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Bowing at the Altar of Relevance

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Bowing at the Altar of Relevance: The Church Has Sold Out

By Lucas Land

The church has sold out. The same way punk music has sold out. It's impossible to be punk anymore. Being corporate is decidedly un-punk, and most punk bands are definitely corporate. Punk was once a movement, a radical underground movement of rebellion, anti-establishment, and anarchist ideals. Now rebellion has been marketed to the masses (see PBS's documentary Merchants of Cool). It's quite possible punk may not even exist, because it has become the institution it rebelled against—in the same way the church was once a movement and has become an institution, something it was never meant to be.

"Hey, that's my sacred cow you're butchering!" you may say. Well, I'm vegetarian, but a chunk of cow on the grill still smells good to me. Too often we've defined the Church in ways that are decidedly unbiblical (e.g., a building, a place, a worship service, a denominational structure, etc.). There isn't anything inherently wrong with these things, but they aren't church.

Our word churchoriginally came from the Greek word ekklesia. This word is actually a compound word that literally means "called out." Ekmeans out and it implies motion and movement. Klesiacomes from the Greek word kaleo, to be called. We're not called to stand still. We're called to movement, motion, and most importantly mission.

In 100 AD, the Roman Empire had a population of 40 million people. Out of the entire empire there were 25,000 Christians. In 300 AD the Empire had grown to 60 million people. That's a 50% growth in the population. How many Christians do you think there were after those 200 years? There were 22 million Christians in the Roman Empire. That's 8,800% growth.

Now consider a modern day example. In China, before Mao Tse Tung came to power there were 22 million Christians in China. After the communist revolution, all religion was officially outlawed and the government ordered Christians to be killed. For decades Christian's lives were threatened, seminaries were closed, Bibles became illegal, and meeting together was dangerous. The West had been kept out of China and we had no idea what happened to the Church in China. When people were finally allowed into China, they found that the Church had grown to 60 million (Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come Conference, Arlington, Tex., April, 23, 2005).

How did they do that? This kind of growth is unheard of in the West. They didn't have buildings, budgets, or programs. They didn't have seeker sensitive services or small group curriculum. They didn't have church growth conferences, seminaries, or degrees in youth ministry. They were at best tolerated in parts of the empire. At worst they were oppressed, persecuted, tortured, and killed.

There are a couple questions we should ask ourselves: (1) How did church become what it is today? and (2) Why do we do church the way we do when it doesn't work?

After Constantine converted to Christianity the church began to take on a very different shape. Not only did they have buildings and freedom to worship, the church had a place of prominence and even power. Since the time of Constantine, the Western Church has struggled with this role in society.

In an effort to become relevant to the world around us the church has sold out in ways we often hardly notice. Christian products are big business. Christian music isn't underground anymore, and Christian books are bestsellers. We've not only traded a movement for an institution, but a movement for a business.

In his book Mustard Seed versus McWorld, Tom Sine claims we've traded biblical values for the values of a new global economy. "(We) allow modern culture to arrange the furniture of our lives: forty- to eighty-hour work-weeks, single family detached housing, congested time schedules for our lives and children…. The problem with this is that we not only sanction giving our first allegiance to decisions about where to work, live, and rear our young; we permit modern culture, as part of the deal, to define our notions of the good life and better future."

Even youth ministry, which was birthed out of a vision and dream to reach young people in and outside the church with the Gospel, has become an institution. Churches are told by their denominations that they should hire a full-time youth minister. Youth ministry has become "the way it has always been."

We must recapture the tradition of the Prophets. They dared to remind the people of God of dangerous memories like the Exodus when God rescued them from Egypt. They dared to level dangerous criticism at the empire in which they lived. Like Daniel they pointed their fingers in the chest of the Empire and said, "I will not bow to your gods." They dared to make dangerous promises that God would take care of them, and then they lived out those promises by serving the poor and needy, showing mercy and compassion, and doing justice. Finally they sang dangerous songs that dared to give people hope in a hopeless world. They sang about a world beyond this one where justice rained down and we were all one. In singing these songs they brought this world into being here on earth (Walter Brueggeman, Cadences of Home).

The example of the famous missionary to the Celts, St. Patrick, serves as a model for engaging culture without selling out. Patrick was once a slave in Ireland and became fluent both in language and cultural understanding of the Celts. He sought to find the place where the gospel intersected the Celtic culture. For example, Celts had a strong belief in the power of things that come in threes. The concept of a triune God was a natural starting point for their understanding of the Christian faith.

The place the gospel intersects our culture today may be the idea of truth. Our culture has questioned ideas about truth and how we know things. The very thing so many Christians are scared of (an attack on capital "T" Truth) is the very place our culture can connect with Christianity. The doors are open for our culture to discover the mystery of our faith and God, and for us to rediscover it.

The way we approach doing and being church is foreign to many in our culture. We must re-imagine what it means to be the church in the world. We must find the point where the gospel and culture intersect without bowing at the altar of relevance. The Church must always be both countercultural and transformative, calling the world out of itself into something new and different—and at the same time relevant and accessible to the world it seeks to encounter. In this balance we'll encounter the divine present in the midst of our humanity. When we move beyond the temptation to swing too far one way or the other, assimilation to culture or isolation from it, we'll find the third way…following Jesus.

Lucas Land is the publisher of, a Web designer, former youth minister, seminarian, and member of a simple church, The Living Room, in Copperas Cove, Texas.

The above author bio was current as of the date this article was published.

©2005 Youth Specialties

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