Staying relevant

Hillsong Church is an Australian Pentecostal megachurch, founded in 1983 by Frank Houston and his son Brian. A multisite church, with international offshoots in (among other locations) London, Kiev, Cape Town, Stockholm and New York, the church claims a weekly attendance of over thirty thousand.

A church of that size, in the world in which we live, is bound to attract controversy. Over the years, Hillsong has experienced its fair share of controversies. The latest has involved questions about the church’s stance on homosexuality and same sex marriage.

At a recent New York press conference, Hillsong’s senior pastor, Brian Houston, fielded a question relating to his and his church’s stance on these issues. Declining to directly state his or its position, he appealed instead to the church’s quest for “relevance.” While the message of the church is “sacred,” he said, “the methods have to change for the church to stay relevant.” This quest for relevance, he added, is a “challenge” for the church, which runs the risk of looking like a “pariah” if it maintains its firm stance on biblical marriage.

If you’re a little uncertain as to exactly how Houston wants the church to change its methods in order to stay relevant, he explains. To stay relevant, Christians must think about three things: “the world we live in,” “the weight we live with,” and “the Word we live by.”

The world we live in, whether we like it nor not, changes. The sexual revolution is evidence of this. Houston thinks that this is a “vexing” thing for the church that is wondering, “How do we not become a pariah?”

Given that the world is always changing, we need to consider the weight with which we live. Here, Houston notes that there are young people in our churches who are struggling with their sexual identity, and we run the risk of making them feel condemned if we come down too harshly on sexual orientation. He fears that youth pastors and parents might exclude these young people when they are most vulnerable. These young people may be “depressed, maybe even suicidal, and sadly oftentimes grow up to hate the church because they feel like the church rejected them.”

The Word we live by, says Houston, “is what the Bible says.” He declines to state at this point exactly what the Bible says, but adds, “It would be much easier if you could feel like all of those three just easily lined up, but they don’t necessarily.”

For Hillsong, “it’s a conversation.” Houston feels that it is unwise for the church to reduce its stance on homosexuality to a public statement.

This press conference predictably unleashed a firestorm of controversy in the Christian community. Responding to the controversy a few days later, Houston released a statement on the church’s website, in which he “encourage[d] people not to assume a media headline accurately represents what [he] said at a recent press conference.” The statement continues,

Nowhere in my answer did I diminish biblical truth or suggest that I or Hillsong Church supported gay marriage. I challenge people to read what I actually said, rather than what was reported that I said. My personal view on the subject of homosexuality would line up with most traditionally held Christian views. I believe the writings of Paul are clear on this subject.

 

I was asked a question on how the church can stay relevant in the context of gay marriage being legal in the two states of the USA where we have campuses. My answer was simply an admission of reality—no more and no less. I explained that this struggle for relevance was vexing as we did not want to become ostracized by a world that needs Christ.

 

I made the point that public statements condemning people will place a barrier between the church and the world (and I note that Jesus came to save and not to condemn), which is why at Hillsong, we don’t want to reduce the real issues in people’s lives to a sound bite.

 

This—like many other issues, is a conversation the church needs to have and we are all on a journey as we grapple with the question of merging biblical truth with a changing world.

Without directly saying it, then, it appears that Houston affirms the biblical teaching that homosexuality is sin. He doesn’t, however, want the church “to become ostracized by a world that needs Christ.”

The obvious question at this point is, should the church actively strive to stay “relevant” in a changing culture? And if so, how?

Houston suggests that, to stay relevant, the larger question surrounding homosexuality and same sex marriage needs to become a “conversation.” If we don’t enter into this “conversation” we run the risk of becoming a “pariah.” He seems to fear that the church that becomes “ostracized” will be ineffective in “a world that needs Christ.” While he and (presumably) his church affirm the definition of biblical marriage, he (and it) is unwilling to make “public statements” that will inevitably “place a barrier between the church and the world.” Instead, he wants to “grapple with the question of merging biblical truth with a changing world.”

The implication is clear: If we do not adapt and enter into the “conversation” by “merging biblical truth with a changing world” we will be relegated to irrelevance. No one will take seriously a church that is willing to stand publicly for the truth of God’s word. We will lose our witness and the world will win.

As I did some reading and listening to be sure that I was clear on exactly what Houston did and did not say, I was struck by the words of Psalm 124, which I read that very morning:

“If it had not been the LORD who was on our side,” let Israel now say—“if it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive, when their wrath was kindled against us; then the waters would have overwhelmed us, the stream would have gone over our soul; then the swollen waters would have gone over our soul.”

 

Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth. Our soul has escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

(Psalm 124:1–8)

Houston is quite correct when he says that same sex marriage will most likely be legal in most Western countries within a very short space. It is already legal in South Africa. But he is quite wrong to think that the only way for the church to stay relevant in this changing cultural climate is to adapt. Jesus and the apostles were willing to say tough things even though they were ostracised and openly persecuted. And, incredibly, the church of the New Testament grew in leaps and bounds despite (perhaps because of) the persecution.

The church that runs the risk of being reduced to irrelevance—of having its candlestick removed in the language of the New Testament (see Revelation 2–3)—is the church that compromises its belief and behaviour. Conversely, the church that is willing to stand for the truth finds its “help … in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” That church will not be swallowed alive when men rise up and their wrath is kindled against it. The only way for the church to stay truly relevant is to stand boldly for the truth of God’s word and to unashamedly proclaim the unchanging gospel to a world in need of Jesus Christ.

I do not advocate a hateful Westboro Baptist-styled approach to the subject. I share Houston’s concerns about potentially doing more harm than good to our kids who struggle with sexual identity. But, when we are asked, we need to stand for the truth. When seeking to help others in their temptations, we need to be willing to call sin for what it is and point to the cross as God’s source of forgiveness and hope. This may well invite ostracism. We may well be considered a pariah to the world. But it is the only way to truly help a world in need of Christ and, more importantly, to glorify God.

Let us be willing to stand for the truth of God’s Word and sing with David, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

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