Relevance is Irrelevant!

“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A dictionary would define relevance similar to this: “Directly related, connected, or pertinent to a topic; Not out of date; current.”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.

Social Media & the Church

This is possibly the best post I’ve read about the influence of social media and the influence of the Church in this tech-energised generation.

Here’s a snippet from The Oblivious Boycott- Ignore The Social:

“The hope, encouragement, training and life transformation we have to offer through the local church is as relevant now as it ever has been. That doesn’t need to change.  We just make it too hard for people to engage in the story. Worse? We’re not even in the environments where conversations are already happening. Last week, someone left this comment on my blog:

“‘Pull the computer out of the wall, and go out into your community. Shake some hands, learn some names, invest actual time in people and earn the right to be heard. That’s how you minister to your community, not by eavesdropping on what they’re saying on Twitter.’

“Maybe you don’t agree with this point of view, but I’ll bet you know someone who does and you don’t know how to convince them otherwise. We all hear the hub-bub about how the internet is making us stupid. Or, how people need to get a life and turn off the computer.

Ignoring the social is a fast pass to unhealthy and completely out of touch.

“These virtual communities and spontaneous new social structures are increasingly becoming some of the most important places to “earn the right to be heard.” When we listen, learn about and acknowledge people in their online spaces, we are developing relational collateral for offline space.

As we begin our voyage into relevance, here are some pointers.

“The internet isn’t any more of a cop-out to real life than a car is to walking. A healthy reality doesn’t embrace all or nothing. I like how Phil Cooke puts it in his book, Branding Faith; “Like most areas of life, the greatest dangers often come out of the strongest positives. And we don’t stop using good accounting principles because of the bookkeeping abuses of Enron.” A change in approach starts with a change in mindset. Our communication efforts will be exponentially more effective if we fine-tune our M.O.—online and off.”

Read more here.

This is part of a web presence called Shrink the Church, a blog well worth reading. Here are a few more interesting tidbits from this site:

5 Ways To Cultivate A Crippling And Irrational Fear Of Muslims (The comments are an interesting conversation in themselves.)

Can you spot Jesus amongst the 2010 FIFA World Cup players?

Spotting Jesus At The World Cup (see picture)

My Church Can Beat Up Your Church

8 Things The Super Mario Brothers Can Teach Us About Our Faith

Everything’s Amazing…You Don’t Want To Miss It! (Hyper-promoting, Yeah!!!)