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Home  >  Articles  >  Gilbert, Greg



Making Church Relevant

By Dale Galloway
A Review By Greg Gilbert


On Dale Galloway’s Making Church Relevant (Beacon Hill Press:  1999)

               Employing a relevant style in your church meetings is the “first step” to winning unchurched people.  That is the assumption of the authors who have joined together in Dale Galloway’s Making Church Relevant.  This book is a collection of essays by five authors—Galloway, George Hunter III, Bill Hybels, Walt Kallestad, and Tom Benjamin—about strategies the church can use to make itself relevant and interesting to twenty-first century culture.  Galloway himself writes two of the nine chapters in the book, one about the characteristics of a healthy church, which range from clear vision to every-member ministry to small groups to a flexible leadership structure, and the second about strategies for increasing the number of visitors who return to your church.  Hunter writes fully a third of the book, his focus being on how to understand the secular culture in which the church now finds itself.  Kallestad’s chapters are a call for church leaders to think like missionaries and act like marketers and also to dream big while being careful to make Jesus their “dream-mate,” as he likes to call it.  The best articles in the book are those by Benjamin and Hybels.  Benjamin’s article lays out the challenges facing young people today and calls the church to a passionate care for them.  Hybels writes an interesting article on “Bold Love,” in which he calls for Christians and especially Christian leaders to be bold and vocal in showing love for one another.  Don’t rush out to buy the book for them, but if you run across a photocopy of those chapters at some point, they’re worth the short read.

                I am told that it is good form when reviewing a book to point out some of the aspects of the book that might be useful, even if the book as a whole is not.  In that way, they say, you will prove that you have read and understood the book and that you are not just being critical for the sheer fun of it.  Galloway has succeeded in making that requirement an exceedingly tall order.  If I must say something good to prove that I have read the book, then I’m afraid you will just have to trust me this time.  There is simply little good to say.  The only things, in fact, that save the book from the ranks of the utterly useless are the chapters by Benjamin and Hybels, and that not because they are so profoundly helpful, but because the rest of the book is so profoundly misguided.

                The vast majority of the space given to the other three authors is spent calling church leaders to recognize the priorities and needs of the secular culture and accommodate their churches to those things.  The chapters consist of a long list of pragmatic, sometimes even meaningless suggestions about how to win more people to Christ, including having conversations with people (Hunter, p.16), protecting visitors’ anonymity (Hunter, p.18), offering 12-step programs for addiction (Hunter, p.19), thinking “magnificently” (Kallestad, p.69), acting quickly (Kallestad, p.72), making Jesus our “most trusted dream mate” (Kallestad, p. 126), having friendly ushers (Galloway, p.82), and having a telecare phone ministry (Galloway, p.83).  I have little doubt that someone would be drawn to a certain church if it employed some of these suggestions.  They are, some of them, good PR tactics.  The problem with these suggestions, though, is that not one of them is uniquely Christian.  There is nothing here, or really in the entire book, that could not be employed by any club or business or mosque that was trying to convince people to come inside its doors.  Yet these ideas are billed as the essentials for reaching our secular generation with the gospel.  From reading this book, one would be convinced that doing these things is a matter of eternal life and death.  People can go to hell if we don’t take this advice and visitors leave the church because of it.  “The potential long-term spiritual loss to the one who leaves,” writes Galloway, “is disheartening and even frightening,” (p. 75).  Of course the thought of eternal loss is frightening, but the ideas advanced in this book are no more uniquely Christian—and certainly no more capable of saving anybody from hell—than, say, having an efficient parking lot—though that’s suggested, too, on page 80—or serving lots of coffee—though so is that, page 84.  A Buddhist temple could read these suggestions and employ them just as well as any Christian church, and probably come up with the same results.  Yet Galloway and the others bill them as if they were essential to the very coming of the Kingdom of God.  “Kingdom consequences depend on us,” p. 77. 

                It honestly takes a conscious and concerted effort when reading this book to remember that there even is a gospel.  Salvation is defined more or less as getting people involved in the church, and that in turn is done by making the church enjoyable and efficient.  Church health is defined as how well the church is led, how clear is its vision, and how efficiently and engagingly it is able to run itself.  In chapter two, for example, Galloway lists ten characteristics of a healthy church:  clear vision, passion for the lost, every member ministering, empowered leaders, fervent spirituality, flexible leadership structure, celebrative worship, small groups, seeker-friendly evangelism, and loving relationships.  But notice that not one of those characteristics has any essential connection with the Christian gospel.  An Islamic group could adopt them all to good effect.  I have no problem with churches being efficient in their work; that is a good and needful thing.  There is a problem, though, when the health of a Christian church is defined by how efficiently it is run or how well it engages its culture.  No, the health of a church is defined by how faithful it is being to its mission of preaching the Word of God.  It might be argued that the gospel is assumed here, and that the conversation is on other matters.  The church, though, cannot simply continue to assume the gospel and move on to other things.  That which is constantly assumed is finally forgotten.  What a tragedy it would be if the gospel, the very reason for the church’s existence, was assumed all the way to oblivion!  My guess is that the result would look remarkably like the list of pragmatic public-relations strategies that Galloway has published here. 

There is also a problem when the church comes to believe that by tinkering with these things—by making the parking lot more efficient or our leadership more flexible, or our worship happier—we will somehow make more people come to Christ.  That could not be more false!  People come to Christ not because you have an efficient parking lot but because the Holy Spirit regenerates them through the witness of His people.

                No one has ever doubted the importance of being relevant to people’s lives.  But a quote by Os Guiness in Don Carson’s book Telling the Truth (Zondervan:  2000) is instructive:  “It is truth,” he says, “that gives relevance to ‘relevance,’ just as ‘relevance’ becomes irrelevant if it is not related to truth.”  Galloway’s book, I fear, puts too much stock in relevance for its own sake.  The statement at the beginning of this essay that “employing relevant style is the first step to winning unchurched people” (p.14) is false and misleading.  The first step to winning unchurched people is to define the Truth, to make the gospel clear.  Only then does “being relevant” begin to have any meaning at all.  George Hunter III writes on p.95 that the apostle Paul models to us “the need to understand a community’s population and a society’s values.”  Isn’t it interesting, though, that Paul would write his most penetrating letter, his most searching exposition of the gospel, to Rome, a city he’d never visited in his entire life?  I submit that Paul’s letter could be so penetrating, even in the face of sparse cultural data about the city, because he was more interested in making the gospel clear than in understanding the nuances of his society.  He understood that whatever the cultural differences, they were not ultimate; the human predicament is always the same.  They are sinners in need of a Savior.

                One final note—the fourth chapter, written by Walt Kallestad, deserves some reply, since it manages to raise the mistaken presuppositions of the rest of the book to a new and exciting level.  He writes on page 61 that the issue for us is to learn to “think like a missionary and act like a marketer.”  It is, by the way, an interesting and perhaps overly ambitious assumption he makes that we can prevent the way we act from spilling over into the way we think, that somehow we can act like a marketer without finally thinking like one.  That aside, the image of marketing to describe evangelism is a particularly horrid one, and Kallestad makes no apologies about employing the worst formulations of its definition.  On page 74, he defines marketing as “an organizational focus that works to discover what unmet consumer needs can be identified, what systems can be designed to satisfy those needs, and then to communicate the solutions to persons so they know about the need-meeting product or service.”  The gospel, though, is not about determining what people perceive their needs to be.  I can offer no more accurate indictment than the words of Eddie Gibbs:  “Basing a gospel presentation on meeting human needs . . . results in a shallow identification of the nature of the human predicament,” (ChurchNEXT, IVP:  2000).  People are not consumers; they are sinners.  They are in no position to dictate which of their needs they would like to be met, and they are certainly in no position to go “consumering” around to see what best fits.  There is no consumerism with the gospel.  The gospel doesn’t allow people to dictate their own needs; it simply declares to them that their need is salvation and commands them to repent and believe.