Losing the Gospel in the quest for relevance

Often we hear the charge that the Gospel of Jesus Christ needs to be repackaged to each succeeding generation or else it will become “irrelevant.” Usually the argument for this approach includes language or ideas similar to this: “it’s the message that is important, not the methods;” or “while the message in non-negotiable, the methods we use to communicate that message are neutral and very much negotiable.”
This seems to be the rationale behind “Toon Town” that Dale Hudson helped bring to the children’s ministry at FBC of Springdale. He is quoted as saying, “Putting a talking head in front of kids for an hour doesn’t work” and going on to argue for the techno-wizardry that characterizes the Toon Town design.
Pragmatism has an element that is very commendable. We ought to desire to do “what works.” But when that desire is unhinged from a full-orbed appreciation of what in fact constitutes successful “working,” then, in the realm of Christian life and ministry, the Word of God can be sbutely undermined even while we loudly claim to be upholding it.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the realm of preaching (or lack of preaching) in evangelical churches today. 1 Corinthians 1:21 and 2 Timothy 4:1-5 leave no doubt about the primacy of preaching in the life and ministry of the church. But when one judges that “putting a talking head in front of kids for an hour doesn’t work,” the result is that God’s Word is ruled irrelevant on pragmatic grounds.
And methods are never neutral. For an entertaining as well as educational treatment of this, read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. For a simple illustration of how untenable that argument is, the next time some one tries to convince you that the medium doesn’t matter, that all we need to be concerned with is the message, ask them to communicate Handel’s Messiah to you via smoke signals. It can’t be done. Something inevitably gets lost in the translation.
That is true with many of the supposedly “relevant” methods that are being employed by churches today for the sake of communicating the Gospel. Too often what gets lost is the Gospel itself. Consider this story from ESPN The Magazine (May 22, 2006, p. 34). It had the title, “Sweat Redemption.”

On Easter Sunday a crow-black 1997 Goodwrench stock car sat in the parking lot at Bayside Community Church in Brandenton, Fla., as nearly 1000 people braved a long line to get their picture taken standing next to it. This was quite a gathering: the three-year old church drew twice as many worshipers as for a typical Sunday service.
Easter is the most popolar day to go to church in America, so perhaps all the extra people were called by a higher power, or a guilty conscience. Or maybe some of them worship NASCAR (this is Florida, after all). Whatever the reasons, Bayside achieved its goal: more people in the pews. The show car, of course, was made famous by Dale Earnhardt Sr., who drove this particular whip at Richmond, Martinsville, Phoenix and Loudon. Bayside rented the ride from RCR Racing for upward of $3,000. Lead pastor Randy Bezet even wrote a sermon inspired by the car. After listening to The Race of Life (“Sometimes in life we need a pit stop, we need to get our wheels changed, to get refueled, and when you’re going around the track, you can’t do it alone”), each congregant received a ticket for the once-in-a-lifetime photo op. They were also encouraged to return the next Sunday to pick up their pics. “On Sundays, any church competes against going to the beach or football games or watching NASCAR,” says Gregg Ellery, a church volunteer who handed out NASCAR memorabilia to the folks in line. “I think churches today ar more aware of this competition. We just want to stay relevant….” [article by Justin Heckert]

Relevant? Perhaps. But at what cost and to what purpose?