“We need to be relevant!”
I hear this a lot. In my past life as pastor, worship leader, musician, and now blogger. From people who have been part of the establishment for decades, those new to the Church, and those outside the Christian arena. In books, magazines, and online. On the radio and TV. In discussions of evangelism, theology, worship, music and marketing.
What is ‘relevance’ and why is it deemed to be so necessary?
Relevance means something different to almost everyone. What some may mean is being ‘relevant to me and my way of thinking,’ while others see it as being ‘relevant to those different than me (whom I want to convert to my way of thinking).’
A dictionary would define relevance similar to this: “Directly related, connected, or pertinent to a topic; Not out of date; current.”
In the vast majority of cases, what relevance ends up being, at its core, is a Church marketing term. We need to make the Christian worldview attractive to today’s culture: relevant. We need to preach the gospel so contemporary-minded people will understand it: relevant. We need to use music that is born in today’s world and infuse it with the good news of Jesus so it reaches out to those living in today’s world: relevant.
I read of one church in the States (LifeChurch in Edmund, Oklahoma) that has a ‘money-back guarantee’ for those who tithe. They believe God will bless those who tithe to their church, so boldly offer a promise that they will return your money after a 3-month period if God hasn’t blessed you in some way during that time. (I cynically assume that what can be classified as God’s blessing may be quite broadly defined.) While this may be clever marketing and relevant (to today’s consumer culture), it’s not necessarily faithful to the message of Jesus. Could you imagine Jesus saying, ‘Take up your cross and follow me, and if you don’t see blessing in your life within the next 3 months, I’ll give whatever you lost back to you’?
In many cases the word is used honestly with the intent of bringing understanding of the ancient ways to a new generation of humanity. If our heart is for the world to experience and embrace the kingdom of God, wouldn’t it make sense to present the good news in as pertinent and contemporary a way as possible? After all, people’s connection with this message depends on their identification and connection with it in some way. In this sense, I want to be relevant.
But relevance is a relative term because whether you are in fact relevant or not depends on whom you ask. Are you relevant to a 5th grader, an adult or a retiree? Are you being relevant to a poor person, or one in the average upper-middle class society? Are you relevant to a person who has grown up in the Church, or to someone who has never heard the name of Jesus?
Relevance is also a broad term. We may be relevant in one area–let’s say music style–yet miss the mark on lyrical content. We may be relevant as far as addressing current issues in our congregation, but yet not make it in the area of age-appropriateness.
Re-imagining relevance seems to be a much-needed exercise in churches today simply because many interpretations of this term do not match our understanding of what Jesus was all about.
Jesus walked around the cities and towns of ancient Palestine declaring ‘the kingdom of God is near.’ He didn’t wear the latest in Roman footwear, dress in designer robes, have the latest accessories to help him communicate, or throw around the names or endorsements of famous people or celebrities. He spoke about forsaking all, about giving away possessions, about being humble and serve others, about not desiring the praise of people. His message was simple: ‘Turn away from the life you have now and embrace the life of the ages—the life of the coming kingdom.’ He spoke that message in the common language of the day to ordinary people, wherever he happened to find them.
If you asked a first century person if what Jesus said was ‘relevant,’ you may be surprised to learn that what was thought of the Messiah was dependent on whom you asked. To the poor, he proclaimed blessing. To the sick, he offered healing. To the oppressed, freedom. To the sinner, forgiveness. To these folk his message would have been very relevant.
But to the religious, he preached condemnation. To the proud, he promised a day of reckoning. To the arrogant wealthy, damnation. These people would not have seen him as relevant at all.
In the same way as “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” whether a message or a program is relevant or not is in the perception of the person who is the receiver of the truth or participator in the activity. For us to declare our own relevance to the community seems to be a little presumptuous.
While it’s commendable to desire cultural affinity in our mission, it’s not mandated. If we aim to please people, we will never succeed all of the time. To many we will never be relevant, regardless of the investment of effort we make.
Rather, we need to be faithful to living every day as people with a passion for Christ and his kingdom:
- To love as we have been loved.
- To be a blessing as we have been blessed.
- To invite as we have received the invitation.
- To bring change as we have been changed by the good news of Jesus.
Whether or not any of this fits into anyone’s interpretation of relevance is . . . well, irrelevant! Because at the heart of the matter, the gospel does not call us to be relevant, but to be followers of Jesus and partners with him in his mission to change our world.