By Hope Bolinger, Crosswalk.com
You don’t have to see the newest Spider-Man movie, because pastor decided to incorporate a lesson from the movie into the sermon.
We see this now more than ever. Pastors, worship leaders, and churches try to be relevant or cool to keep attendance up, make Christianity more appealing for today’s masses, or mix things up from the traditional approach.
Should pastors attempt to be relevant or cool? Let’s highlight scriptural verses on catering to audiences, focus on the timelessness of God’s word, and unwrap how to practically be relevant without succumbing to culture. I hope it helps you discern, on a case-by-case basis, whether it’s better to keep the Spider-Man analogies in theaters, or to use them (when relevant) in the sanctuary.
Speakers in the Gospel had to be relevant.
With the rise of apostasy in Christianity, Skillet singer John Cooper spoke out against Christians trying to make Christianity relevant. I agree with him, so let me clarify my terminology before we highlight examples in the Gospel who catered their messages to certain audiences.
If, by relevant, we mean succumbing to the doctrines, ideals, and ideas of culture that clearly counter the message of Scripture, then yes. We need to abandon relevancy like a plague.
But, if by relevant, we mean meeting an audience at a starting point from their cultural perspective, easing them into a logical progression of steps that concludes the veracity of Christianity via a classical apologetic method...then yes, relevance can be used as a powerful tool in sermons.
Let me break this down. By starting on common ground between two worldviews, we can show:
- the similarities between the two,
- where Christianity differs, and
- why Christianity is the ultimate source of truth.
Let’s use the example of Paul.
Paul speaks to a Greek audience in Acts 17:22-34. He starts with common ground between the two of them: they are both religious and worship a deity. He points to a statue dedicated to an unknown God and leads them through a logical argument to assert the truth of Christianity.
But he does start with the worldview of his audience. Whenever he speaks to a Jewish person, such as when Stephen spoke to the Sanhedrin, he used Old Testament examples (Acts 7) to point them to the truth of the Gospel.
If Paul had done the same with the Greek audience by using Old Testament stories, he would’ve isolated them. However, he meets them where they are and guides them to the truth.
However, biblical speakers also needed to be countercultural.
However, in any sermon given in the New Testament, the speaker has to counter-culture at one point.
In the Paul example, he talks about the resurrection. Now, for the Greeks, resurrection was a laughable idea. In fact, several sneer at him for such an idea and stop listening. Paul had to have known going in how his audience would react to the teaching, but he proceeds to assert it anyway.
For Stephen, although he uses several examples from the Old Testament, he concludes at the end of his apology that the Sanhedrin and Jewish people missed the coming of the Messiah and ended up murdering him in the process.
They don’t take to this idea well and stone-kill him for what they perceive to be a blasphemous teaching.
As Christians, we have to prepare ourselves for adverse reactions to any teachings we give in church that may be countercultural. We may see a massive drop in church attendance, condemnations on blogs and on social media, and the possible death of some churches.
But we have to keep in mind God’s word is everlasting. Teachings we may accept within its pages were countercultural in other time periods, and vice versa. No matter what the world asserts as truth for the time being, we have to turn to the Truth and preach it.
How to practically be relevant in the church:
How do we strike a balance between meeting our audience where they are but in a way that points to the everlasting word of Scripture instead of our biased cultural perspective?
1. Back everything up with Scripture.
If a pastor never cracks open a Bible during a sermon or service but just tells anecdotes and pop culture references, this should wave red flags. Although we can find truths of Christianity woven into different media, we should never supplant the Word of God with the words of the world.
2. Make sure there’s at least one item in a sermon that challenges a congregation.
In every sermon we encounter in the New Testament, there’s at least one item that would be countercultural. Ensure the church tackles difficult doctrines and doesn’t just preach the feel-good sermons.
3. Be open to feedback.
As a writer, I miss errors unless an editor or beta reader points out plot holes, grammar mistakes, etc. to me. Sometimes pastors may need an editor or beta reader of sorts to help keep them accountable to preaching sermons that tackle the hard topics just as much as the easier ones.
Sure, you can still use those Spider-Man analogies, but make sure to go beyond any Hollywood veneer of power and responsibility and back everything up with the indomitable truth of Scripture. We are in this world in an exact temporal place and culture, but we do belong to an everlasting kingdom.
Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 400 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 6,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog. Her modern-day Daniel, “Blaze,” (Illuminate YA) released in June, and they contracted the sequel “Den” for July 2020. Find out more about her here.
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