Transformationalism Is Not About Relevance

Look at all of these lost souls. There must be some way of getting through to them! But they’re bored with the gospel. They’ve heard it plenty of times before, and they just don’t care about the message of salvation by grace through faith. The church needs a new approach for a new generation… I know! We’ll meet them on their own ground. We’ll grab their attention by allying ourselves with the same causes that they believe in. We’ll start caring for the environment, alleviating poverty, reforming immigration… Oh sure, we’ll preach the gospel, and whenever necessary we’ll even use words! Then they will see us as relevant. Plus, we’ll be just as hip as they are!

—Said no transformationalist ever.

Okay, maybe there is some transformationalist somewhere who has said something like this. I haven’t exactly taken a poll. I can only speak from personal experience. One of the most frequent complaints that I hear against cultural transformationalism is that, when it comes to mission and evangelism, we prize relevance and effectiveness over fidelity to Scripture. Presumably, if we really put Scripture first, we would stick to the tried-and-true methods of preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and prayer. The argument is usually intended as a sort of compliment (“Let’s pat them on the head for caring about what unbelievers think”), but it ends up having the opposite effect. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this argument is actually an informal logical fallacy. It’s a straw man argument, because it doesn’t accurately represent what transformationalists really believe. And it’s also an ad hominem argument, because it presumes to know better than transformationalists what their own motives are.

Now I don’t intend to say that we don’t care at all about relevance. Nor am I saying that there is no place for adapting our methods to our audiences. After all, this principle is biblical enough. Recall Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 9:19-23:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

Further, the idea of contextualizing our message is actually confessional. Regarding the preaching of the Word, Answer 159 of the Westminster Larger Catechism states, “They that are called to labour in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine… wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers.” As we proclaim the gospel to unbelievers, we should take into consideration what they can understand and appreciate. Of course, we shouldn’t stop there, but we should at least start there.

So I’m not saying that relevance is irrelevant. What I am saying is that, contrary to popular opinion, relevance is not the driving force behind a transformationalist view of mission. Rather, Scripture itself is our driving force. And we don’t rely on just a few proof-texts from the New Testament, but rather the whole counsel of God. We seek justice throughout the world, because God loves justice (Ps. 33:5; 99:4; Jer. 9:24). We care about the poor, because God cares about the poor (Isa. 25:4; Zec. 7:10). We care for creation, because we are its stewards and because the righteous have regard for their animals (Pro. 12:10). James writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit the orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jas. 1:27). Can a church that neglects the orphan or the widow (or the single mother, or the immigrant, or the homeless, etc.) really presume to offer pure and undefiled religion to God? We should do all these things (in addition to Word, sacrament, and prayer), not because they will make us look relevant to unbelievers, but because they reflect the just and holy character of God himself.

Now one of you will say to me, “I’m for all of these things too. After all, what Christian would honestly say that they are against caring for the needy? I just think these things are the responsibility of individual believers, not the institutional church.” I intend to write a post soon on the relationship between the mission of the institutional church and the mission of individual believers (aka church as “organization” and church as “organism”). For now, I’ll just say that we can’t expect individual believers to properly fulfill this aspect of their calling unless the institutional church equips them to do so.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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