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Killing Relevance


“The temptation to be relevant is difficult to shake since
it is usually not considered a temptation, but a call.
We make ourselves believe that we are called to be
productive, successful, and efficient people whose words and actions show
that working for God’s Reign is at least as dignified an occupation
as working for General Electric, Mobil Oil, or the government.”
– Henri Nouwen

Relevance is something we hear a lot about today.  We want to make the message relevant.  We need to show people a Jesus who is relevant.  A good deal is riding on the automatic assumption that relevancy is always a good thing.

What if it's not?


What could be more shallow and more damning than absolute relevance?  What if relevance is like a siren song of a smiling temptress pulling the people of God into a broad dark alley?  What if a Jesus designed to makes sense to America, by definition, turns out to be so altered his own mother would not recognize him?

Relevance certainly drives a great deal of thinking in many churches.  “Look here, people, we can meet your needs.”  “We have the answers you are looking for.” 

The problem is that such relevancy also serves as the rationale for placing performance over piety or counting decisions instead of disciples.  If it works, then we know it must be true.  Has this become the ultimate question of contemporary canonicity?  Truth, at least the truth we tell, no longer filtered through "Is it apostolic?" But, rather, "Does it work?"

We can see relevancy in our massive ecclesio-malls, where discerning consumers can stroll through specialty shops of various subchurches and ministries.  But, we also see it in coffee-shop church practiced by edgy radicals quoting Chomsky.  We hear it in the faddish jargon of the moment, tossed out as secret signals calling the well-read out the larger herd into our clubhouse.  And, we even see it in the token soup kitchens offered up by compassionate suburbanites who carefully lock up their cars and keep their keys close by just in case.

The great danger of relevance is that, unlike the old infection of rational-liberalism, it doesn’t kill the patient as quickly.  Its self-defeating disease cycle takes longer to surface.  Worse, for a few years, it gives the endorphins of stunning success. It is like believing we have now uncovered a great panacea spreading growth and prosperity, health and happiness into every church it touches.  The bright glow of the latest wunderkinds hides the wreckage of crystal cathedrals, whose successes were once touted as loudly as their deaths are now quietly ignored.

We assume the United States remains the admiration of the Christian world.  We look across the pond at the cavernous stone crypt-cathedrals, now little more than the gravestones of a glorious past.  Poor Europe.  So very post-christian.  All the while, we hardly notice, Europe is staring back at our oh-so-American repackaged Christianity, all wrapped in stars and stripes, eagerly campaigning for more red states.  We find ourselves in the peculiar situation of having a very loud voice with which we have nothing much to say, proving something can grow large while simultaneously disappearing from sight. 

Eucharist is not relevant.
     Silence is not relevant.
          Confession is not relevant.
               Liturgy, certainly, is not relevant.
                      Perhaps, one day only our disembodied grin will remain...

There is something remarkably thoughtless about abandoning it all in the name of relevancy.  Happy clappy churches laughing at liturgy is a little like the bamboo stalk laughing at the oak because it can grow so much faster.  All rather short sighted, don't you think?

God calls us into the culture of the Kingdom, from which we are to actively engage the culture around us.  The church is not the cloister.  But, he does not suggest following Christ should be explained as effective or helpful or productive or useful or relevant.  Only a maddening misuse of scripture culls from it ten principles of marriage enrichment or twelve steps to financial independence or three keys to managing bipolar disorder.  Whole sections of scripture are quietly censored so pastors can take yet another need-meeting trip through selected parables of Jesus or the four chapters of Philippians.

The gospel of the kingdom calls us to radically re-align our values so that relevancy itself becomes re-aligned.  To the wealthy young seeker, too enamored with his capital gains, Jesus showed little interest in either meeting his needs or explaining the practical effectiveness of selling all that he had.  He did not tell him that simplifying would make him happier.  He never suggested it was some kind of test in which, if the man said yes, he would then be allowed to keep his money, or at least 9/10ths of it.  He did not launch into a presentation on the dangers of hell or the four simple steps of faith that are as easy as saying the sinner's prayer.  The demand to sell and follow is laid out with a startling lack of relevancy. 

Christ, of course, is more than relevant.  The church does not need to pretend the gospel heals and restores and uplifts and frees and changes getting up every day from mere existence to life in the fullest sense.  Jesus does not need to be revised or fixed or made less Jewish or more understandable. 

In a book that should be required reading for every American church leader, In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen writes, "To be a Christian who is willing to travel with Christ on his downward road requires being willing to detach oneself constantly from any need to be relevant, and to trust ever more deeply the Word of God. Thus, we do not resist the temptation to be relevant by doing irrelevant things, but by clinging to the Word of God who is the source of all relevancy."

The great serendipity of the Kingdom of God is that Christ brings His own relevance with Him, revealing it only from the inside out.

1 comment:

Chris M. said...

It seems to me that this yearning for relevancy (which also drives me nuts) comes out of a mindset of "salesmanship" -- we make our message more relevant and then we have a better product to sell. But then the Gospel isn't something to be sold and coaxing people to it with empty promises isn't an effective means of changing lives. Christ changes lives and living the Gospel is much better than hawking it like a charlatan at a medicine show as if it's a cure-all. Christianity doesn't cure everything that ails us. In fact, Jesus promised that being his disciple would be hard. But he also promised that he would be with us and for us and in the end he would change us and in this new state we would truly be healed.

Glad I found your blog. Thanks for letting me rant a bit. I feel better now.