms of other successful churches. Success is largely defined as a big attendance with an impressive panoply of exciting upfront programming. Many lifestyle values are seen to be eighteenth-century holdovers. Love-and-acceptance is the almost exclusive theme, virtually eclipsing many other substantive matters. The justifying grace of God in the human heart is emphasized to the neglect of His sanctifying work in human lives.

It is threatening to people to be too specific about actual issues of right and wrong. Above all, the church is to be friendly. Thus doctrine should be downplayed, especially if it is distinctive and may lead those we want to reach to feel uncomfortable or excluded. Baptism does not need to include the constraints of belonging to a particular church. The organized or corporate Church must not be permitted to discourage or prevent such a ministry from flourishing."

In all of this, serious questions confront me. Here are some of them:

Doesn't making disciples include training born-again Christians how to follow Jesus? Can we reconcile a theology that separates baptism from the body of Christ? Is the Sabbath being marginalized in the name of relevancy or convenience, and is it to become just another day off? How biblical is much of this teaching? How wise is it, considering the big picture? Does such an approach make disciples of Jesus or disciples of the minister or the church? Inasmuch as cults are built around one strong personality, is there a heightened possibility that cultic characteristics will imperceptibly dominate in some situations?

True worship

Once some churches have evolved into a cold, meaningless formalism, they become susceptible to adopting outlooks and practices that would otherwise not even be considered. In the name of being relevant or meaningful, dubious methods and practices are sometimes given an opportunity to flourish.

The congregation's singing is done with little or no enthusiasm. Scripture reading is mumbled through. Heartfelt praise and thanksgiving are scarce to nonexistent. The sound of fervent prayer is replaced with all but memorized rote repetitions. Spirit-filled, biblical preaching is replaced by light, anecdotal entertainment or empty monologing. The greatest passion is seen in nominating commit tees, conference constituencies, and at the time of pastoral changes. Reverence is lost either in an imposed silence or a disrespectful noise because faith in an awesome God has been lost. There is little eagerness for wor ship to be carried out with excellence before a glorious God.

Our simple worship should be fer vent and earnest. The praying, praising, preaching, speaking, singing, and giving should be our very best. Our faith needs to grasp the reality that we are in the heavenly temple, in the presence of God with 10,000 angels. Our worship should be full of power because the saints come to praise God for His latest acts and to tell others about His mercy and goodness.

True faith always creates a burden for souls that translates into soul-winning. All week we may live in the light and life of God so we can effectively talk to a dark and dying world. When this is going on, worship becomes the affirmation of the fact that Christ lives among us corporately because He lives in us personally. We and our churches need more than a revival, more than an emotional rush. We need a reformation, a great eschatological awakening.

If anything, the three angels' mes sages are more potent today than when first proclaimed. Truth has lost none of its energy. Yet, when we have not put away the rebellion in our hearts to the will of God; when some cast doubt on the message, even in the pulpit; when we turn God's church into some sort of social club; when we play fast and loose with the Scripture then we will turn the worship of God into something He cannot accept.

We worship to please Him, not to entertain us.


"Relevancy" as a priority can take churches into strange places. No one, of course, wants anything to do with irrelevance, but in the name of being relevant many of the great Reformation churches have all but made their peace with far-reaching aspects of evolutionary theory, and with at least some of the outcomes of higher critical presupposition about the Bible. This capitulation has deeply affected the theological verities of much in contemporary Western Christianity.

Perhaps the most influential effect has been the slow replacement of biblical authority with mere philosophical rationalism, and lowest-common denominator consensus. Thus any definitive moral voice (especially when it comes to some of our most pressing issues) has been reduced to a muffled whisper or to silence in moments of ethical crisis.

In this vacuum, strange worship is being introduced and experimented with. In some charismatic churches people mimic the strutting chickens and barking/howling dogs. They get "drunk with the spirit" and have to be taken home in taxis.

But it is not only these extremes that offer strange fire on the altars of worship. Some of the independent, nondenominational mega-congregations have become renowned for their drama, which is to the point of rivaling professional theater. It appears sometimes as if this entertainment aspect of the worship offered, has become (along with the use of some forms of music) an end in itself.

The apostles were not into drama. They didn't need to be. This doesn't mean there is something wrong with a well-conceived and presented skit, but when drama becomes the main communicator of the gospel and the focus of worship, it is alien.

Some sincerely argue that drama is more effective for the gospel than preaching and teaching, and tragical ly, that may indeed be true when comparing poor preaching to well-conceived and presented drama. But while Jesus certainly used story and parable, He didn't use drama because there was power in His teaching and the Spirit of God was upon Him.

It is worth noting that the medium of drama is not new. One only has to stand in the ruins of the magnificent theater at Caesarea to realize that this was a serious and highly popular medium in Jesus' day. He could easily have built an attractive drama team. He could have packaged truth in that medium so powerfully that people's emotions would have been like putty in His hands. But He didn't. Instead, He used simple but clear means of communication. He depended on the Spirit of Truth to change and impress hearts. Interestingly, large numbers of those who followed Him were young people through whom He launched His Church.

Contrary to some opinions, theology does drive our methodology. Is there a shift in our convictions? Change is often well entrenched before someone notices that confession and practice are no longer synonymous. Can we use the meth ods and sounds of rock to prepare a people to meet their God?

We confess a holy and an awesome faith. That is why the Church must be into truth, not limited to entertain ment; it must be into repentance, not manipulation; into building the whole of the person, not only his or her emotional being. We must not underestimate God's power to use simple means. "Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God."

Have we redefined success by redefining worship? Are we moving from a God-centered worship to a per son-centered worship? A God-centered worship demands faithfulness in every part of the person. Being kind to people and being sensibly modest in dress are all part of the same New Testament call to Christ-likeness. The world is not at all reticent in telling us what to wear and how to act. We will never make a Christlike lifestyle comfy with our carnal hearts.

Too many shallow articles, books, and sermons with their usual thrust of "Don't be a legalist. Don't be unkind. Don't be judgmental" have been poured on us. While this concern is basic to what Jesus cautioned against in the community in which He lived, He also calls the believer to holiness and wholeness. We must know for sure that we are saved by faith alone, but we must also be sure we know that we are saved by a faith that works, and that we are certainly not saved by faithlessness.

Pentecost brought results. It did so for a reason. The apostles' greatest joy was not in learning the latest attendance figures, but in hearing that their converts were faithful.

Much can be said for being creative and relevant. Of course we can learn from other churches and organizations. But in order to thrive, that learning must be accountable to the Bible and all the light God has given the Seventh-day Adventist Church. When our ideas and approaches are sired and shepherded by God's Word, there will be a real, progressive movement in the church.

Much in the movement to accommodate this philosophy and that person is an admission that the power of biblical Christianity is absent. Conversely, any satisfaction with cold formalism is an admission that we are in a deep sleep, our lamps burning low, and our flasks empty of the special oil of the Spirit. The results of both are going to be disastrous.

When the apostles preached, the sword of the gospel cut and saved across all cultures. The Holy Spirit's arrival in Pentecostal power made their witness effective. That's what they tarried in Jerusalem to obtain.

The truth thrives by solid biblical preaching that calls people to change.

It thrives when it gushes glorious worship to its Creator and Redeemer.

It thrives when it lifts up a Christ who justifies and sanctifies.

It thrives when it is fearless in the face of sin.

It thrives when it pours unselfish love into a hurting world.

It thrives when it embraces the pains and sorrows of the downtrodden of our society.

It thrives when spiritual values are more important than politics.

It thrives when virtue in its members is more important than crowds in its pews.

It thrives when it seeks first the kingdom of heaven, no matter what.

It thrives when it pours rivers of grace and energy into saving the lives of sinners.

It thrives when it moves more by faith than by money.

Jesus opened and closed His ministry with "repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Between repentance and eternal life stands the first angel's call to worship (Rev. 14:6, 7).

We thrive when we give that call to all the world, pure and undiluted.

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Jay Gallimore is president of the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Lansing, Michigan.

April 2003

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More Articles In This Issue

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Patterns of pastoral function that frustrate, and what may be done about them

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God the Holy Spirit: His divine personhood and ministry

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