Idolatry on Sunday Mornings, Pt. 8

This is my final post in this series. It’s a little longer than the others, but it’s actually much shorter than it could be…The last idol I want to speak to is the idol of RELEVANCE.

Churches can become irrelevant for any number of reasons. Spiritual pride can keep us from considering that non-Christian guests may not understand our highly developed “Christian-speak.” Administrative incompetence might make it difficult for people to find us, or to enjoy being with us once they do (possibly due to crowded conditions, erratic temperature control, musty smells, etc.). A faulty understanding of what it means to be “in the world but not of the world” may result in a narrow interpretation of what external practices constitute godliness. Churches that don’t use electricity are one example that comes to mind. Each of the churches I’ve described here would bring greater glory to God by becoming more “relevant.”

However, the idol of relevance is rooted in the fear that people may not like us because we seem different from them. We want them to know we eat at the same restaurants, watch the same TV shows, listen to the same bands, laugh at the same jokes, and go to the same movies that they do. Our greatest fear is being perceived as out of touch.

Obviously, there are many times we’ll engage in the same activities as non-Christians. It’s one way that we maintain a conversation with and presence in the world. However, we’re fighting a losing battle when relevance becomes our aim – to convince the world we’re just like them. There are aspects of our culture that we clearly want to set ourselves apart from, simply because they contain so much that is opposed to glorying in Jesus Christ.

Martin Lloyd-Jones addressed the desire of preachers to be “relevant” in his book, Preaching and Preachers. His point is applicable to worship leaders as well.

“Our Lord attracted sinners because He was different. They drew near to Him because they felt that there was something different about Him. That poor sinful woman of whom we read in Luke 7 did not draw near to the Pharisees and wash their feet with her tears, and wipe them with the hair of her head. No, but she sensed something in our Lord – His purity, His holiness, His love – and so she drew near to Him. It was His essential difference that attracted her. And the world always expects us to be different. This idea that you are going to win people to the Christian faith by showing them that after all you are remarkably like them, is theologically and psychologically a profound blunder.” (p. 140)

Jesus possessed an “essential difference” that people, both religious leaders and prostitutes, were aware of. That difference included a profound humility, an unshakeable joy, and a servant heart. Ultimately, it was a refusal to bow to the god of this world, and an unyielding commitment to love His Father and obey His will. (Jn. 2:24-25, 5:30) Jesus related to sinners because He had come to give His life as a ransom for them. He hung around the “low-lifes” of his day enough to be accused of engaging in their sins (Lk. 7:34), yet we never get the impression he attended parties to prove that he was just like everyone there.

I could provide links to a number of church websites right here that would illustrate pursuing the idol of relevance. (After poking around the Internet, I’m convinced that truth is definitely stranger than fiction.) I decided not to do it, though. Like me, you may find it’s too easy to be tempted to self-righteousness, uncharitable judgment, or false accusation. I think the following description of the church in Acts succinctly communicates the distance that exists between the church and the world, and how God adds to His people in spite of it – or perhaps because of it. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women. (Acts 5:13-14 ESV)

What I believe every Christian pastor and leader needs to answer are questions like these: Are people who visit our church more aware of how different we are or how similar we are to them? Are the people in my church growing in their likeness to the values of Jesus Christ or the world? Do the songs we sing and the references we make communicate the supreme treasure of God’s Word or the godless pride of our age?

On a more personal note, as a leader I want to carefully watch my own intake. It’s revealing to measure how much time I actually spend reading, studying, and observing the thoughts of non-Christians for the purpose of being “relevant.” How much is necessary for me to enable meaningful contact with the world around me? That’s a question I need to answer from the Lord’s perspective, not mine or the world’s.

I’m in the middle of reading Os Guiness’ book Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance. It’s an excellent read. I think this quote says what I’d like to say better than I ever could:

“By our breathless chase after relevance without a matching commitment to faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity but our authority and our relevance. Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant.” (p. 15)

“Father, by your grace make us faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ – in our words, our deeds, and our thoughts. And like the early church, we trust that more than ever believers will be added to the Lord.”

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14 Responses to Idolatry on Sunday Mornings, Pt. 8

  1. Keith December 30, 2005 at 8:37 AM #

    Hi Bob
    I like your thoughtfulness and grace in what you write here.

    The Os Guiness quote sums up well the challenge that we face – that of finding in what ways we are supposed to be the same (relevance), and in what ways we should be different (faithfulness) to the world. It is a timely moment for us to think on this, as it is a key lesson of the incarnation – that Jesus became like us in every way yet was without sin – the same but different. The question then becomes for us – how do we “incarnate” Christ to this generation – making the divine visible and accessible to this culture, being in the world but not of it.

    I actually think that we are all – including those who seem obsessed by relevance – seeking this same goal. We need though a more thorough biblical framework and shared language for this task, to enable us to find a way forward beyond the sniping that so often typifies the debate.

    I think that the cross gives us that framework – Jesus’ life was shaped by accepting servanthood, sacrifice, and suffering in the pursuit of God’s life-giving agenda. This stands so much against the use and pursuit of wealth, power, and pleasure that are behind many of the idolotrous attitudes you identify.

    Thanks for your contribution. God bless you for the coming year.

  2. Paul Hayes December 30, 2005 at 10:29 AM #

    I heard a godly leader once state:
    “Worship Leaders: remember that the unsaved can’t worship.” It has been a focusing element in reminding me to arrest people’s attention to God and not the culture about us. Thanks for your many years of ministry. You have been used of God in my life and ministry. Paul

  3. dbctan January 1, 2006 at 5:12 PM #

    I thought that was a most relevant post. Thanks and God Bless.

  4. Franz Schneider January 3, 2006 at 9:11 PM #

    Hi Bob,

    I’ve been a part of Sovereign Grace Ministries for almost seven years now and just realized this site existed. Thank you so much for allowing the Lord to work through you as you provide worthwhile material that draws our attention to Biblical truth and doctrine. God has used your worship in music much in the process of transforming my life, and I never tire of the truth-filled music of Sovereign Grace Ministries–from old to new!

    Thanks again.

    In Christ our Savior,
    -Franz Schneider
    (Providence Community Church, Denver CO)

  5. Aaron Combs January 4, 2006 at 10:51 AM #

    I was directed to your site by a friend who posted a few quotes on a site of her own. I had a few problems with quotes that read there and thought that I would post them on your site just to get you opinion on them.

    It’s true that Christ came and presented something different, something that no one expected, but there were reasons He was different. First and foremost is that the people didn’t know what they were expecting. They wanted a conquering king, but what they needed was a Redeemer. The prophecies called for both, but the one is required before they other.
    Second, He was Christ. How different from everyone else around you can you get? God incarnate, the Second Adam, the Son of Man, the one born without sin. I don’t qualify for any of those titles. Yes, He came to be and live as a man; To feel, taste, touch, and understand what it means to be human, but he was and is still God.
    So…different, of course, but because of that He talked in ways that the people would understand along with they ways that they wouldn’t. His use of parables was commonplace for teachers of Christ’s day. The stories He told had characters that the people could respond to. In essence, they were relevant to the day and time. The truths are universal, but there are reasons no one understands what faith like a mustard seed means today.

    I completely agree that we cannot idolize relevancy. We can’t and shouldn’t idolize anything. But we cannot dismiss cultural relevance in the church as just another passing fad. We must simply remember that the message stays relevant no matter what decade it is, but our way of communicating that message can and, in my personal opinion, should change with in the cultural context. That includes the American context, not just overseas.

    Of course, what I think was meant here was an extension of what we as Christians are called too…an exemplary life, being above reproach. Which is different, from being culturally relevant. You can be relevant without being steeped in social vices. In any case, we really should make the separation here. Just a few of my thoughts.

    Like I wrote at the end, it’s simple a few of my thoughts nothing more. I understand what you mean in you post. We cannot live a life of sin and attract sinners to a life with Christ. There must be a difference in our lives, but I believe calling this being relevant is a bit misleading. On the other hand I’m not quite sure what to call it. Still I believe the key here is balance. Thank you for your blog, it’s one that I will certainly be returning too. As a young worship pastor it gives me another chance to see things from a perspective other than my own.

  6. Bob Kauflin January 4, 2006 at 1:18 PM #

    To Aaron:

    Thanks for your thoughtful, humble question/response to this post. You wrote:

    “We cannot dismiss cultural relevance in the church as just another passing fad. We must simply remember that the message stays relevant no matter what decade it is, but our way of communicating that message can and, in my personal opinion, should change with in the cultural context.”

    Amen. However, I think that decisions to change our way of communicating the eternal message of the Gospel can be made for the wrong reasons, with unintended consequences. That’s the point here. For instance, I may see the church down the street starting to use video because we live in a video culture. So I start looking for movie clips, and organize a video team, and start spending massive amounts of money on projectors and software for the purpose of staying in touch with the folks in my culture, who don’t like to read or hear preaching. Without a careful examination of my motives (do I just want to be on the cutting edge?), a thoughtful anticipation of the consequences (what will we have to STOP doing in order to START doing this?), and a theological basis for my actions (what biblical truths am I seeking to communicate more clearly through these changes?), I run the risk of idolatry, and possibly hindering my communication the Gospel.

    One more thought. I wouldn’t say that balance is our goal (commitment to Scripture vs. seeking to be relevant), but rather basing everything we do on a careful, thorough study of God’s Word. If we give ourselves to what God clearly lays out for us to do when we gather, we’ll have less time to pursue things that might be a distraction to those priorities.

    Thanks again for reading and responding. Feel free to follow up.

  7. em September 10, 2006 at 8:17 PM #

    Prophetic Untimeliness is an excellent book that I had the chance to read less than a year ago. “Relevant to what and why?” is a great question. Os doesn’t want us to be irrelevant, rather he challenges the notion that relevancy is more important than anything else.

    He quotes a 1966 resolution from the World Council of Churches saying, “the world must set the agenda for the church.”

    Os points out, in contradistinction, what all great theologians have known. He follows Augustine as well as Lewis when he says that the Christian faith is both world affirming and world denying. We are to speak the word of the Lord into our culture, he reminds us. The Lord is sovereign, not the culture. Though certainly, like the apostle Paul, we have our hearers in mind, and very personally so, when we seek to speak the word of the Lord to them. Indeed, the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for every culture, so it is most relevant to this culture, as Os points out!

    Anyway, this is a really great read, so, do pick it up if you get the chance and be challenged to practice what he calls “resistance thinking.” In short, he says this is: “the way of relevance with faithfulness.” Or at length, it: “balances the pursuit of relevance on the one hand with a tenacious awareness of those elements of the Christian message that don’t fit in with any contemporary age on the other.”

  8. S Hadley March 23, 2009 at 3:12 AM #

    Hey Mr Kauflin

    Yes, we often see worship as a way of pleasing God or trying to please him, but subtlely we try to please ourselves, honour ourselves and rob God of his rightful glory!

    You know, i never really thought that worship could be an idol in our lives but know i see.

    Pray that God would show us our idols and that we would repent of them, AMEN!

  9. Phill Firmin September 9, 2009 at 4:49 PM #

    I was introduced to this site by a friend and I thank the Lord for the wisdom He has given you in dealing with this subject. I have been experiencing some problems with concentration during worship and there are a number of issues here that will surely help me to focus more appropriately on dealing with certain distractions, albeit some are probably ‘idols in the cupboard’.

    I believe you can also make an idol of an issue or conflict within the Church, something you just ‘will not’ let go of, so once again thank you for the content and principles covered by Scripture.

    Indeed may God have all the glory!

  10. Tim Mathews January 18, 2010 at 10:41 AM #

    Hey Bob,

    Thank you for sharing. As a music leader in a church on Sunday morning, it is a constant struggle each week to ensure that the songs chosen for a particular service are honoring to God. That in itself can become an idol as I tend to focus more on perfection and flow instead of Christ and Him crucified.
    Your thoughts and insight have given me a lot to think about.

    Grace and peace,


  11. sam April 16, 2011 at 6:08 AM #

    God Bless you.

  12. Daniel December 30, 2011 at 1:08 PM #


    This blog of yours has been an eye-opener for me. I never thought things like that could actually steal my attention to God. Thanks for reminding us that we should pursue Christ-likeness in every aspect of our life for the glory of God.

    I just have a question. How are we going to seek those who are lost without compromising our faith, our obedience to God’s will? I was just a but confused with it. Thanks in advance.

  13. Adam June 4, 2012 at 12:55 AM #

    Great set of posts. 6&1/2 years after you wrote it, I’ve found it such a challenge. I have been involved in worship at the Christian Union at university and pretty much all the idols you have mentioned have clouded my view of the one to be praised above all else.

  14. Lorna Mathilda December 29, 2012 at 4:08 PM #

    I truly believe that God is speaking through you to all of us who are involved in leading His flock! I have been involved in worship at a church that I have left because of the people’s ‘I and me’syndrome.How any leaders can think that people are drawn to a church because of the music, is idolatry. It was a most difficult time in my life,but with a lot of prayers, God released me.However,I do continue to pray that God will open their spiritual eyes and that they will realize that worship is all about honouring and praising God and not about the awesome music that is played in the church. May God continue to direct your life.Be blessed.Lorna Mathilda

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