Cross-Centered Relevance

July 5, 2006

Mark, Lig and Al, your biblical insight on this topic of faithfulness and relevance is critically needed in the church today. Thank you for serving us.

The most effective way that I can serve is to post excerpts from my favorite article on this issue: "The Power of the Gospel in the Church Today" by our friend Ray Ortlund, Jr. (Trinity Journal 18, NS, no. 2, Spring 1997). Check out Ray’s theologically informed discernment, on what it means to be relevant in ministry, written with remarkable forsight nine years ago:

"We might get the wrong impression from Paul, when he writes in 1 Corinthians 9:22 that he has become ‘all things to all men,’ that he might by all means save some. Paul was not unbending in meeting people as they were, where they were. He was widely adaptable. But we might get the wrong impression from this passage, if we read it in isolation from Paul’s other statements about ministry, as if 1 Corinthians 9 were the whole of his mind. The fact is that Paul was not infinitely flexible in his outreach strategies. He had limits, and in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 he explains one of his boundaries:

‘When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God, in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (RSV)’

Paul deliberately chooses (‘I decided’) not to meet the culturally conditioned expectations of his hearers….The most embarrassing aspect of the gospel—a crucified Savior, a loser Messiah—was the very thing Paul concentrated on. Paul is here exposing to view the controlling center of his ministry strategy. ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ was for Paul, the ultimate criterion for what we today call ‘relevance.’ And with his typically refreshing outlook, the apostle defined relevance not as we tend to do. For him, relevance had to be defined not in terms of meeting audience expectations but in relation to the centrality of the Cross. His preaching agenda was set by that theological center, not by his audience….

Now, what lessons may we preachers today learn from this amazing passage of Scripture?

First, a biblical preacher critiques his methods, his forms of contextualization, his adaptations to culture, his style, not primarily by the standard of culture but by the superior standard of the gospel itself….The message of the Cross must discipline and control us—indeed, limit us—even though that puts us at a disadvantage in winning an audience.

What one observes in evangelicalism today is that, while many preachers can declare allegiance to all the right doctrines, their theology makes little difference in their preaching beyond drawing the widest, most amorphous and seldom alluded-to boundaries. Their formal credentials may be in order, but the theology they affirm sits very lightly on their actual practice of ministry. It is invisible to their people. Such ministers demonstrate little doctrinal specificity or even discernment—intentionally so?—in their message and style. The biblical gospel may be formally obligatory, but it is personally uninteresting and strategically incidental. Such ministers may be exacting in their methodology, but they are vague in their theology—a curious arrangement of priorities! For Paul, such thinking would have been completely alien to his soul. For him theology reigned supreme in every aspect of his ministry. Theology for him, energized him, cheered him, emboldened him. It was his ministerial fountain of youth. One wonders how far we may drift from Pauline ministry and still retain a plausible claim to biblical authenticity in our work."

I could go on and on with more great stuff from this article. I recommend every pastor obtain and read it for himself, and apply it to the leadership and preaching of your church.  Assign the article to your pastoral team or eldership and together evaluate your church in relation to the content of this article. We must do more than nod our heads as we read, we must make application to our pastoral ministry in very specific ways.

How about your pastoral reading list—is it more focused on the latest pragmatic pastoral fad than the cross of Jesus Christ? Are there more books on your desk from the business section of Barnes and Noble than there are the great works of Calvin, Edwards, Owen and Spurgeon?  Let us not be numbered among those for whom "theology…sits lightly on their practice of ministry" or pastors who are "exacting in their methodology, but vague in their theology."

May it never be said of our pastoral ministry that the gospel was "formally obligatory…but personal uninteresting and strategically incidental."  Instead, by following the example of Paul, let "theology reign supreme" with the message of "Jesus Christ and him crucified." May this be the "the controlling center" of our preaching content, the structures and practices of our church and our evangelistic strategy. Then, and only then, will the church be truly relevant to our culture.