Once upon a time a preacher son decided he would take all he had gained from the preaching and teaching of his father and leave his father’s ministry and move to the far country and compromise what he had been taught from his dad’s life and ministry. Sometimes we think a prodigal is one who goes out into the far reaches of sin but that isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes a prodigal can be a one who merely drifts away from the faith of their fathers. Rather than leaving the faith they leave the beliefs that they have been taught by their father and choose to follow another direction. Many preachers who have sons who have done this fight a battle within of following their son to that far country.
Recently I’ve heard much said by some of these prodigals concerning cultural relevance. It is as if they are suggesting that we older men are irrelevant and that they must change Christianity in order to succeed. The danger is for older men to follow their sons and preacher boys into the far country and change. The mistake is thinking that relevance is changing. Actually nothing could be further from the truth.
The most relevant man I ever knew was the late Dr. Jack Hyles. I watched him relate to people from every walk of life and even from every Christian background. He did not relate to sailors by putting on a uniform and acting like a sailor. He did not relate to truck drivers by driving a truck or buying a ham radio. He did not relate to teenagers by dressing like a teenager and using their jargon. In fact he amazed me how he could relate to just about any kind of person by merely being who he was. How could he do it all the way into his seventies?
1. What makes someone relevant? Understanding people! When we understand others we stay relevant. You do not have to be an unwed mother in order to relate with unwed mothers. You just have to mentally put yourself in their position and understand what they must be going through. The most different man that ever walked on the face of the earth was our Lord. He was also the most relevant. He was eternally relevant because he dealt in the eternal truth. He came to this earth and became flesh but he did not become sinful flesh. He took upon him the form that he himself is created in the garden of Eden. He did not take on our habits, our attitudes or our sins, yet he could relate to everyone with whom he met. He related to a tax collector who climbed a tree to see him. He related to a woman with an issue of blood. He related to a woman getting water at a well. He related to a group of fishermen having a bad day fishing. The relevance of Jesus was not that he became more like us in the wrong ways but that he chose to understood us in every way. That’s what relevance really is.
Society would tell you that cultural relevance is changing with the culture. My problem is I don’t think the culture is changing in the right way so if I change with the culture I am deteriorating. Relevance becomes a never ending shift towards worldliness. I must first ask myself what do I believe and I must build my ministry in my life around my beliefs not around cultural changes.
The shifting sands of culture must not change the eternal foundation of my faith and of truth. We mistake relevance by thinking it means change. We begin to adapt ourselves to the world around us rather than seeking the Lord to transform the world to us.
2. Relevance is learning to relate to people not becoming like them. That’s how an older man can relate to youth. It is not conforming to the culture or behavior of youth, but rather understanding why they act the way they do. The world does not want us to be like them. In fact I think the world often subconsciously says, “Don’t be like me because I don’t like me.” The world knows what’s wrong with itself and when we attempt to be like them they know we were becoming like something they know is wrong and without foundation. You relate to people by understanding people, not becoming like them.
3. Relating to people is learning to make people feel comfortable with their differences without embracing their differences. It is interesting how sometimes we distance ourselves from sinners to the point of not being able to reach them. Jesus was relevant, not because he compromised to sinners, but because he was the friend of sinners. Friends do not change in order to pacify another. Friends treat friends with kindness even when they disagree with what they do.
I believe many of these young men are attempting to deal with the so-called problems between the love of the sinner and the hatred of the sin. To many of the young men the older men do not act like they actually like the people in the world. So, the young men are attempting to pacify the world, by being more like the world. No one wins the unsaved of the world by using the world, but we win them to Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our behavior often distances the world from us. This then necessitates the work of the Holy Spirit. If we reach the unsaved in the world, then the work of transformation by the Holy Spirit from within will make them more like us rather than us more like them. HOWEVER, we must be friends of sinners without being friends with the world by providing spiritual stability so the Holy Spirit an flow through us.
4. Relevance is growth not digression. You do not become relevant by getting weaker, but by staying strong. You do not become relevant by compromise, but by remaining in your convictions. Relevance is not in inflicting what we believe on others, but it is also not changing what we believe for the sake of appeasing others. The temptation to change in order to be relevant leads to compromise. And we begin to digress whenever we decide that change for conformity to the world will make us relate better to them.
5. Relevance is accepting changes in our culture without conformity to them. I am not suggesting that we should approve of the changes, but that we should understand them. Please understand there is a difference between culture and progress. Progress is a cell phone rather than a wall phone. Progress is email rather than U.S. mail. Progress is computers versus Selectric Typewriters. We must not confuse relevance with progress.
Progress is something that happens in every generation in history. Progress is not the same thing as cultural changes. Cultural changes are changes in lifestyles. Cultural changes say that we must accept same-sex marriage. Cultural changes say that we must except the loosening of morals. Cultural changes says Hollywood is not that bad. There is a huge difference between progression and cultural change. We must not be affected by the cultural changes, but we must understand this is a wicked world that is constantly going further and further away from the truth of God’s word.
6. Relevance is gently allowing the Holy Spirit to woo back this generation rather than being wooed by them. The older my sons are the more they will understand the positions I took. In fact they already are there. I believe that the young man moving towards this new modern, more worldly way of ministry, will eventually face a time when they realize they need to come back. The prodigal son came back because the father did not change and not because he did change. The prodigal came back because he realized the father could be trusted and that the father stayed exactly as he had always been. Men who change because their sons changed do so often for fear of losing their sons, but in the long run their sons lose the security of their father being consistent in his positions and beliefs. We should lovingly stay the same while wooing them in hopes that one day they return to the old fashioned truths.
7. Relevance is not judging, but also not joining. We do not become like them, but we do not have to pass judgment upon their motives. If their music becomes a little more worldly that does not mean we have to become more worldly, but it also does not mean that we have to be personally condemning to them. The danger is becoming either too harsh or too change ourselves. You do not have to do either. Lovingly stay your ground. To preach with authority does not mean we have to be that strong in personal interaction. I may stomp my feet, slap the pulpit and raise my voice while preaching to hundreds in order to be effective, but that does not mean I am to do the same thing in a personal dialogue.
When one of Dr. Hyles preacher boys began to change they would often test him by acting the rebel, but they found him to always be gracious and kind to them, even if they were becoming more contemporary. The reason is because he loved them. He wasn’t condemning them, but he wasn’t going to change merely to gain their acceptance. Loving the person in their change without changing to become like the person is the goal that all of us should have.
8. I know I am relevant because the Bible from which I preach is eternally relevant. What I believe is what I believed for 40 plus years ago. If I allow my foundations to be weakened then the foundations upon which my sons are building their ministry are shaky. Will there be changes they make? Yes and those changes will not always be changes I like. I will not shake their foundation by agreeing with everything they do, but I also will not cast stones at the changes they make. I will show them the respect of their choices as long as they show me the respect of not changing to be like them.
They are secure when they come home and see that nothing has changed in our household. They are also secure knowing that when they gather around there old dad that he’s not changing either. I do not want to be culturally relevant. I want to relate to people in a way that lets me reach them for Christ and allows the Lord to make the changes in their lives. I do not want to take on their music so that I can relate to them. I want to relate to them so that they can find Christ and eventually find the right music. I don’t want to become relevant to their styles in order to reach them. I want to relate to them in spite of their styles and then let the Holy Spirit convict them to dress properly.
9. Most of our mistake is the misunderstanding the entire concept of relevance. We are not to attempt to conform to this world. The Bible tells us that we are to be separate from the world. Cultural relevance is not new. It is the same battle that goes on in every generation that tempts God’’s men to change and become more like the world. Look at the world and see where it has gotten us so far. If we do not stay strong in our positions we will not allow our children to have a place to come back to when they recognize that the world has nothing to offer. Our goal is not to make the world think we are like them so they will believe. Our goal is to love them enough to remain the same and hope that we can reach them with the unchanging, but always relevant Gospel of Jesus Christ.