The art and science of Church Growth as a discipline is an enigmatic field that is filled with controversy. Attached to this difficulty in understanding Church Growths relevance is an apathetic response by some leaders who do not see its value or worse yet, there are those who exhibit an open hostility to the conceptual ideas of the growth process that can be found within the context of Church expression. Robert G. Duffett has effectively and admirably attempted the bridging of the perceived complexities of Church Growth philosophies in his book, A Relevant Word, (Judson Press, Valley Forge PA, 1995).  

Duffett attempts to add understanding and insight into the challenges the modern Western Church faces as a postmodern outlook infects the social conscious of the people. A Relevant Word addresses the issues presented to the church in a pluralistic society that has perceived the churches role in the contemporary setting as being increasingly irrelevant. The focus of the book is its genius. By drawing attention to the significant and pervasive problems modern man faces in a time of societal flux, Duffett grants invaluable access into communicative skills that can more than adequately address the considerable troubles people face through the means of transportation of God’s Word revealed into their personal fields of activity.

Life has inherent questions and challenges that need to be addressed. As possessors of eternal truth, believers in Christ have a sterling opportunity to reach into the lives of those who have been affected, and possibly disenfranchised, by the turbulent adjustments society is experiencing. These times of change can become important maze ways, connecting people to Christ Jesus in the midst of the churning sociological structures that appear to at times to have lost their stability and integrity.

By packaging the message of faith in a new methodology, Duffett encourages the church to see the seeker movement as a new reformation. “The seeker church movement is not about the Church becoming community” (ix). This paradigm shift of valuations attempts to contextualize the tremendous communal upheavals that have been hoisted upon society in general and its impact on the Church specifically. Dr. Duffett perceives the church as being in possession of the one commodity that grants ballast to human existence: right relationship with God.

The difficulty is seen in finding an effective approach that allows this great message to transcend the socially created stigmas that have been attached to the church as an institution, created by the carnage, or medium, of inadequate representation. Utilizing a holistic approach, A Relevant Word draws attention to the expositors need for the creation of pathways for connectivity to occur within varying social structures. The quandary of achieving effective levels of communication is Duffett’s premise, as he asserts: “at its most fundamental level, seekers are looking for some anchor or foundations for their lives” (p.44).

More esoteric and problematic approaches to the dilemma of communicating to those who dwell in the aftermath of the disillusionment of the Enlightenments failures are dealt with as well. Duffett does away with the syncratic, testimonial, and church tradition models as primary methods of executing the crucial canon of biblical truth (p. 48). Instead, Duffett advocates the ‘biblical tradition’ (p.48) as the essential mode of delivery for relevant messages in a postmodern society. As such, a method of crisscross interpretation (p. 56) is to be employed, according to Dr. Duffett. Crisscrossing identifies the effective practice of transitionally digressing from cultural concerns to biblical text and back again. In this way of understanding, the crisscrossing methodology aspires to create contextual issues that are poignant in addressing real world difficulties as opposed to the ‘Ivory Tower’ sanctions of a church community that doesn’t seem to care about the greater society that surrounds it.

This personal means of achieving connection incorporates the need of the speaker to effectively reach the seeker audience through the usage of emotional memory (p.118). Emotive power is an essential element that can bond speaker, listener and text in a deeply experiential format, thus creating the credibility factor. Life experiences are the crux of emotional memory (p.119). Emotive connections are powerful tools that cause personal character to become the foremost consideration in evaluating the truth of any message and its operating system, thus, identifying the need for strong ethics to exist in the communicators personal arsenal.

A Relevant Word delves into the cyclic nature, or mechanisms, of speech components also. Duffett gives a thorough and concise presentation of the valve of good hermeneutical practices throughout his argument. In addition, there is a profound examination of the efficient utilization of sound homiletical efforts that should be taken under advisement. The operational transitions of the historical variations are addressed as important points of consideration for the modern communicator of Scripture. Dr. Duffett grants pertinent insight into the transitory effects of divergent sociological trends and their impact on the presentation of the Gospel during times of societal neurosis and change.

Drawing on a referent from Peter Berger’s book, The Heretical Imperative, (Garden City: Anchor Press, 1979, pp 98-99), Dr. Duffett focuses his audience on what has been termed “plausibility structure” (p.32). In this perception, worldviews and the transitory nature of cultural views are placed under the crucible of observation in order to gain understanding of the powerful forces that are at work in the shifting paradigms. Gaining insight into the intrinsic forces that shape Western pluralism helps the efficiency quotient for the modern communicator. When social angst and concerns are effectively identified, the church can communicate truth in a believable structure or format. Worldview determines social context and forces the destiny of people caught in its tidal pull. Concise presentation of church concerns and ability to touch the felt need of people in turmoil becomes the newfound missional focus of believers as an effective tool of a presentational variety.

The powerful impact of television is similarly addressed in A Relevant Word. It would be sheer folly for the modern communicator to miss the force of entertainment’s valve on the generation that has been identified as the Baby Boom generation, those born between 1946 and 1964. This was “the first generation raised with television” (p.76). Considerations of quality of presentation, theatrics, visual plausibility, distractions, distortions, ease of problem solving capabilities, along with a host of other mandated actions, accompany this group of people. Connecting this narcissistic, petulant, generation with a church that suffers atrophic syndrome in biblical knowledge creates a potently dangerous social concoction.

The net result is a need for powerful homiletical skills that employ emotion, physical gesticulations, eye contact of a meaningful nature, forceful use of verbal enunciation and vocal expansiveness if the communicator is to bring about connectiveness (pp 129-140). Additionally, Duffett helps the skeptical adaptations of inaccurate and imprecise interpretations of Holy Writ by re-examining E. D. Hirsch’s view of the impossibility of truly discerning an author’s original intent (p.56). Dr. Duffett states: “It is an understandable mistake to confuse impossibility of certainty with impossibility of understanding.” (p.56). This distinction is subtle, yet essential when expositing Scripture. The truth of accessibility in reference to the Bible is a refreshing point that is presented by Dr. Duffett. There is an acknowledgement of varied levels of difficulty when the Word of God in interpreted in some texts. This understanding is balanced with a firm belief in the accuracy and validity of Scripture, connected with an ease of interpretive ability throughout most of the Bible, when viewed within proper contextual constraints.

Further research could be pursued in psychological understanding of congregational health and emotive freedom (p.84). The suppression of emotion in faith over a preference for calculated dissertations of a cerebral nature may help the Church build bridges over the perceptually vast expansive gulf that seems to exist between Christianity and postmodern society. Making connections between cognitive organization and emotional power could provide the catalyst for a modern reformation in a society that has grown cold and dispassionate within its self-contained walls of isolationism. Stripping away the veneer of insulation could possibly expose modern society’s deficiencies.

Overall, A Relevant Word is a powerful read. The message of this relatively short work (166 pages), is sure to recalibrate many readers’ thought process, when society and Gospel presentation are considered, forcing difficult questions to rise to the surface of dialogue and interaction. Are there those who exist within the churches safety and confinement that are willing to risk positional security, by transcending the needs of misunderstanding in social context, and present the Gospel in a socially relevant way?


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