It is not the church’s job to make the gospel “relevant” in the superficial sense of making its teachings fit with what our culture thinks. Our task is to show the Bible’s relevance in the substantial sense of being a timeless Word with things to say to every changing time and place.
I must admit there was a time in my ministry when I worried that the Bible seemed out of date and so irrelevant. I worried away, seeking “connection points” and “cultural signals” that could show my audience—whether live or in print—that Jesus is as relevant as MTV. Those who have read any of my recent works will know that I have not actually abandoned the “Areopagean” task of showing how the Risen Judge speaks to contemporary culture. But something changed in my ministry about ten years ago. Something dawned on me—or, more likely, was pointed out to me—that dispelled the worry.
Cultures are constantly changing, in some respects improving, in some respects getting worse, but always in flux. And yet the people of every particular culture think their special perspective is the high point. In this sense we are products of our time and place.
If the Bible affirmed what every passing culture believed, that would surely reveal that it was not a body of wisdom for every culture through all time. Imagine, however, that there was a book containing eternal wisdom for all cultures. What should we expect to find? We would discover that it was always at odds with every culture at some point, for cultures are always in flux, sometimes coinciding with the Truth, sometimes departing from it.
The true relevance of the gospel is found in its studied irrelevance to any particular culture, whether ancient Corinthian or modern New Yorker. We do not need another message that affirms what we already think in all our foibles and cultural particularities. We surely need one that is free to challenge, rebuke, frighten, and enlighten us, as well as comfort and affirm us when appropriate. That message is the gospel. It is precisely because the gospel was not crafted to endorse ancient Athenians or modern Americans that it is wonderfully relevant to both.
In this post-Christian age, exposing the myths of progress and relevance will allow our hearers to contemplate the possibility that something as old as the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the most “modern” men and women with the truth they did not know they were looking for.