July 03, 2007

The Irrelevance of 'Relevant' Preaching

In an article in the current issue of Touchstone (a magazine I highly recommend), David Mills points up the irrelevance — and the danger — of "relevant" preaching.
We have no reason to think that what feels relevant to the worldling is actually relevant to his life. We do have reason to believe that what he feels relevant will be that which diverts him from the painful contemplation of his own sins and helps him move along the trajectory he has plotted for himself — to improve, as he understands it, but not to change.

If the Christian revelation is both true and a truth to which fallen men are partly blinded, and a truth of great complexity and sophistication, a preacher may be most relevant when his language is least contemporary, and may be irrelevant to the point of fatuousness when it is most contemporary. ...

[M]any people in the pews will feel that such [contemporary] preaching is powerfully relevant. They will feel it as liberating, enabling, empowering, affirming, that they have found a preacher who speaks to them where they are.

Some will make a commitment to Christianity because they will now believe that Christianity “works,” that “it meets my needs,” that “it speaks to me.” Some will make that commitment because in the gospel preached in relevant terms they recognize, if unconsciously, a tamed and denatured Christianity, in which they can get the benefits of religion without most of the costs.

“Relevant, contemporary” preaching will have proved that the Church is contemporary and relevant. I do not doubt that it will do some good: A man in church on Sunday morning is a man not brooding on his boss’s bad habits or passively letting into his mind whatever the television offers him or lusting after the nearly naked girls in the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.

What it probably has not done is prove to him that Christianity is true, and changed his heart and expanded his understanding. It has probably not brought him to the paradigm-shifting encounter with the reality of God. One prays that the hearers of such sermons have discerned the gospel despite the misleading language, but our Lord himself noted that many would think themselves friends of his who were not.

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