Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Why are we irrelevant?

Written by: on February 7, 2015

Being culturally relevant is an issue that the Christian community has faced for centuries. We each see the world and perceive situations through our own lens, drawing assumptions and developing our own thoughts and ideas. Each of us is unique and acts out our faith in a very personal way. Hence, many intelligent ministry professionals fail to present Christ to others in a way that connects or resonates with the way that they live their lives. People come to church and hear a message, but then aren’t sure how that message can apply in their day-to-day life. There isn’t one system or model that can be followed to help navigate the difficult task of doing theology in a relevant way; in multiple cultures, across time, and in a manner that appeals to all individuals.   This makes me wonder if we have overcomplicated the task of making Christ relevant. Are we spending so much time figuring out how to minister contextually that we are missing the point all together? Christ is relevant; but we often are not.

Public theology addresses justice and social concerns. What should we, or should we not, do within our society to live in the way that God intended? In The Bible, Justice and Public Theology, Nevill points out that “the Bible is no longer recognized as a source of authority in Western public consciousness.”[1] Therefore, the church has an important role in “working out God’s will for civil society.”[2] As Christian leaders, we hold responsibility for helping people figure out how to live out their faith in their day-to-day actions. People’s moral compasses are no longer based on tradition or rules.  Faith must be acted out in a personal sphere. Nevill’s book explores theology through ecology, poverty, and justice. As people seek answers for social problems, theology can and should be acted out in a manner that brings value and positive change. Even though there are thousands of books on this subject, Christians still struggle with what this means within the church and in our faith practices. We want straightforward answers to complex and messy problems. We focus too much on finding a quick fix to major problems, and we forget to simply act out our faith within our own context. Instead of looking for rules, we need to ask “do our actions and choices demonstrate Christ to others?” This is a question that is applicable to every person, in all cultures, at all times.

Our personal reality doesn’t necessity match God’s reality, which sits outside of culture and humanity.   When I look around, I see that cultural relevance means different things to different groups of people. We aren’t a ‘one size fits all’ society, yet Christianity is meant for us all. In Models of Contextual Theology, Stephen B. Bevans states, “The attempt to understand Christian faith in terms of a particular context—is really a theological imperative.”[3] His opinion is that we must recognize theology in the context of the human experience. Bevans asserts that theology has “three sources or loci theologici: scripture, tradition, and present human experience—or context.” [4] Theology is understood through experience, which changes and evolves over time. Great theologians in history have been gifted with making faith relevant and applying it in a contextual manner to broad audiences. The focus of Bevan’s work is on the praxis or model of theology, where theology is played out in Christian action.[5] He uses the example that Martin Luther was a great theologian because he “articulated the whole new consciousness of the individual as it emerged in the West at the dawn of modernity.”[6] Martin Luther was gifted with the ability to motivate and inspire others. He had unique gifts and talents that allowed him to appeal to people’s emotions and conscience. While Bevin addresses the reasons why contextual theology is important, I didn’t find his models to be actionable.

Katherin Tanner, in her book, Spirit in the Cities,[7] talks about the importance of place, or social location to our personal theological development. Place has greatly influenced my own theological growth, so Tanner’s thoughts and stories resonate with my personal experience. In my own theological journey, I’ve been forced to consider my beliefs and feelings more deeply as I’ve moved out of my normal space and engaged with others in different environments. My lens was very narrow until I moved to spaces that were “outside” of my own culture. I live in an upper middle-class, predominately white neighborhood. Unless I intentionally venture outside of my community, I rarely cross paths with people different than myself. As my family and I have ministered within white, middle-class America, we’ve struggled at the lack of theological application demonstrated within our churches. People say they want to “do outreach” and will gladly give a hand out, but they don’t really want to enter into other people’s worlds to find out how they can truly make a difference. They aren’t willing to sacrifice or take risk. For many years I struggled with the fact that some people call themselves Christian, yet aren’t willing to do anything about the social injustice in the world around them. I wondered why people seem so complacent; until it dawned on me that fear and that which is unfamiliar often hold people back from being obedient to Christ. They may want to demonstrate Christ to others, but they simply don’t know how. Tanner points out that, “The fear and antipathy many white Angelenos feel toward poor people and people of color is exacerbated by the lack of and loss of shared physical and social space.”[8] People often fear the unknown. One of the most effective ways to make theology contextual is to immerse oneself in the culture in which you are ministering. It is difficult to speak into someone’s life when you haven’t walked in his or her shoes. Maybe, we are spending too much time publically talking about our theology and trying to figure out the best way to make it relevant in our culture. Instead, I believe we need to intentionally do three things: 1) diligently seek God’s calling and purpose for our individual lives, 2) get out of our bubbles and get to know the people that God calls us to minister to, and 3) make decisions and act in a way that that honors Christ. If every Christian were to do this, we wouldn’t need thousands of books on contextual theology.

[1] The Bible, Justice, and Public Theology (ipf & Stock Pub: W, 2014), 9.

[2] The Bible, Justice, and Public Theology (ipf & Stock Pub: W, 2014), 30.

[3] Bevans, Stephan B. (2013-11-20). Models of Contextual Theology (Faith and Culture) (Kindle Location 192). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

[4] Bevans, Stephan B. (2013-11-20). Models of Contextual Theology (Faith and Culture) (Kindle Locations 205-206). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

[5] Models of Contextual Theology (Faith and Culture) (Kindle Locations 1722-1730). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

[6] Bevans, Stephan B. (2013-11-20). Models of Contextual Theology (Faith and Culture) (Kindle Locations 321-326). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

[7] Kathryn Tanner. Spirit in the Cities (Kindle Location 1). Kindle Edition.

[8] Kathryn Tanner. Spirit in the Cities (Kindle Location 1). Kindle Edition.

About the Author

Dawnel Volzke

Christ follower, wife, mom, teacher, student, professional...my passion is to serve Christ and my calling is to help organizations become great at fulfilling their mission.

9 responses to “Why are we irrelevant?”

  1. Nick Martineau says:

    Great thoughts Dawnel! Thousands of books to help us yet we are still so confused?! I think that boils down to your quotes, “They aren’t willing to sacrifice or take risk.” and “fear and that which is unfamiliar often hold people back from being obedient to Christ” I know it is those two things that often hold me back…I’m afraid and I’m self-centered. Your 3 practical steps you concluded with are right on. Great thinking Dawnel!

  2. Jon Spellman says:

    Dawnel, I do believe we have made it far too complicated. Not sure how or why, but it’s true. Being the Church isn’t complicated… IT’S HARD, but not complicated. Hard because it runs opposite of our natural, human tendencies. Sometimes I think we make it more complex to mask the fact that we really don’t want to do the very simple, yet difficult, work of making disciples.


    • Dawnel Volzke says:


      Sometimes I think that we expect Christianity to be complex, so we set ourselves and others up for failure. We forget to start with loving Christ and loving each other. Instead, we worry about fitting into the world we minister in. If the church would start with genuinely showing Christ’s love to others, we’d be like a magnet to the world. We just need to love the word with no strings attached. But, you are right that our humanity makes loving others sometimes hard.

  3. Brian Yost says:

    “This makes me wonder if we have overcomplicated the task of making Christ relevant. Are we spending so much time figuring out how to minister contextually that we are missing the point all together? Christ is relevant; but we often are not.”
    Great job rendering a complicated issue into its most basic form. I am always amazed at how much effort is put into diagnosing church problems, doing research, meeting in committee, writing books, holding seminars, and developing strategies. Not that these don’t have their place (sometimes), but what truly amazes me is to see people who have not complicated what it means to follow Christ and they just do it. We work hard to teach and train new christians, but I often find that new christians are better at just being authentic and the people around them see Christ in a way that is relevant to their lives. Perhaps new believers should teach us.

  4. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Dawnel, I am with you on questioning our “over complicating” this contextualization thinking. Yet to do so I find inremain naive to how much our culture has changed and that a post Christian backyard is truly different. I think our reading continues to stretch us and help equip us to not just locally but globally consider how we, our lives, might better contribute to making Christ and His church know in this world. Great post and thinking!

    • Dawnel Volzke says:


      Do you think that we become naive because our time is spent in the wrong space of ministry? For example, I know many church leaders that rarely leave their church, community, or denomination. Over time, they become naive because they haven’t been in the world. Many of these same leaders spend countless hours reading up on “best practices” and trying to figure out how to grow their churches and become relevant to younger generations. Some look for answers on the golf course instead of on the street. Others complain they lack resources or time. We spend countless hours trying to develop good models for church planting, training pastors, etc. Is the model that we’ve propagated for ministry hurting the church? Could it be that the model itself is driving us away from contextualizing?

  5. Dave Young says:

    Dawnel, I like the kick in the pants at the end of your post. At our church we’ve been doing a lot of discussing of what God wants us to do in our city. How can we most effectively ‘love Baytown’. We’re almost paralyzed from action in fear of going down the wrong path, the path of what everyone else is doing. In reality maybe it’s as simple as – a moving ship is easier to direct then one that’s stuck at the dock. I appreciate that passion.

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      I’ve seen this same thing in a lot of organizations. We fear failure, so we don’t act at all. Have we placed too little emphasis on the leading of the Spirit, and too much emphasis on creating a model that works? I’m all about planning and having best practices in our operations! However, the direction from the Spirit trumps all else. Sometimes we must start moving forward so that He can reveal the details for our plans.

  6. Mary Pandiani says:

    Your comment about wanting straightforward answer to complex and messy problems reminds me of the value of Jesus using parables (as we read with and about Christopher Marshall’s paradigm of parables). It seemed Jesus confused his disciples and followers more with parables, persisting by letting those complex and messy problems stand in the story. But somehow, story/narrative seeps into our bone marrow (sorry, getting too esoteric again) cultivating a change of thinking or doing or feeling. So while our living out of faith can be much more simple than what we typically make it, it also requires a willingness to recognize we can’t make all the changes…the Holy Spirit does the transforming.
    Appreciate your words, Dawn as I think you synthesized the texts into a coherent line of thinking.

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