When Relevance and Truth Perfectly Met
“We Christians need to be open to others’ opinions,” the lady at Franklin & Marshall college park told me as I talked to her and some others about Jesus. “We shouldn’t judge people or be bigoted or proud in thinking that we have the only truth.”
Apparently this woman wasn’t familiar with Jesus’ life, because if she were she would have known that Jesus often told people the truth point-blank and even offensively.
At this point I was contemplating the many possible ways to steer the conversation. Should I tell her some basic stories (the woman at the well, the rich young ruler, Pilate at the judgment, etc.) to help fix her understanding of Jesus? Should I try to explain that accepting conflicting beliefs sends us into an intellectual twilight zone if taken to the logical conclusion? Should I ask the woman more questions to probe deeper into her statements to help her see the ridiculousness of those ideas?
A couple of months later I was driving another friend to an appointment. We were discussing gospel-sharing, and he was telling some of his stories of evangelism.
“You just need to tell people the truth without worrying about how they receive it. Most people are going to reject the truth. If they want to know the truth, they’ll listen. If not, they won’t, no matter what you say.”
My mind kicked into overdrive again, but for a very different reason. This seemed entirely imbalanced, but how should I respond? Ironically, the same stories came to my mind as in the conversation with the unnamed woman at F&M.
Like, the woman at the well. Jesus didn’t bring the truth in a formula to the Samaritan woman. In this dialogue, Jesus didn’t even quote many prooftexts from the Old Testament. But Jesus asked a lot of good questions and sat for a long time with an antagonistic woman who continually tried to bring in distracting theological debates—the sort of woman which my ‘truth-oriented’ friend might have written off as disinterested. How does this fit with the “hit-and-run” style of evangelism that says, “Just preach the Romans-road: those who will get it, will get it”?
Yes, both of these perspectives on truth have basis in the Bible, and are both somewhat of a reaction to the other. But they both miss the focus: the greatest Someone has come, and he perfectly modeled the union of truth and relevance.
Relevance transmits the truth in a way that others can understand and apply it to their lives. It is definitely not the dilution of truth; it is not trying to take away the stumbling block of the cross; it is not the exclusion of hard truth. Relevance is simply good communication.
Relevance is crucial because good communication is nearly, if not fully, as important as truth itself. Truth exists regardless of your opinions or experience. But for truth to change someone, it must be understood. And that has a lot to do with one’s experience and knowledge.
What do we do if the person we are trying to communicate with doesn’t understand our language? Someone must translate. And that is only one example of relevance in its most basic form. Language barriers exist, and we must continue to work hard to overcome them.
But there are many lesser communication barriers—cultural, religious, even gender divides. In order to communicate effectively across those barriers, we must understand the differences to some extent, and then speak the ‘new language’ of saying things in ways that cross the differences and help the other side understand and take in the full truth. And that’s what I mean when I speak of relevance. It is nothing other than taking the full truth and learning to communicate it so nothing is lost because of communication problems.
Relevance is not something to despise or fear – unless this idea is used to dilute or drain the truth. Well-meaning people sometimes share the “gospel” without all the hard parts, in the name of relevance. They don’t want to offend or turn people off by saying hard things. This is opposed to how Jesus lived and talked and is therefore wrong. And it is also what people think of when they hear the term relevance.
This brings us back to the central point of this article: Jesus lived a life of perfect truth and perfect truth-communication (relevance). In one sense, it is true that Jesus gave us the responsibility of figuring out how to share the gospel in our time, but it is also true that Christ came and left a perfect example of truth-sharing. All we need to do is apply His example onto the grid of our lives.
He was perfect. While we are afraid the truth will turn people off, Jesus knew that the value of finding truth was so high that it was worth telling—at the risk of losing the majority of people. While many times we wheedle, cajole, and beg people to join Christianity, Jesus apparently turned people away because he knew they weren’t worthy of truth!
Jesus knew that truth alone was worth everything a person had, so He taught the pure truth, regardless of the number of fans. At least one time, he deliberately said hard or mysterious things to eliminate those who weren’t hard-core followers. Jesus had no qualms with preaching to empty walls, if necessary, rather than strip the truth of anything to make it more palatable.
But Jesus did not just leave it up to the listeners to understand. He asked questions, told stories, and followed up with people to make sure they understood. He said things which continually piqued people’s interests and had them coming back for more. Jesus was relevant. He spoke truth in different ways, depending on the person he was speaking to. To the rich young ruler, he said that the only thing that he lacked was to give all his money to the poor. To Peter he said, “Leave your nets and follow me.” To Nicodemus he said, “You must be born the second time.” Jesus didn’t say the same eight texts over and over and over, as some of us are prone to do. It seemed to be different every time, and uniquely suited to each person.
We continually find ourselves struggling with the tension of truth vs. relevance. That’s to be expected, because it’s a tension that comes from Scripture. But make sure that the Person in whom this great tension was so perfectly joined is your model for dealing with it. Like Jesus, share the truth, and communicate the full truth in the most relevant way possible.