This month (April 2016) I attended a conference in Hungary that both shared and explored initiatives by evangelicals in Europe regarding the integration of faith and the workplace. There were some fascinating stories of how believing business people are intentionally planning ways to share their faith in their working lives. One of these stories came from a discussion I had with a group of believers in Norway who started a company that, in essence, runs a Christian school on a ship. It is only for 11th and 12th graders and is by application only. The students live on the ship and have various responsibilities, all within a Christian environment. The believers in the company decided that they could impact the world through reaching and training young people in a creative way.
One of the significant topics discussed was the role of the church in all of this, and while there were some encouraging examples, the conclusion by most was that the church has lost its voice in most European contexts. It has become irrelevant! Or, at best, it is therapeutic so that it is available in times of crisis such as funerals or illnesses. After the reasons for this were discussed and debated, there was general consensus on a few causes, and in particular, what was called “a fortress mentality” stood out. This refers to the idea that the church has dwindled down to the faithful few who need to preserve and defend themselves in a world that is hostile to their existence.
The idea of being “salt” and “light” in Matthew 5, as well as other passages, was discussed, and the conclusion drawn was that the church in Europe no longer pays much attention to these types of passages. The point must be made that there are exceptions to this, and some churches are making a significant impact. However, we were discussing the church as a whole and especially as perceived by the secular world around it. Enter the believing business community! If the church is irrelevant, then there are Christian business people who have decided to step into the gap and make the Gospel relevant.
I returned to the U.S. feeling both depressed and encouraged about the presence of Christianity in Europe. Surely plan A in the Bible is for the church to continually influence and transform society with the Gospel. When plan A falls apart, then we seem to have the plan B’s and C’s that come into play where those Christians who want to make a difference in society go outside of the church. Where, then, are we in America? Is the church intentional about being continually relevant? “Relevant” can be a dangerous term if used in a general, uncritical way. Used critically, it must always be understood that being relevant means firstly being so to the correct understanding of the Bible. Second, then, is being as relevant as possible to culture and society. If we begin with the Bible, we soon find that there are times when being relevant actually means going against the trends and belief systems of society, leaving us with a sense that this world is not our true home; that we are pilgrims passing through. The church is in the world but not of the world.
If we are in the world, then the church has to be relevant to our culture and society; otherwise, the Lord may as well take us up to heaven to do and be church there. This relevancy must hold in balance, and even tension, the need to be part of society and yet separate from society. May the church in America take up this challenge proactively so that we do not find ourselves wearing the label “irrelevant.”