How can we, as a Church, which has existed for 2,000 years, still be relevant in this fast-changing world? David Lim expounds on this topic.
To be “relevant”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means to be “appropriate to the current time, period, or circumstances; of contemporary interest.” For the Church, which has existed for close to two thousand years, the ability to remain relevant across centuries seems apparent.
Yet one of the challenges facing the church today is precisely how she needs to keep up with a fast-changing world that is getting increasingly complicated, or risk being misunderstood and disregarded as the world moves on. But amidst keeping up, how can the Church guard against excesses or compromise? How can the Church wade through the complexities of modern life, and speak intelligibly as God’s prophetic voice to the world?
The relationship between the Church and the world can be expounded from Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17. Through a simple study of three prepositions used in this passage, we can learn three principles to guide our efforts in staying relevant in the 21st century.
The Church is found ‘IN’ the world
In verse 11, Jesus states that He will no longer be in the world, but the Church is “in the world.” The preposition used in the original Greek text here is ‘en’, which usually denotes to be found in a fixed position, either with respect to time, space or state. This means in contrast to Jesus being away from the world, the Church is to continue to be found in it. This is mentioned again four verses later when Jesus clarified that He is not asking the Father to take them out of the world.
Although this literally means the church is to remain physically on earth, it can also mean figuratively that the Church is to be found among the world and should not seek to be isolated from it. This implies that the Church needs to be relevant and engage her neighbors meaningfully, and should not be socially detached from the world.
The Church is not ‘OF’ the world
As to why the world is often hostile against the Church, Jesus explains in John 17:14 that this is because the Church is “not of the world”. The preposition use in the original Greek text here is ‘ek’, which means “out from” or “of”, here used in the sense of origin. In the present context, this means that the Church did not have its origin from the world, and thus does not belong to it, nor share in its nature or destiny.
In other words, it is in our nature as people set apart in God that we are to be distinct from the world because we take on the nature of Christ in us. This means that in our effort to be relevant to the world, we are not to simply mirror their practices, nor compromise our values, convictions and beliefs. In the same way, Romans 12:2 exhorts us not to “be conformed to this world”, while 1 John 2:15 instructs us not to “love the world or the things in the world”.
The Church is sent ‘INTO’ the world
The first two prepositions studied gave rise to the very popular saying that the Church is to be “in the world, but not of the world”, i.e. the Church needs to be relevant but not at the expense of compromising our identity. However, this is incomplete, for in verse 18, a third preposition is used to describe how the Church is to be related to the world. Here Jesus says that He is sending the church “into” the world just as He was sent into the world by the Father. The preposition used in the original Greek text here is ‘eis’, which typically denotes the entrance into from without, either literally or metaphorically.
This signifies that the Church, though set apart and separated from the world, is nonetheless sent into it, and this is the crux of the matter. Being relevant to the world is not about trying to blend in, nor is it about seeking to be popular. At the core, being relevant is about being missional. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 summarises this well: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
Example of Joseph and Daniel
Throughout the Bible, there were many individuals who lived their lives in ways that were both relevant and impactful, but two surely stand out as the most illuminating in this regard: Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon.
Both found themselves in a world that was hostile to their faith, though not of their own choosing. They did not withdraw from the world, but instead meaningfully adapted to them, including having local names and practicing local customs.
However, their adaption to their respective cultures were not without limits, for both did not compromise in their worship of God, and both were known to be men of exemplary character. While they were in the world and adapted to be relevant to their contemporaries, they maintained that they were not of the world, and refused to be fully identified with it.
Finally, they understood that while they did not choose to be away from home, God was eventually sovereign and their presence in a hostile world must have been a result of God’s Providence and for the sake of His purposes. They did not just find themselves helplessly in the world; they recognized that they had been intentionally sent into it. This gave purpose to the engagement of their respective cultures and provided boundaries in their effort to be relevant.
Being in the world, we need to be relevant enough to be understood; Yet being not of this world, we need to be distinct enough to be differentiated; Finally, being sent into the world gives us the right motivation to be relevant and at the same time provides boundaries for it.
About David Lim
David Lim is currently the Academic Dean at ACTS College. He has been actively teaching for close to ten years and teaches extensively both in Chinese and in English, and both at his home church, as well as outside of it. He holds a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) from NUS, and has worked as a Mechanical Engineer and as a polytechnic Academic Staff prior to joining his church staff team. He graduated from ACTS College with his Master of Divinity in 2012, and is presently studying for his PhD (in Biblical Studies) with Asia Graduate School of Theology (AGST) Alliance. It is his desire to help believers understand God’s message and encounter God’s presence through His Word. He is married to a wonderful wife, and has three boys and a girl.