In the news this week, a church in Bournemouth that has officially changed its name from St Michaels to St Mikes and put in a coffee bar in the hope of attracting younger people in. There have been a few reactions to this, notably Giles Fraser here and Rod Liddle here.
Steve Kneale rightly observes that the secular journalist is probably closer to the mark in his observations than the vicar. The vicar pleads for a bit more tradition and the benefits of prayers on knees in big empty buildings, the journalist notes that evangelicals have been able to see their churches growing by simply preaching from the Bible. Steve correctly observes that it is the Bible and not relatability that is crucial.
I’m with Steve on this because so much of what I’ve seen over the past 40 or so years even among evangelicals has been desperate attempts to be relatable or cool. Back in Bradford we had a vicar who was put in charge of evangelism for the diocese and his ideas included events with “The Gospel according to Queen” or “When Bart Simpson meets Jesus.” Those events pulled in crowds but whether those people were unbelievers who wouldn’t have gone to anything else or Christians getting together for a big event I don’t know. I do know that this was a similar type of time when the Billy Graham live link could fill the same auditoriums or even lesser known traditional and more local evangelists like David Shepherd and Roger Carswell. It is also worth asking whether there was long lasting fruit.
However, I would add “but still don’t forget to be relatable.” Because for every Christian and church trying embarrassingly too hard to be cool, there are others that have decided to be outdated, out of touch or just plain weird. For every St Mike’s story there’s also the stories of refugees from churches that have talked proudly to their commitment to the word and avoiding this world’s culture but where those Christians have also experienced legalism, hypocrisy and sadly abuse. Of course the reality is that in proudly choosing to be irrelevant to 21st Century culture they are in fact pursuing not Biblical culture but the culture of a perceived golden age here.
Now, Steve insists that it is simply not possible for Christians to be cool -but I don’t think that’s quite right. Christians trying too hard to be something they are not are going to be decidedly uncool (or whatever the correct word is for what we uncool people used to call being cool). However, there are plenty of believers who are just naturally relatable and likeable and because its not a sin to like something that fits the current trend, because some Christians happen to be pretty good artists, actors, singers, musicians and because some people just have a natural character that is charismatic, then they are going to influence others, yes there are going to be and are Christians who clearly are “cool.”
I just know that I’m not one of them! I know that my own personality means I’m not one of those charismatic personalities who draws a crowd or influences through my sheer force of personality. However, that doesn’t stop me sharing my faith, it doesn’t stop me discipling people and there are two reasons for that. The first, is back to Steve’s point that it is the word that counts. That is true for evangelism and true for pastoring. The only true authority that an elder has is the authority to teach God’s Word faithfully.
The other reason is that whether or not you consider yourself “cool” you can still be relatable. The two are not the same thing. Reading articles about churches trying to be cool by having coffee bars and café style events with pizza amuses me somewhat because we’ve done all of those things, not because we were desperately trying to be cool but because it seemed natural. We like eating food, we like eating it with others and we like talking with others about God’s Word and Jesus over food. So that seemed the natural thing to do. In fact, when we first got people sitting round tables we didn’t do that to be cool, edgy or even evangelistic. We did it best enable d us to do what we wanted to do which was to teach Scripture by getting people discussing and answering questions about it. That people who were unchurched liked it and came in was a bonus. Oh and we realised that it was just a bit weird to tell people that they had to wait until after the event before they could have refreshments and to get said refreshments they would have to make their way into another room out the back and stand awkwardly on their own until eventually one person came over and asked them if they were new, exchanged pleasantries and then moved on.
My point if you haven’t got it is that being relatable is a natural thing to do, it’s a human thing to do -and I would also even suggest it’s a Biblical thing to do. The Bible is crucial for evangelism but being relevant and relatable helps too. Don’t force it, don’t make it your first priority but don’t forget it and don’t go out of your way to be unrelatable!