How do we maintain a
truly relevant church
for the next generation?
“As a unit, the Christian church is at a crossroads. One path is the old way of order, which some believe has led to a decrease in membership. Down another path, traditions are merged with new media and experimental methods of outreach, but the results are yet to be determined.” This was the beginning of a recent article on churches in our local paper, the Gwinnett Daily Post. On a short ten-minute drive from the parsonage to our church in Lawrenceville you can pass by more than half a dozen other church facilities. On Sunday morning many of the churches in our area will have lots packed full of cars and will even need the assistance of the Lawrenceville police department to help direct traffic before and after their services. When we see the “outward prosperity” of other churches, we may ask ourselves, “Are we doing something wrong? Do we need to make changes in order to maintain relevance to the next generation? Should we make changes for the people of the next generation?” Let us study this topic in the light of God’s revealed will – His Holy Word – and may we all seek to do His will, and look for His blessing.
The choice of words for our title is important. The word “maintain” reveals two important things: 1) it assumes that the statement is currently true (“We are relevant”) and 2) it declares that this relevance can be lost (“How do we stay relevant?”).
Similarly, the word “relevant” is important. According to Webster’s Dictionary, relevant means: “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand”. Do our churches in the CLC have significant and demonstrable bearing for our society? Are we in danger of losing that significant and demonstrable bearing for the coming generation?
Here we come to a big problem. The problem is that many times churches try to make relevance “relative”. They do this in two main ways: 1) They redefine relevance to mean what people WANT, not what they NEED (Church Growth Movement), or 2) They say that relevance depends on the person because everyone needs something different (Social Gospel). If you define relevance as meeting the wants of the people instead of the needs, or meeting their physical needs instead of their spiritual needs, then all of sudden you have made relevance subjective - relative to the desires of the majority. If relevance is defined in that way, we might ask: “When has the orthodox church ever been relevant for the current generation?” With that definition we would have to say that an orthodox church could never be relevant! But true relevance is not subjective, it is very objective. Relevance has to do with the real need of the people, and there is one thing that all people need – deliverance from sin! This need is not subjective, depending on who you are. Paul says: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). There is nothing relative about it.
Question: What makes a church have significant bearing or impact on people? Answer: How it deals with this problem of sin. The answer to the problem of sin can only come from the Word of God. Any other solution to that problem will fail. The Psalmist declared: “This is my comfort in my affliction, For Your word has given me life” (Psalm 119:50). Because it reveals God’s plan of salvation for us, the Word of God is always relevant. “The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of the LORD endures forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25).
Preach the Word - Faithfully
God has given us His Word to lead all people to the knowledge of “the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). The truth of God’s Word is not relative, dependant upon when and where we live. God’s Word does not change with the whims, ideas or scientific discoveries of this life. God’s desire is for us to faithfully proclaim His Word, as it is, and in its entirety. Through the prophet Jeremiah the LORD said, “he who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully” (Jeremiah 23:28); Paul told Timothy, “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16); and Jesus declared: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). To remain relevant, our churches must continue to teach God’s Word in its truth and purity.
Law & Gospel
Before His ascension Jesus told His disciples: “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:46-48). The words “repentance” and “remission of sins” remind us of the two-fold message of the church: Law and Gospel. Sin and Grace. These two work together. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). The Law demonstrates the direness of our predicament. It reveals the problem of sin and our need for forgiveness in Christ. Then the Gospel comes to the rescue with the assurance of salvation in the work of Jesus the Christ. Both are necessary. A relevant church is one that proclaims both Sin and Grace; Law and Gospel.
Who are we?
So, let’s review the questions we posed earlier. 1) Do our churches in the CLC have significant and demonstrable bearing for our society? Certainly! Our churches proclaim the teaching of God’s Word in all its parts, and boldly declare both law and gospel. 2) Is there a danger of losing that significant and demonstrable bearing for the coming generation? Certainly! There is always a danger of caving to the pressures of culture or society and making the Word of God take a back seat to the thoughts of the day. For this reason the apostle Paul exhorts: “I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
Where are we going?
Our goal should not be to become the fastest growing church in the United States over the next twenty years. The truth of God’s Word will never be “popular” in the eyes of the world. Instead our goal should be to faithfully proclaim the truth of His Word to the people of our world, with the confidence that the LORD will work through that Word to create and strengthen faith in the hearts of those who are His (Isaiah 55:11).
Do we need to make changes in order to maintain relevance to the next generation? As long as we retain the truth of God’s Word we can be certain that ours is a relevant church which will meet the real needs of sinners. This should be first and foremost in our hearts and minds as we move forward and train a new generation of believers in Christ in the CLC.
With that being said, it is evident that there is a subjective element in our work as a church. The message of the church is objective, because it is based on the clear Word of God, but the way the message is proclaimed is going to vary. Our pastors have very different preaching styles, our congregations use different forms of liturgy in their worship, and even Bible translations vary from church to church. Does this change the objective nature of the message that we proclaim? Not at all!
These issues can affect the objective relevance of the church (i.e. dealing with the need for salvation by the faithful preaching the Word of God through the Law and the Gospel). For example: A sermon that is a great story, but is not based on the Word of God, and does not address sin and grace might be culturally relevant (relates to what people want), but not Scripturally relevant (relates to what people really need). The same thing can be said about hymns, worship services, and Bible translations. They can all be watered down to the point where they might be culturally relevant, but not are no longer Scripturally relevant. This is one of the concerns that we all have as we address these issues of change. We see the changes that are being made in other church bodies and we often see a correlation: Changes in worship, hymns and Bible translations go hand in hand with changes in doctrine - away from orthodoxy. Some may feel that if we make changes in our worship, hymns or Bible translations that we will become heterodox. So we become gun-shy because we don’t want to go down the same road.
But changes in the nature of worship do not mandate a change from orthodoxy to heterodoxy. When Luther made changes in the worship of the German people (liturgy, hymns and Bible translation) it was a move from the heterodox to orthodox. Luther was not eager to make such changes, but he understood the necessity for the people. For Him these changes were a matter of understanding and instruction.
Take for example the events of Pentecost in Acts chapter two. The disciples were “all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). The reason? To communicate in the language of the people the “wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:8,11). If we do not clearly communicate the truth of God’s Word to the people who come to our churches, the relevance of the message is lost on our hearers.
This issue concerning the understanding of our members (especially our younger members) is one which we face again right now. Although the Old King James Version of the Bible is a beautiful and very solid translation of the Bible, we realize that the language of that time period is not easily understood by the majority of people today. Many of our churches have already made a change to the more readable New King James Version for Bible readings in our worship services.
What about the language of our liturgy? (How many people know what “meet, right, and salutary” means? - TLH p.25; How about Sabaoth? - TLH p. 26). What about the language of our hymns? (What is a guerdon? - TLH 513:4; What is does requite mean? - TLH 143:9; How about the use of the word impotent in Hymn 149:3?). These are just a few examples of some of the terms that are either not understood or misunderstood by many of our members (these are questions that have been brought to me by my members). Isn’t there something we can do to help our people better understand and learn in our worship? Education and instruction in our liturgy and hymns is needed and can be very helpful. The meaning and purpose of the liturgy can and should be explained in Bible classes or special narrative services ; parts of hymns can be referenced during the service and difficult words explained ; alternate Bible translations can be referenced or referred to for explanation.
We should do everything we can to tell the wonderful works of God in the language of the people. This relates to our liturgy forms, our hymns and our even the Bible translation we use in our worship service. Should we make changes for the people of the next generation? We should not give on anything that would contradict or undermine the truth of God’s Word. But we can make changes in these areas that would remain faithful to the Word of God, declare both Law and Gospel, and yet be more appropriate and understandable to our people and the next generation.
As a church we ought to follow the example of the apostle Paul in his own ministry: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more... I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19,22). Paul would never compromise the teaching of the Word of God, but he was willing to do anything and everything else he could to win the more. There will always be some for such change and others against. As we deal with these issues we must be sympathetic and understanding of the reasons on both sides. The topic should be approached slowly and with an attitude of love and instruction. Decisions should finally be made by the congregation, and not by the pastor. The pastor’s role should be to guide everyone with the Word of God, and to encourage all to act in love for one another.
The Bottom Line
May God grant that we continue to proclaim His Word in its truth and purity by means of the Law and Gospel, so that we remain a truly relevant church. As we declare His saving Word among the nations, let us evaluate how we are proclaiming that message to our hearers and be concerned about the understanding of our people. Finally may God help us to trust that His ever-relevant Word will bring about results according to His divine will!
Preserve Your Word, O Savior, To us this latter day,
And let Your kingdom flourish; Enlarge Your Church, we pray.
Oh, keep our faith from failing; Keep hope’s bright star aglow.
Let nothing turn us from You while wand’ring here below.
Preserve Your Word and preaching, the truth that makes us whole,
The mirror of Your glory, the pow’r that saves the soul.
Oh, may this living water, this spring of heav’nly grace,
Sustain us while h ere living until we see Your face. Amen.
Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, Georgia by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.
If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew