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-- © GodSpeak International 2006 --
-- Do not republish without written permission from <copyright@godspeak.org> --

Author: Teresa Seputis <ts@godspeak.net>

Prayer-School Course #36

Ask Teresa

By Teresa Seputis

Week 13 Question
Staying Culturally Relevant

Dear Teresa

I am part of a very small assembly in a very big area (densely populated) in Centurion, South Africa. We have tried so many things (fasting and praying) but it there seems to be no growth. Some people are calling us the "old age assembly." We just cannot attract young people, which mean that at a point in time the assembly will cease to exist.

What is wrong in our local assembly that is keeping us from growing?

- Visions Of Growth

Dear Visions Of Growth

I really hear your heart in this, and I think it is a godly and healthy sign that your congregation wants to grow and to attract all ages.

What I am going to say may surprise you. I don't believe you are hitting a spiritual barrier that is keeping you from growing. I don't sense I do not sense a spiritual problem in your church or even in your area that is preventing your church from growing. What I sense is more of a cultural issue--which, by the way, is a problem that is shared by many churches and congregations all over the world.

Let me try to explain it a little. Every nation has it's own culture-- our own national and ethnic culture defining our use of personal space, the foods we like to eat, and giving us our national and ethnic heritage. Those are all good things and God really likes and celebrates diversity of culture in His body. That is why Revelation 14:6 tells us, "Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of Heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth--to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people." God wants to reach all cultures and people groups for Himself.

I gave the above paragraph as background, but that is not the type of culture I want to talk about. Any national or ethnic culture is actually comprised of a whole bunch of cultures that are similar to each other but also different. These cultures vary by age group, by economic status, etc. This is the part where it gets a bit confusing for most people. Each of these cultures usually has its own distinct music, art and lingo (slang specific to that culture). Each has its own way of doing things, it's favorite forms of entertainment, it's own set of secondary values, etc.

You said your church is from South Africa. That means you share the South African culture and heritage with others in your city. But not everyone in that South African culture thinks alike. That is particularly true between youth and more mature people. The things that appeal to people in their forties-and-above usually are not be the same things that appeal to the youth.

Your church is probably set up to appeal to it's current membership--and that is the type of people who it will attract--new people like the ones you already have. That is true of most churches by the way. Since your church is comprised mostly of older adults, your church culture is going to attract older people. The youth of your city (including the "born again and on-fire-for-God" youth) probably are not attracted to the type of worship music that you use. They may also have trouble relating to the topics of the sermons and teachings. The problems that a 20-year-old wants to solve are different than the problems a 40-year- old wants to solve are different from the problems that a 60-year-old wants to solve. The young people probably have trouble relating to you church's culture, because it is not set up for them.

Most churches don't have quite this problem because they are set up to minister to all ages. That is because they have a current membership that is comprised of those ages. The average church has a nursery, Sunday school for children, youth groups, singles groups, young married groups, seniors groups, etc.

If you want to attract younger people to your church, you are going to have to modify the church so it will appeal to younger people and meet their perceived needs. But if you do that, chances are you will upset some of the older people in your church...they will probably perceive changes to appeal to other age groups in a negative light, because it won't appeal to them as much. That means you will need to unite the people--to educate them in the vision and get them to buy into it-- before you start changing the church culture. Otherwise, you may loose the old members before gaining any new ones.

It reminds me of a foursquare church plant project in a Hispanic neighborhood. The senior pastor loved vineyard style music, and he decided that was the only type of worship they'd do in service. The worship was great for the original church plant team, many of whom came for a Vineyard background. But it did not work in the community. Their culture used a fast, happy, upbeat temple celebration style of music. They vineyard music uses a lot of slow beats, minor cords (which sound solemn) and slower thoughtful "high praise." Many people from the neighborhood would visit the church plant--once. But they would not come back because they said the worship music did not work for them. Many said it was "boring" for them. The pastor needed to do one of two things. He needed to move the church plant out of the Hispanic neighborhood, or he needed to modify the music to fit the culture of the people he was trying to reach. He wouldn't do either and the church plant finally folded in defeat. The simple truth is that if you want to attract people to your church, you are going to have to offer them things that work for them, that fit into their culture.

While the "typical" church doesn't have the age problem you describe, they still have the same type of problem. Most of the church growth in the Western World does not come from making new converts. It comes from Christians moving around from one church to another. That means that for one church to grow, another must shrink. That is not "healthy growth."

Many Western churches have trouble making new converts for one main reason: they have become irrelevant to their culture. God intended for them to be out there in the forefront changing and transforming society for His glory. But instead of doing that, they retreat into the privacy of their church buildings. In essence, they hide from the world, often quoting verses like "we are not of this world."

When the church abandons the territory they are supposed to possess (education, entertainment, finances, etc) then the devil moves in and takes it over.

In many nations, the church has given up so much territory the saved person sees them as "irrelevant." They don't flock to our services because they are not interested in what we have to say. They feel we don't offer practical solutions to the problems they face, so they won't give us our attention when we try to share the message of the cross. They assume the gospel is not "good news;" they assume it is irrelevant trivia. They want to spend their time and energy on what them consider as important to them, and most unsaved people think that the church doesn't have anything to offer.

If we want to be effective in reaching the loss, we need to offer them something that they perceive is of value. We need to offer practical solutions to the world's problems.

I have seen a few churches do this. Since you are from Africa, I will give two examples from Africa. However, the same principles could be applied anywhere. There is a church in Capetown, South Africa that began feeding the hungry three times a week. They offered free hot soup to eat and a loaf of bread to take home. To get the food, people had to sit through a short worship service with music and a 15 minute inspirational "teaching". At first people came only because they wanted the free food. But as the months passed, they began to turn to the church with some of their other problems...family issues, fears, etc. The church also began a vocational training program to teach jobless people simple trades and help them find jobs. Over time many of the people they trained and fed got saved and many joined the church. They tripled their size and most of the growth came from new converts who they ministered to.

Another church was comprised mostly of older and well-educated people. They noticed that most of the children in their area were uneducated, so they set up a program to teach children the basics. It was an academically excellent program and also had the gospel message woven in. After a while, those children started showing up at their Sunday service, and they had to scurry to put together a Sunday school and children's church. A few weeks later, the young mothers of these children started coming to church as well. They had to organize something to minister to the young mothers. Their church grew, and it grow out of meeting a real need in their community as they shared the gospel.

I am not suggesting that we trade the message of the cross in for a social gospel. Absolutely NOT! The gospel is good news and we don't want to compromise it in the least. But we can't realistically expect that unsaved people are going to come flocking to our churches to hear the good news. Instead, we need to go to where they are. We need to ask God to show us which "need" of theirs He wants to fill to get their attention.

Even Jesus did this. He didn't just preach the gospel, He also healed their sick and did miracles. People did not flock to Him because He spoke great words of truth. They flocked to Him because they were sick or demonized and needed help. After God met them in the area of their problem, they started listening to what He had to say. We need to do the same thing today that Jesus did to reach the lost. We need to get our direction and strategy from God--but we need a strategy to meet unsaved people's practical needs, so that we can be "heard" when we share the gospel.

What does all this mean to your church? It means two things. First, you are going to need to ask the Lord to show you how to be relevant in your culture, so you can reach the lost. Second, you may need to adjust your church culture to appeal to multiple age groups. Those are both really big changes. So you need to get your direction and strategy from God, and then implement it step by step. Be sure to educate your members on where you are going and why. Do that before and as you start to move, or else they might not be willing to go there with you.

-- © GodSpeak International 2006 --
-- Do not republish without written permission from copyright@godspeak.org --

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Of course, prayer plays a big role in all of this, so be sure to keep on praying. But be sure to adapt your prayers to seek God's will and strategies, then ask for empowerment to implement them once He gives them to you.