You do not make the gospel relevant.
I want to be careful here, because it is easy to pit two things against each other in Western minds. That is not what I am doing. I am all for contextualization, and I think it is a big concern, especially in the super-diverse urban settings in North America.
That said, the gospel does not need your help being relevant. The gospel is already relevant. It is relevant for all people in all places. It speaks to all cultures. The issue is not relevancy but translatability. The gospel is translatable into any culture, and our job is to make sure people understand this already relevant message. That takes some work on our part. It takes understanding the language and culture of those with whom we want to share. It takes understanding their worldview and highlighting the aspects of this multi-faceted gospel that grip their heart. That is the work of cultural acquisition and contextualization.
Now, here is my rub: are we so concerned about “relevancy” that we are missing a bigger problem with our gospel message? Again, I spill a lot of ink at this website about contextualization. It is real important, but I think there is a bigger reason the gospel is not being understood.
The biggest reason the gospel is not being heard is not relevancy; it is because the gospel is not being spoken.
Personal evangelism. Broad seed sowing. Soul winning. There are a dozen terms we have used in the past to describe the act of intentionally speaking the gospel out loud to people we know need to hear it. You may use some of them, and you may not like some of them. But the fact remains, people cannot respond to a message they do not hear.
I wonder sometimes if we have focused so much on getting the message’s “relevancy” right that we have made the mistake of waiting until we get there (wherever that is) to actually speak it. In previous posts, I warned about using relationship evangelism as an excuse to delay actually speaking the gospel to people. It is not intentional, but we get the order mixed up and think we must wait until we are good friends with someone to “have the right” to share the gospel with them. That is not relationship evangelism, that is just bad evangelism. The right to share the gospel comes from Christ himself, and he gave it to us when he commissioned us to go and make disciples. Relationship evangelism does not mean waiting until you are best buddies to mention their biggest need, it means speaking the gospel quickly into budding friendships and developing a relationship that has the gospel at its center.
Perhaps we do the same with “relevancy.” Maybe we constantly tinker with how to share the gospel, awaiting some whiz-bam explanation, trying hard to make it look cool in the process, and never actually get around to sharing it. In the end, a poorly contextualized presentation of the gospel is better than none at all. And what of the Holy Spirit? I am sure he has something to do with the gospel’s power to change people.
If this is the case, then the biggest reason our lost neighbors are not turning to Christ is not that the message is unappealing but that they have not heard it from us at all. What if our biggest problem is not relevancy but accessibility? Have you made the gospel accessible in any way to your neighbors?
By all means, be concerned with contextualization, but never neglect the sharing of the gospel now for a more “relevant” explanation of it later.