Listen: Simon Manchester with Christian Growth. (Airs 8am Sundays on Hope 103.2 & Inspire Digital.)
Many people believe Christianity is an unreasonable and irrelevant faith, even intolerant and hypocritical. In a 5-part series, Simon Manchester responds to these claims one by one. This week: irrelevance.
Part 1 – Is Christianity Irrelevant?
[Prayer] – Father, we thank you that you are gracious. We thank you that you have given your Holy Spirit to stir us so that we might believe and grow, and we pray that by the power of your Holy Spirit you would help us this evening to think through this subject and to equip us in a way that we would go forward from here, with trust in you and zeal for people’s welfare, and with the joy that comes from your salvation. And we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Am I Kidding Myself?
The question we are facing this evening is this question: “Is Christianity Irrelevant?” And I know that you are expecting me to say “No”, and then hopefully, you are thinking, I’ll sit down. But what I want to do is equip you as best as I can to face this question. It’s the first of 10 we are going to deal with at this church over the next 10 Sundays. Because it looks like Christianity is irrelevant if you look at this country. I know that here we are this evening a reasonable number of us, and we sing like believers and we talk like believers and we listen like believers, and we go forward like believers. But you know and I know that we live in the midst of a majority who look on Christianity as irrelevant, and if you’re like me, that’s difficult.
It’s not easy to sit in a sports ground and consider the tens of thousands who are there, who have no interest in Christianity, or to go to the beach and consider the people there who have no interest, or to walk the streets or to go to the shopping centres and see tens of thousands of people, and you know that if you were able to call on all those people to stop in their tracks and put their hand up if Jesus is priority for them, top priority, big priority, that you would see very, very few hands – a tiny percentage of hands. Despite the percentage of people around this country who say they are Christians, we just know that they don’t know what they are talking about, and a tiny percentage of people are actually fellowshipping with His people Sunday by Sunday on a regular basis.
So if you’re like me, you have to ask the question every now and again, “Am I kidding myself? Here I am with my Christian friends, Jesus is true, Jesus is real, but I’m in a tiny minority. Is it possible that a small group can be right and is it possible that a big group can be wrong?” That’s the question we have to grapple with. Is Christianity irrelevant?
I don’t think this is so much an intellectual objection. I don’t think people are walking around writing big articles about Christianity being irrelevant. I think people just live it, act like it and therefore what people live like is the way they think.
If you’re listening to this sermon this evening and you are not yet a Christian, I hope you’ll be challenged to rethink. Mark Middleburg says in his book called Choosing Your Faith, that more people spend more time doing research on a bicycle or the car they’ll buy or the plants they’ll plant than they do on the monumental subject of eternity. And if you are a Christian this evening, I really hope that you’ll go from this evening strengthened and equipped to believe that Christianity, far from being irrelevant, is utterly and eternally relevant – that’s my aim.
Don’t Decide the Truth Based on Statistics
Numbers is never the way to work out a truth. Four people got into the car when Princess Diana had her last drive. Three of them voted against seatbelts – maybe not intellectually, maybe not vocally, but practically they voted against seatbelts. One person survived that car crash. Numbers is not the way to work out truth.
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I want this evening to look with you at the subject under three headings: Firstly the problem of irrelevance. I’m going to ask the question, “What are we talking about?” and “Why is it like this?” And then we are going to get to the Bible as quickly as we can to look at “The Impossibility of Irrelevance”, and then we’re going to finish in the last two minutes with “The End of Irrelevance” – putting it behind us.
What Do We Mean By Irrelevant?
So first of all, the problem. What do we mean when we talk about Christianity being irrelevant? Do you think your non-Christian friends think of Christians as irrelevant? I’m not so sure that they do. I think non-Christians are quite happy for Christians to do their stuff as long as it’s helpful – social action, etcetera. The Salvation Army is seen to be helpful. World Vision and many welfare agencies are seen to be helpful. A snapshot in the Telegraph this week says that Christians are bearing the brunt of charity work in this country, and I imagine most non-Christians would say, “that’s fine with me”. They are relevant.
Do we mean for many people that Christ is irrelevant? I don’t think people would stand up and say “Christ is irrelevant”. They would say he made a terrific impact on the world. He’s given us very good values and there are many people who’ll say that if you like Jesus and he’s meaningful to you, well that’s fine for you, if he’s relevant for you; he’s not for me. But if he’s relevant for you, well he’s relevant and that’s fine. They wouldn’t want to say he’s irrelevant, he’s just irrelevant for me. I think that’s the way many non-Christians would talk.
A third possibility is that the church is irrelevant. The commitment, the belonging, the participation, all that sort of stuff is irrelevant; the discipline. I think the majority answer for that is, “Yes, the church is irrelevant.” The lifestyle is irrelevant. The doing, the being, the singing, the turning up, the joining, is all irrelevant, I think, for most people.
“I think for many people that’s all they can see – the rituals and the rosters. And so they say ‘It’s irrelevant’.”
So I am expecting that most non-Christians in our city will say “Christians, you are not irrelevant, do your stuff. Christ, he’s not irrelevant, just not to me very relevant. But the church is highly irrelevant. It’s completely optional. You don’t have to do it. You can live a good life and probably go up to glory and you don’t have to have anything to do with church.” It’s the way most people in Australia think.
And I think that makes very good sense if those people think that Christianity is rituals and rosters. Because if Christianity is rituals and rosters, I also would want to have nothing to do with it. But I think for many people that’s all they can see – the rituals and the rosters. And so they say “It’s irrelevant”.
One man, I read this week, grew up thinking that there were two kinds of people in the world: religious people and normal people. And he was absolutely caught to know which way to go. He thought he ought to be religious but he wanted to be normal. Terrible tension isn’t it?
But many of us here this evening we can’t work out why non-Christian people want to have nothing to do with Jesus when Jesus is so great and so gracious. The most wonderful person the world has ever seen, the most generous person the world has ever seen and to get to know Him is to have eternal life now and forever. Why in the world would you turn your back on somebody so great and so gracious as Jesus?
Why do People View Christianity as Irrelevant?
So I want to ask now the question – where has the irrelevancy come from? Why does our pagan world look on the church, the Christianity of the church as being as irrelevant as they think it is? Is it the church’s fault? I think, yes, it is the church’s fault. We do not present a very great image to our world, do we? Some of that is not helped by the media who love to come in and take film of the most bizarre and boring things we do, or the wacky things that some churches do. It just confirms in the average pagan’s mind that the church is irrelevant.
We also, of course, in the church, are very good at making our image look strange. Yesterday I spent three hours in a service in another diocese, which I wouldn’t expect any normal Australian to walk into and say “this is great!” There were so many men in strange party hats and there was so much ritual going on, I just didn’t have a clue what was going on.
And sometimes the church’s message is so obscure. You know, what is it to come into a church and listen to somebody talk for 20 minutes and you have not a clue what they are talking about? It’s just mindless; a barrage of words. You may be feeling that tonight. But the church has been its own worst enemy in sometimes, perhaps too often, communicating gibberish.
I think at St Thomas’s we fail to think through, I do and I think you do, how good Christ is, and therefore we present the news of Christ as no big deal. It comes across from the way we think and the way we live as on par with the sport we play, the exercise we do, and so it just looks as though we have a private little club and it doesn’t really have any overflow or impact.
That’s not the way it’s always been. When Christians have thought through and lived out their convictions, they have often historically stopped the world in its tracks and caused non-Christians to see the futility of their ways very quickly. And almost all of us, thank God, know one or two or three Christians who are so keen and so straight in their Christian life that they are a continual reminder to you that Jesus is the most important person in the most important way and almost everything else is trivial. Don’t we thank God for those people? But the people who call themselves Christians who give the impression that Christianity is just optional, like breakfast cereal, are not a great help to us at all.
Os Guiness says, “Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously and yet never have Christians as today been more relevant”. And even the churches which are trying to keep up with the secular entertainment – as if we could ever match secular entertainment – are just doing a very poor echo, and not really impacting the culture, and we in the traditional churches, we don’t really present very well, do we, to our community that this a truth and a community which people ought to take seriously.
It’s the Wrong Question
Is it that the unbelievers are also at fault? And the answer is “Yes”, and I’ll tell you why, because unbelievers should not be asking or saying that Christianity is irrelevant- it’s the wrong question to be asking. People should not, even unbelievers, should not be going around and saying “is Christianity relevant?” That is an extremely arrogant question. It’s the sort of question you ask if you are in the seat of power and you want to know whether something will be an addition to your supermarket trolley. It’s not the sort of question you ask if you know that you are mortal and inconsistent and your life hangs by a thread, and you could at any time come to the end and meet your Maker. You don’t then walk around with a superior attitude which says, “is Christianity relevant?”
Imagine if I were to come to you this evening and say to some of you young people, “Are your parents relevant? Are they really relevant?” That’s an inflammatory question, isn’t it? Or imagine an employee was to be asked “Is your CEO relevant?” Or if I was to say to you “Is the Prime Minister really relevant to us?” It’s an arrogant consumer-question, and for a person to live their life saying, “Is Christianity relevant?” is to give the impression that they are walking down the supermarket trolley of life, and they are asking the question, “Will I throw God in?” That is a piece of insanity.
What we ought to be doing, and what people ought to be asking, is this question: “How do you treat God? How do you honour God?” That’s what we ought to say to people. That is a front-foot, Biblical question: “How do you treat God?”
Here you are in this city, He has been so good to you; you of all people ought to treat Him with thanks, and repentance and faith and devotion. What an absolute insult that a person who has received so much would treat God so trivial! The Bible has absolutely so sympathy. For the person who sits round and thinks they are the ‘king of the universe’ asking whether God is relevant to them. How does a person treat God? How do they honour God? That’s the question that we ought to be asking.
So that’s the first thing. The problem of relevance. The fact of the matter is that God is utterly relevant. We may not be that relevant, but He is utterly relevant.
The Impossibility of Irrelevance
Second, The Impossibility of Irrelevance. When you read the New Testament, the message of Jesus Christ, it is inconceivable to Jesus that he is irrelevant. Isn’t that one of the wonderful things you read about Jesus? He walks through the world. He’s like a doctor walking through the battlefield. He has all the medicine, everybody is injured and He gives the impression that He has all the answers and none of the problems.
The French Philosopher, Simone Wheel, wrote on one occasion, “If you want to say something relevant, say something eternal”, and that’s exactly what Jesus does. One famous example is John 4 where he comes to the well and the woman is at the well getting some water and we read that He says to her, “Will you give me a drink?” And she says, “Why are you speaking to me, you are a Jew and I am a Samaritan”, and He says, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked Him and He would have given you living water”.
He says to her “If you recognised Me, the Messiah, as I come to the well, you would have dropped your bucket and you would have said, perhaps on your knees, “Would you please give me living water?”
Well this girl who comes to the well is a classic Sydney type of girl. Everything is just sort of coming and going. Her work comes and goes, her relationships have been coming and going. She’s had a lot of relationships. The groceries come and go. The water supply comes and goes, and Jesus introduces her to something which will never go, called living water.
Eight Facts About the Living Water of Jesus
I have eight super-fast things to say to you about this living water, which will take me three minutes to get through. (Somebody told me this morning they got down seven of them!) Here’s the first:
- Living water in John 4 is a picture, or an illustration or image of something deeper. So she is thinking of H2O, Jesus is thinking eternal life. She is thinking of the present – He’s thinking of forever.
- This living water is a picture of something which matches the human vacuum. Every person who’s ever lived has got a pretty good grasp of eternity and most of the activities we do in this world do not solve or satisfy the eternal cravings. Work: you can work as hard as you like, but it won’t solve your eternal cravings. Exercise, hobbies, entertainment, television; it’s all just postponing, isn’t it? Who’s going to solve the eternal? That’s the question. And so people, what they do, they either go pessimistic, and they say you might as well just live, because soon you’ll die, or they go optimistic, and they say everything will be okay, just keep going. Jesus cuts right through the middle and He says “No, there’s something more than this short world and I have it in my control: I have living water.”
- This living water is not something the woman has. Otherwise Jesus wouldn’t talk to her about it. She is not set for eternity safely. She is not fine. She is like her water jar, she is empty. She has no eternal life. She is a normal, dying human being.
“Jesus doesn’t say ‘You can have a sip from my water bottle’. No, he gives away his life.”
- This living water is not understood by the woman. It confuses her when Jesus talks about living water. She’s sort of interested but she doesn’t understand it. Her question is, “How can you a man stand there and talk to me about giving me living water which is going to satisfy my thirst forever, how can you do that?”
- This living water is obviously invaluable in the present and in the long term. If you get this living water, it’s new life, it’s eternal life, it’s spiritual life. You’ve begun to live a friend of God, you will go through the grave to be with God. You will be inwardly changed. There will be a spring within you. Okay? It doesn’t say you’ll be perfectly happy, He just says you’ll have new life inside you. It cannot run out. You’ll never thirst. You’ll never die of thirst. That life will continue right into eternity. Those of you who have eternal life today, that life will never die. You cannot die, because of Jesus Christ. And this new life is eternal. It wells us, says Jesus, to eternal life. It is invaluable.
- It is a crucial gift. Jesus says, “I will give you eternal life. I will give you living water.” But it’s absolutely essential to get it from Jesus. On Thursday I was at Bondi Beach sitting under my umbrella, one of the few weird people under an umbrella, and up and down the beach walked people, and you know the story, they call out “cold water, cold water”. And I noticed that 99 out of every 100 people on the beach completely ignored them, either because they had their own water, or they think they can survive without water or for whatever reason. Now you can leave Bondi Beach safely without calling on the water man. You can get home without the Bondi water man but you cannot leave this world safely without calling on Jesus. You cannot get home without Jesus Christ. “No-one”, says Jesus “comes to the Father, except through Me.”
- This living water is also a costly gift. You see Jesus doesn’t say “You can have a sip from my water bottle”. No, he gives away his life. When Jesus died on the cross, he gave up his life in order that you would have his life. He gave away everything in order that you would have everything. If you want to live eternally in fellowship with God, Jesus does not offer you a drop of his life; he offers you every drop of his life. It costs Him everything.
- This living water, this gift of living water, seems to be received by the woman. (If I read John 4 rightly.) Because in verse 28, she drops her water jar, verse 29 she runs back to her village, she wants everybody to meet Christ. She seems to be overflowing with enthusiasm, she is bursting at the seams to tell people about Jesus. She seems to have a brand new life and she has new priorities, new faculties and she has new categories. Jesus has presented himself to her. She has believed in him. She has begun inwardly to live. Isn’t that wonderful?
Jesus Has Solved the Destination Problem
I’ve been pastoring this church for a number of years. I have got a reasonable guide to the people who are not yet reborn. That is, there are people who have been coming to this church for weeks, months and years and a few for decades but they have never put their trust in Jesus and received living water. They don’t have the categories, they don’t have the faculties, they are just nice people who come into this building. But there are so many who have put their faith in Jesus and when they put their faith in Jesus, He puts His life in them and they are brand new forever. And if Jesus, you see, gives eternal life, He’s solved the destination. You’ll arrive in glory. And if He’s solved the destination, that means that every day of the journey has changed. You can’t fall into the trap of saying “It’s pie in the sky when you die”. If the destination is fixed, the journey is fixed.
The End of Irrelevance
That brings me to my third and last point this evening – The End of Irrelevance.
If a person was ever to say to you the question, “Is Christianity irrelevant?” I would urge you to say to them, “Is eternal life irrelevant?” It’s impossible. It’s impossible that eternal life would be irrelevant. And Jesus not only offers it, but He’s got the credentials to give it.
So the End of Irrelevance. I’m trying to point out that what Jesus said and did is totally relevant to every human being in Sydney, unless of course this is a myth and a piece of fiction, in which case we can just read it and say “how sweet”, but the fact of the matter is that it is history and it is fact and Jesus has changed and transformed people all over the world, and all over this city, and therefore we know that He speaks the truth, and people who fail to receive Him lose everything. They lose everything.
It’s a very, very terrible thing to turn your back on Jesus and keep going, because you’ll find yourself without the love of God and without the life of God, and walking straight into judgement.
Now the problem in this country and in this city is not that Christianity is irrelevant; it’s highly relevant. The problem is that so many other things are irrelevant and are getting in the way. So if you have ever read Pilgrim’s Progress, you know that John Bunyan had a place in Pilgrim’s Progress called “Vanity Fair”, and Vanity Fair was a kind of town which unfortunately the pilgrims wandered off into, and found themselves being distracted by a whole lot of amusements and trivialities which had the great danger of tripping them up and keeping them away from the path of life.
“‘Is Christianity relevant?’ is the wrong question, because God is not in the witness box. We’re in the witness box.”
Now in this city we have made Vanity Fair no longer a danger, we’ve made it the very goal of life. We’ve called everything that’s relevant and eternal, irrelevant; and we’ve called everything that’s irrelevant and trivial, relevant. And that’s why you have such a wonderful place and role to play in this city because you stand for the things that are timeless and relevant, utterly relevant, to everybody. There isn’t anybody who’s not perishing, there isn’t anybody who’s doesn’t need Jesus.
Well asking “Is Christianity relevant?” is the wrong question, because God is not in the witness box. We’re in the witness box. He will not play the commodity game. We are His commodities. Therefore I hope if you are a Christian this evening, and you have come to put your faith in Jesus, you’ll rejoice that you have received living water. I hope that you’ll live in the Vanity Fair culture in which we live and be an overturner of the culture because it’s ridiculous and fatuous. And I hope if you are not a Christian, that you will re-think, that you will wake up, that you will turn and look at the solid ground of the evidence and you’ll work out that Jesus did live, and did die and did rise and will come, and therefore you will quickly put your feet on Him and find a foundation which will last you forever.
The Lawyer Convinced By Evidence of the Resurrection
I was interested to read this week that a guy called Simon Greenleaf who lived in the 19th Century in America and was the guy who basically established the Harvard Law School and made it a place of such reputation and wrote three volumes on law, (A Treatise on the Law of Evidence. 3 Vols.) which have become such a standard textbook, that when he wrote the three volumes of law, the review in one of the London Magazines was that he had shed more light on the subject of law than all the courts of Europe put together. That’s high praise for the British to the American.
Simon Greenleaf was a Jewish scholar and some of his students, young students, challenged him to investigate the Resurrection. And as a very able lawyer, he, unwilling at first, very sceptical, but still decided he would investigate the Resurrection. And he was persuaded and he was converted and he became a Christian, and his book that he wrote is called The Gospels Examined by the Rules of Evidence.
I just quote that as one of a thousand stories we could mention of the person who changes their disinclination and humbly looks at the evidence for Jesus, and finds that it is strong and great and wonderful, and by turning to Him and trusting in Him and surrendering everything to Him, begins eternal life.
Let’s pray and bow our heads.
Our Heavenly Father, we ask You to help us as we live as a small minority in our city and in our country and we are conscious of thousands of people who don’t give You honour or gratitude or trust or surrender or obedience or service, and we wouldn’t either unless you had been merciful to us and gracious. We thank you for being merciful and gracious and we pray that You would help us, as you have placed us in this world, to be loving and courageous, and in Your providence, useful, in testifying to what we have received and in pointing people to the Lord Jesus that they might also receive living water.
We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
- For more in this series, head to ‘Facing Up to Disbelief – A 5-Part Christian Growth Series’.