Monday, August 07, 2006

Relevance Versus Doctrine

The feature article of the recent Biola Connections is entitled, The “D” Word: Has Doctrine Become the New Dirty Word? The basis of the article is that the study of God’s Word has been replaced with support and interest groups, messages that confirm the Christian faith has given way to emotional healing and encouragement. The hymns of faith have been replaced with demonstrative and, sometimes, silly ditties. “Many Christians don’t see the connection between doctrine and life,” the article asserts, “so important doctrines are being discarded.”

The article cites the doctrine of the Trinity as one example of this trend. T.D. Jakes, pastor of a megachurch in Dallas, rejects the historic doctrine of the Trinity with an ancient church heresy called “modalism.” In April 2000 Jakes said in Religion Today, “I am too busy trying to preach the Gospel to split hairs. People in my generation are lost, hungry, in prison, wounded and alone…Many of our generation are dying without knowing God – not dying for the lack of theology.”

Soon after reading the Biola article I read Os Guinness’ work, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge To the idol Of Relevance. Guinness takes the evangelical church to task accusing them of chasing the god of popularity, success and relevance, over sound doctrine. “How are we to be always timely,” questions Guinness, “never trendy? How are we to be redefined – in the right way?”

Because culture determines much of how we see our world and therefore directs our steps in life, the market economy, its business plans and its business management procedures, is the driving force behind much of the church today. In the world of competition, the focus in the church today is what method can we use to make our congregations more “relevant,” e.g. music, youth programs, even the dress code that appeals to the casual. It’s all about making people feel comfortable and having a satisfying worship experience. While pastors struggle for “market share,” in the community, the name of the game is not just merely having a nice building but attention must be given to Location, Location, Location.

As I reflect on the two readings I make application to my field of ministry overseas. The dominance of western influence on the national church is so strong that they, too, seek methods for church growth and therefore mimic the success of those abroad. Mission methods of adopting people groups and how to foster a people movement, is preferred over adequate study in the doctrines of faith or the training of how to present a relevant message in a non-Christian community.

The tension, for me as well as Guinness, is two-fold. One, I do believe the church should be relevant to the world in which we live. Whether one is serving in Dallas or Dakar, the message of Christ must speak in terms that the average American or Muslim can understand. For too many years the emphasis on theology has become an obstacle to the Message. Whether one is pre-trib or post-trib is irrelevant to those who need to understand who Jesus is and why He is "the Way the truth and the life." While I believe there is objective truth, as Brian McLaren has argued, one must wonder if orthodoxy is truly or objective or merely tradition handed down through those who saw their world through the lens of their time and culture.

Second, the postmodern cross-cultural worker, while crafting a relevant message of the Gospel, must not sacrifice objective truth for the sake of relevancy. To suggest that Christ is merely one avenue to salvation is to discredit His uniqueness.

Understanding the tension between relevance and doctrine is not an easy assignment. The failure of the church is that it seems to caught in an “either/or” position, rather than finding the middle ground in-between. Guinness is right, the church must not be swayed in being trendy at the cost of doctrine. At the same time it must not hold on to orthodoxy at the expense of becoming irrelevant. Though the Message may be irrelevant to unbelievers, that does not mean we must be in our presentation of truth.