You have heard that famous saying, ‘If a tree falls in the forest but there is no one there to hear, does it make a sound?’ This is a thought experiment designed to challenge our thinking on observations and perceptions. Similarly, we can adapt that experiment to: ‘If a church meets every week, but the community doesn’t know it exists, did it ever proclaim the Gospel?’
Of course, this is a provocative question that is designed to draw you in and engage you in this article. It speaks to the question of relevance and how our churches participate in the act of building communities.
The online Cambridge Dictionary defines relevance as, ‘the degree to which something is related or useful to what is happening or being talked about.’ In its simplest terms, what we say or do must add value to those we are engaging with; but more importantly, the objects of our actions get a say in whether what we are doing is relevant or not. Let me start here: Have you ever heard the voice of God speak to you? Most of us have, while others have felt the presence of his Spirit. Moreover, have you ever noticed that when God speaks to you, he does so in your native language? If you speak English, God doesn’t communicate to you in French. Why does he do this? Well, I would submit to you that he does so because he wants you to understand his message to you; otherwise, it has no value. In the same vein, when we communicate in our communities, what we say must be understandable to them; otherwise, it is of no value.
Yet, there is a lot of struggle in building church communities that are able to be relevant, and there are a number of reasons why this is. I am going to share with you just a few:
Adventism is a lifestyle. I remember waking up on Sabbath morning, listening to some nice Christian music, putting on my sabbath best and travelling to Church for 9am to open the doors (well, my dad did). That is personal to me, and it shapes my view of Adventism. Yet, there have been some churches that choose not to start ‘Church’ so early, in order to be accessible to their community. In other words, they are trying to add value and become relevant. This is met with tension, fear and anxiety within our wider church communities, because to some, this is not Adventism. You have the same tension if you try to swap the timings of Sabbath School and mid-day service.
At the heart of that last one is the issue of identity — Where does my identity as an Adventist reside? Is it in the traditions of Adventism or is it in the biblical values and principles we have cultivated over the years? What would that look like? If we truly want to be relevant, these are some of the challenges that we need to wrestle with. Relevance means adding value, and the subjects of our actions get a say in what adds value. We must be focused on people and, by extension, build relationships. Finally, we must wrestle with our internal tension about how we experience God and how others experience him. When we begin to wrestle with these questions, two well-known passages will begin to take on new meaning:
‘For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost’ Luke 19:10 (NRSV).
‘Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “Follow me”’ (Ministry of Healing,143).