Contextualizing the Gospel to the Trendy Un-Churched

I’m just not a trendy guy.  I don’t like fashion trends, musical trends, or the latest trends in political correctness.  I especially don’t like church trends.  You know the type: whatever it takes to entertain the audience and bring them back.  PT Barnum had nothing on the current crop of trendy preachers.

I listen to sermons on a regular basis.  A friend asked that I watch some videos from a local preacher and offer some feedback.  He’s a young preacher (chronologically and experientially) and he’s leading a young, vibrant church, I was told.  Given the explosion of growth he was experiencing, I was curious to hear the sort of message he was propounding.

“Trendy” doesn’t start to describe it.  Because the congregation was filled with upwardly-mobile 20-somethings, the message was purposefully and specifically designed to appeal to their hipster sensibilities.  For instance, the apostles were referred to as “12 dudes” and Jesus was portrayed as a sort of life coach rather than the Lord of glory.  It was painful to watch.

A number of years ago, in an effort to draw a younger demographic, churches began offering an alternative form of church service, known as “contemporary worship.”  They traded their organs for electric guitars, skipped the robes in favor of blue jeans, and middle aged preachers spiked their hair and grew “soul patches” below their lower lip to show how hip and relevant they were.

Relevant.  That became the buzzword.  The church needed to make Jesus more relevant.  And that meant jettisoning the traditions of the church and embracing every movement, trend, novelty and “purpose driven” book/DVD/study guide that came down the pike.  The church became a marketplace for comedians, performance art, pop stars, and purveyors of psycho-babble.  And along the way, the gospel — the plain and simple recitation of the elements of Biblical truth and doctrine — fell by the wayside.

Yet, there was no sense of worry.  No panic.  After all, the seats were being filled and the coffers were growing fat.  In a word, it was “working.”  And the new buzzword became “contextualizing.”  For instance, when Mark Driscoll grew Mars Hill Church to megachurch status wearing Mickey Mouse shirts and biker chains, he said that he was “contextualizing” the message to the audience he was addressing.  Because it “worked,” others followed the model.  And a trend was born.

Driscoll claimed that his young, Seattle urbanite congregation was mostly “un-churched.”  That’s why he had to make church “relevant” to them.  And that brings us to the local guy I mentioned earlier.

He also claimed that his congregation was “un-churched.”  Hence, the various amusements and entertainments that accompanied his message. That’s why his message was sprinkled with language and story-telling conventions that weren’t found in the text, but which made the Bible more “approachable,” said he.

As I listened to him talk, I couldn’t avoid the impression that he thought the Bible, as written, was insufficient.  It had to be made more relevant to the listening audience.  It had to be “contextualized.”  It had to be accompanied by entertainment.  In short, it had to be improved.

Why?  Because the people to whom he was speaking were “un-churched.”

I’m a Bible guy.  I actually believe that the Word of God is sufficient to accomplish whatever God intends for it to accomplish.

"So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;  It will not return to Me empty,  without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:11)

It does not need to be watered down or made more relevant in order for the Almighty to do what He intends to do.  As Charles Spurgeon rather famously said, “The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.”

But here’s my point (and I do have one) — the Bible knows nothing of “un-churched” people.  I contend that the folk the trendy preachers are appealing to are not un-churched, they are un-saved.  And dumbing-down the Bible in order to make it relevant to the unsaved is utterly contrary to every Biblical example I can think of.  No prophet took that approach.  In fact, they so feared and revered God that they would always and only say whatever God instructed them to say.

But Balaam replied to Balak, “Did I not tell you, ‘Whatever the LORD speaks, that I must do’?” (Numbers 23:26)

Neither Jesus nor any of the apostles ever sugar-coated the message of judgment and salvation in order to appease the unbelievers. And, to my way of thinking, failing to preach the whole counsel of God, the way God Himself presented it, is a dereliction of duty.  It is a sure demonstration that the church has forgotten its purpose and calling.  The church exists for the proper care and feeding of the sheep, not for entertaining goats.

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)

One last thing: Paul repeatedly called for unity in the church.  Genuine Christian unity is the result of sound doctrine.  Teaching the Bible is the only way to create unity within a congregation. If everyone believes differently, unity is impossible.  When the preacher demonstrates a low view of Scripture, or when he teaches by example that the Bible is flexible or is merely an outline on which we can hang our own opinions, that attitude will be reflected by the congregation.  And confusion ensues. Sound doctrine leads to healthy, grown-up Christianity.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-5)

Altering the gospel in order to make it more appealing to the unsaved is a fool’s errand. This is serious work we’re engaged in, not to be taken lightly.  And a proper reverence for God’s word is critical to the task.

Then again, I’m a less-than-trendy Bible guy who pastors a local non-mega congregation.

But, I’m happy to be that way.

10 thoughts on “Contextualizing the Gospel to the Trendy Un-Churched

  1. Scott

    I didn’t think the Bible was intended to preserve the traditional Church format. I thought it was intended to preserve mankind’s relationship with God by reaching us with the knowledge of Christ. Whoever is not against us is for us. If the Word is preached, good is done. I don’t expect a preacher to die to reach the unchurched, but I expect him to consider all means available to him, including swallowing old fashioned pride and speaking in terms his audience understands.

    1. Jim Mc. Post author

      I appreciate that you took the time to offer a reply. But, I don’t think you’ve quite understood the intent of this article, Scott. It is not a defense of traditional worship services. I mentioned contemporary worship because it opened the door to various types of marketing and merchandising in the church. It led the way to the church becoming a platform for the creation of “christian celebrities.” And that’s what I’m opposed to. The tendency toward editing, truncating, or creating a milquetoast version of the gospel is the natural result of prioritizing church attendance over the church’s mandate to feed the sheep.

      You quoted (or at least alluded to) Jesus’ words in Mark 9:40. Jesus actually said those words in response to John asking about an exorcist casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Neither that phrase, nor its context, should be used as a catch-all that neutralizes the Bible’s repeated calls for “sound doctrine,” the instruction to “preach the word,” or giving heed to “every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”

      By the way, Jesus stated the same idea as negative in Matthew 12:30 —

      “He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.” (Matt. 12:30)

      It’s that scattering that I am opposed to.

      Sadly, there is a tendency for some preachers to sacrifice truth for relevance. We should not fear “the whole counsel of God.” God’s people are not offended by God’s word. And that scattering can be done in traditional forms of worships as well as in contemporary forms. It comes down to the question of whether or not the truth is being told.

      Thanks again for offering your feedback.

      Jim Mc.

  2. Sheila S.

    Pastor Jim,
    That is such a timely blog you wrote. Much of the disunity among even church goers is the mishandling of the text as you point out. Churches are creating their own problems.
    Thank you for rightly dividing the Word of God Pastor Jim.

  3. Brandon

    Hi Jim,

    I understand that you are adamantly against making the Bible trendy to accommodate the un-churched. But do you think “contemporary christian worship” in itself is bad?

    1. Jim Mc. Post author

      Hi Brandon. When it comes to the question of “contemporary worship,” I think it’s more a matter of substance than form. I’ve heard plenty of good contemporary worship songs and I’ve heard more than my fair share of bad ones. But, in all aspects of our worship, the question is: Who is the object of our worship? Are we worshipping Him in a way that brings Him glory, or does our process glorify the people who are doing the leading? Does our worship reflect an appropriate respect?

      So, it’s not a question of whether it’s contemporary or traditional/liturgical, it’s a question of what the purpose, object, and content of the worship actually is.

  4. Ron

    Very timely message… this resonates the words to the 7 fellowships of Revelation 2 & 3.
    Return to the first works…do not adopt the teachings of Balaam…do not suffer the teachings of Jezebel…though we ‘think’ we are rich (with big churches and congregations), check to see if we are ‘poor, naked and wretched’.
    Great article. Thank you, for boldly sharing The True Gospel…
    Repentance produces Salvation.


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