Believing God for a Prophetically Relevant Church
When you think of prophetic relevance, think in terms of four key principles.
By Doug Clay
Is it just me, or does it seem like churches are obsessed with applying corporate labels into the description of their churches? From emergent to classical Pentecostal, from seeker sensitive to purpose driven, I do not think God ever intended the church to be a place where we divide people into “worship warfare sects.” Likewise, God never intended the church to be a business with a steeple on its roof, where people merely filter in and out of the doors. The church is a place where we minister to people, applying Acts 2 principles into the 21st-century context. It is my conviction that we should have a sense of prophetic relevance — a call for the church to be wholly biblically relevant and culturally literate.
When you think of prophetic relevance, think in terms of four key principles.
Genuinely Love and Accept People
As a pastor, do not view people as a means to an end, but as the entire reason why we do church. I recently spoke at a church; and, as I engaged the pastor in conversation about the health of the congregation, he excitedly told me, “We process about 1,500 people a week.”
The Christian church is not a manufacturing plant. We serve people. We minister to people. We present the gospel to people, believing it will transform them. I grew up in a church environment where spiritual leaders and elders saw me for who I could be, not just who I was at the time.
This is my prayer for our churches: that we do not simply view people as a statistic for an attendance goal; that we realize our pews are filled with more than figures to be filed in an annual report; and that we recognize each individual as being prepared by God to make an impact on culture. It is a prayer for prophetic relevance as our leaders cannot help but focus on the inherent and divine value placed in all people to whom they minister.
The Early Church was relevant because it was committed to several core ministry functions. Those who came together were committed to worship, discipleship, fellowship, evangelism, and ministry. Those functions were a natural part of the DNA of the church. They did not need a particular brand identity to influence society. These people worshipped and did not have to say they were purpose driven. They loved and did not have to call themselves seeker sensitive. Changed lives, not just contemporary labels, should characterize our brand. If we ever have to modify our theology to fit into culture, we are in a dangerous place.
When you think about it, the culture has never embraced the message of the Cross. I do not want to be so preoccupied with trying to fit into culture that I am viewed as superfluous.
Os Guinness, in his book, Prophetic Untimeliness, maintains that there is a link between the irrelevance of the church today and the pursuit of relevance by church leaders: “By our uncritical pursuit of relevance, we have actually courted irrelevance; by our breathless chase after relevance without a matching commitment to faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful, but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than we are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity, but our authority and our relevance. Our crying needs us to be faithful as well as relevant.”
The Bible transcends cultures, fads, and trends. Scriptural truths remain relevant for the 21st century. Prophetic relevance starts with, sustains through, and will always be supported by the truth in Scripture.
Consistently Feed People
One of my overriding concerns for our church today is biblical literacy. For instance, we tend to believe our experiences produce faith, but that’s not biblically accurate. Faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). God’s Word has the ability to protect our thinking and anchor our emotions when we experience those “why is this happening to me?” moments.
Scripture has an incredible sustaining ability. For example, college students may leave the comforts of home and their church and become enmeshed in secular surroundings that challenge their values. The question at that point is not just about their experiences, but whether they have the biblical literacy necessary to handle the new climate in which they find themselves.
It is particularly important that churches provide basic scriptural literacy — not just entertainment — for their attendees. This particularly becomes important when you consider that we live in a time where culture places a higher value on tolerance than it does on truth.
There is a growing demand for people to connect with authenticity in the church. Most people, especially younger people, want authenticity and sincerity and biblical clarity. At times, hype and energy might attract them, but such elements will not keep them. And it is not so much the intensity of our presentation that draws them. Deep down, they are interested in knowing the answer to the question, “Does this church help me grow deeper in my faith and become better able to do what God intends me to do and be who He intends me to be?”
Part of the pastor’s job is to help people become God reliant, not church reliant. We have all seen the negative ramifications of those who have become more addicted to the church than they are to the Lord.
Let us not lose the centrality of the Word of God as our foundation. It is one thing for society to reject displaying the Ten Commandments in government places, but I do not relish the idea of a biblically illiterate church. I do not want to be known as part of the generation that essentially let go of the Word of God.
Such a scenario happened before. When Josiah became king, he inherited a nation (a church, if you will) that had lost the Word of God. Consider his heritage. Josiah’s grandfather, Manasseh, sacrificed his own sons to Molech and instituted fortune telling. Amon, Josiah’s father, was one of Israel’s most wicked and despicable kings. Two of his own servants killed him.
But part of Josiah’s legacy was the rebuilding of the temple and, in doing so, he rediscovered the Word of God: “The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.’ When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it” (2 Kings 22:8, NRSV1).
Is it really possible to lose the Word of God in the House of God? Long before there was an Occupy Wall Street movement, Martin Luther staged one of the most important protests in history. He was upset because Roman Catholic officials were promising people forgiveness or early escape from purgatory in exchange for money. So, on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed a long list of complaints on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Luther’s famous 95 Theses spread like fire. Just as the prophet Jeremiah did during the reign of Josiah (Jeremiah 1 and 2), Luther dared to ask questions people had never asked. Through Luther, the Holy Spirit sparked the Protestant Reformation and restored the doctrine of grace to a church that had become corrupt, legalistic, dysfunctional, and spiritually dead. Prophetic relevance had returned once again as people grasped the timeless and enduring Word of God.
It is no different today. If people in the church do not anchor their lives and value systems in Scripture, their feelings and human logic instead of the truth of the Bible can easily sway them.
I sometimes see it happening in my life — when I go through the tough times and my “self” starts to lie to me. My emotions do not always tell me reality and life becomes a little less clear. In those moments, I have learned that I need something far beyond myself, something whose wisdom is high above that of this world. I need the Truth — the Word of the Living God.
Equip People To Do Ministry
The strength of the church is tied to how effectively those in the church are using their gifts in ministry. First Peter 4:9–11 illustrates this principle. We should use the gift God provides without grumbling, but with the complete assurance that He will give us the strength needed for the occasion.
Engaging people in ministry is as much for their benefit as it is for the benefit of the church. After all, doing ministry can contribute to their spiritual growth and serve as a remedy against spiritual fatigue.
We often think that we only need to pray and read Scripture for spiritual development to happen in our lives. But there is a third and essential element of engagement: use your gift. Jesus warned us in a parable that if we sit on our gift, we are in danger of losing it (Matthew 25:14–30).
Christians who have been saved for a long time sometimes get frustrated with ministry changes and cultural shifts because they feel they can no longer use their gifts. However, I have observed that intentionally staying involved in ministry can not only bring continued fulfillment; it can actually keep you young. My 81-year-old mother, Audrey Clay, is an example of this reality. Even though the church she attends has significantly changed with the times, she remains faithfully engaged in ministry. She and her friends have developed an “As Unto the Lord” club. Every day this group looks for an area of ministry where they can serve somebody. Through this endeavor and others, I have watched my mom stay involved at Bethany Assembly of God, a church my parents pastored for over 20 years in Adrian, Michigan. Though my dad went to be with the Lord more than 40 years ago, and though the church has gone through many changes, my mom continues to use the gifts God has given her, without grumbling, and with the strength He alone provides. As a result, she is encouraged, full of joy, and has the energy of a 50-year-old person. As the church intentionally equips people in their gifting, it will not only see those individuals grow in the faith, but help them combat the spiritual fatigue that can hinder some of their greatest achievements.
Model Christian Behavior
How can a prophetically relevant voice build a bridge rather than be a barrier to the unchurched? The best way the church can build a bridge to its community is to model Christian behavior. In most communities, unbiblical values are the norm and are culturally accepted.
When Christians demonstrate courtesy instead of rudeness, we can begin to have a prophetic voice in the world around us. Proverbs 11:11 declares, “Upright citizens are good for a city and make it prosper, but the talk of the wicked tears it apart” (NLT2).
The Bible repeatedly teaches us we can speak into the lives of those around us by using the right type of speech. Proverbs 18:21 says, “Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit — you choose” (The Message). But we also can gain influence by using the right kind of manners. First Peter 2:17 advises, “Treat everyone you meet with dignity” (The Message).
We live in a rude, self-centered and, at times, obnoxious society. Paul counters the prevailing mood of the culture: “Believers shouldn’t curse anyone or be quarrelsome, but they should be gentle and show courtesy to everyone” (Titus 3:2, God’s Word Translation3). There is that word courtesy again. There is nothing more contradictory to the testimony of a Christian than seeing someone who is wearing a WWJD bracelet and treating someone with impertinence.
When you think about it, the people, places, and institutions we encounter in culture are sometimes the very ones that need to hear and to see a respectful disposition. And we can gain that opportunity by being courteous. If the body of Christ would lace their actions with dignity toward bank tellers, store clerks, and restaurant servers, what kind of an impact would that make?
Another way the church can model Christian behavior to a culture with different values is to express sympathy appropriately. Colossians 3:12 instructs, “As holy people whom God has chosen and loved, be sympathetic, kind, humble, gentle and patient” (God’s Word Translation).
I am not just talking about token sympathy. On the contrary, this involves really empathizing how people feel in the midst of a crisis. By doing this, you put yourself in a position to better understand and affirm another’s feelings, what that person is going through at that moment — even if you do not necessarily experience it yourself. Such sympathy provides relief to the person in need of understanding. Galatians 6:2 says, “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.”
A third way we give prophetic voice to the culture is by learning how to bless others by speaking honestly, even if it’s inconvenient or even if we would rather ignore the situation entirely. If we value relationships, our friendship can draw someone who isn’t following Christ closer to Christ. Too many relationships are carried out at a superficial level, ultimately destroyed by dishonesty. But Proverbs 24:26 declares, “It is an honor to receive an honest reply.”
Of course, speaking the truth in love does not give me license to lambaste people; relationships need trust. The apostle Paul notes in Ephesians 4:15 that speaking the truth in love does not give us permission to verbally assault them. We must earn the right to be able to speak the truth in love in a secular culture.
By building a bridge out of these three elements — courtesy, sympathy, and honesty — we can establish an element of trust with people.
Prophetic relevance does not mean reciting a litany of passages from Minor Prophets in the Old Testament about God’s judgment on people. It does not mean getting in the face of others with a bullhorn to your mouth and a placard in your hand. It does not mean standing on the steps in a sports stadium shouting “Repent or die!”
No, the practical way to have a prophetic voice in a secular culture when the world’s values are not the same is learning the art and practicing the science of demonstrating courtesy, expressing sympathy, and speaking honestly.
Sometimes our mere presence can make a deep and lasting impression. Job’s friends did the right thing the first 7 days after he went through his series of horrific events. They just stayed with him and wept. They said nothing (Job 2:12,13).
Before we try to change culture by passing out tracts to strangers or conducting mass evangelism rallies, perhaps a better method is to develop a relationship with one or two people. Before we start railing on them about their advocacy of cultural issues that are not aligned with our values, we should show them courtesy, express sympathy and speak honestly — and thus earn the right to present the gospel to them.
- Scripture quotations marked NRSV are taken from The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version / Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, c1989. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
- GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) Copyright © 1995 by Gods Word to the Nations. Used by permission of Baker Publishing Group.