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Relevant Churches are Not Really that Relevant

November 15, 2011

Some friends have suggested I spend too much time on the Internet. It depends on what you mean by “too much time”. I have a counter on my computer that keeps track of every minute I’m online; it rarely goes over one hour a day. But I get a lot done with that hour. I have a newsreader that collects all my favorite blogs, newspapers and magazines and trims them down to headlines. Therefore, I sometimes read things very quickly without deep reflection. Occasionally, it takes days until I react and respond to what I’ve read. What I’m going to talk about next is a result of one of those situations. I cannot even find the original article this idea came from. (I am sure one of my readers will find it and help me out, so I’m not worried about plagiarism).

I want to talk about the word “Relevant”. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya (of the Princess Bride): “I do not think that word means what you think it means”. And it is the collective brain trust of contemporary church leaders who may have misunderstood the meaning and direction of this word. This sometimes happens with words; normally it’s not that big a deal. For instance, people often get the words “irrespective” and “regardless” mixed up. People sometimes jumble their definitions and thereby combine them wrongly to make “irregardless”. Irrespective means to know something and then to have no respect for it. Regardless means that you choose not to regard an issue. They are close in meaning, but not exactly the same. For example, I certainly understand what goes into the mind of a man who commits adultery. But I have no respect for his actions. Irrespective of his actions, I take my own actions. But I cannot disregard his actions, especially if they happen to someone close to me. In the case of adultery, I cannot act “regardless”, even though I can act “irrespective”. You see, they don’t mean the same thing.

Relevant is close to another word “relative” and the similar adjective “relational”. Relevant means to stick to the issue at hand. Relative means to relate to something or someone else. Relevant has to do with issues, controversies, position statements, movements and ideas. Relative has to do with people, choices, culture, tastes and situations. A person who is arguing in a political debate and is asked about their position on war will be relevant if their answer has to do with war. If it has to do with political parties, economics or sports, they are probably not relevant to the issue at hand. A great synonym for “relevant” is “pertinent”. The question a person needs to ask when trying to decide if they’re being relevant is this one: Does my approach pertain to the issue at hand?

If someone wants to be relative or relate to others, they should adopt similar styles, dress, language, approach and attitudes. They must agree with those positions to be relative to the issues at hand. Here then, is the big difference between being Relevant and being Relational: A relevant approach addresses the key issues exactly, irrespective of whether they agree with the position of others. A Relational or Relative person seeks to identify as closely with the position and approach of others. So with these definitions in mind, let’s ask ourselves this question: Those churches who claim to be “relevant” to today’s culture, are they indeed that way or are they more “relative” to the dominant memes of our day?

I will be over-generalizing, but this is the only way to make this essay shorter than an entire book. I hear of churches constantly using the word relevant to refer to their public services. What do they usually mean by that? This video mocks the trend, but it is not really all that misguided. Here then are some ways that churches represent themselves as “relevant”:

  • Casual, weekend style clothing.
  • Modern styles of music, usually reflecting latest trends in style similar to what is played in Christian concerts.
  • Use of video, movies, television shows, commercials and trends to show commonality with audience
  • Expensive lighting, sound systems and printed material, often eclipsing other public non-profit organizations
  • Use of latest software and hardware for multimedia presentations
  • Sermon topics relate to the everyday life of listeners, especially in areas of raising children, marriage, finances and use of leisure time
  • Advertising material, including websites, brochures and radio/television ads are high quality and often produced by professional advertising agencies.

This, then is what most churches mean by Relevant. I contend that this is the absolute wrong use of the word and has reduced the concept to something much more shallow than it was intended to represent. I will share two reasons why I think we are using this word at the end of this article, but let’s see what this approach really is: Relational.

When church leaders model their dress after the manner people usually wear on the weekend, they are trying to help the average person feel more comfortable. There is no “issue” or “agenda” with this. There is no pertinent value a church seeks to communicate other than this: We are like you. We relate to you. You relate to us. We don’t think we’re better than you. (I do have a minor problem with this: We wouldn’t disdain a bank teller for wearing a tie, or a waiter, or people going out on the town…we allow for all of those to dress for the occasion. What we are saying to people in church is ‘this is not really a special occasion’). Sermon topics that relate to where people live every day are relational. They may also be relevant (ie. when they deal with particular issues that spring from daily life), but generally the approach is to have people know the preacher is aware of what issues accrue when his hearers live their daily life. The style of music is designed to relate to what people are listening to. Many churches now actually use songs written by secular music artists and then give the songs contemporary Christian meaning. This is rarely done to address particular issues, but more to show people that the church is not out of touch with what they listen to. The same can be said of the use of video, television and pop cultural references. All of it is packaged to tell this culture: “We’re one of You”.

That is not being Relevant: That is being Relational. And in the words of Jerry Seinfeld “not that there’s anything wrong with that”.  (You see, I can be relational as well).

I have occasionally joked that I have the secret formula for getting 10,000 people in church next Sunday: Just contract with Justin Bieber to be the special musical guest. It’s the church equivalent of “sweeps week” for the television networks. The idea behind these gimmicks is that if people keep coming, they will eventually fold into the congregation and learn more about God. I hesitated even writing this paragraph because someone is now looking up the phone number for Bieber’s agent.

Now let me tell you what “Relevant” looks like. If you always look and sound the same as everyone else, you are entirely unnecessary. That isn’t being relevant, it is being a parrot. Relevant means we look at the issue everyone is speaking of and realize what isn’t being said and then say it. When Martin Luther pounded his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door, he was addressing one of the most irritating issues of his day: That some priests were selling indulgences as a way to raise money, promising people a quick doorway into heaven if they purchased a large number of them. No one was standing in the way of this false teaching, except Luther. Everyone was copying what they heard from friends because it was safer that way and others liked them. I have to ask today if churches aren’t stuck in that same emotional rut. Like everyone else, we do want people to like us. We want them to hit “like” on Facebook. We want them to keep coming back to services week after week, even if all we’re doing is repackaging what 1000 others have said, perhaps better than us.

Relevant, on the other hand,  is when Jesus noticed that people were being cheated right in the middle of a prayer room and then, in a prophetic act, he upended the tables of the money-changers. Relevant is Jackie Pullinger pulling drug addicts off the streets of Hong Kong and getting them clean when the dominant society ignores them. Relevant is Erin Gruwell addressing drug wars and the deaths of her students with a radical plan to change their learning style. Relevant is Peggy Drake who worked to comfort AIDS sufferers in West Africa while most Christians were saying it was God’s judgment against homosexuals. Relevant is a preacher resigning from his wealthy church because they would not adopt a lifestyle of caring for the poor. Relevant is almost always counter-cultural, it addresses today’s news with timeless truths, it lives the way it believes and garners respect because it doesn’t try to bribe people into following its viewpoints.

How Relevant is your church?

Without a doubt, by fleshing out these definitions, you will realize that churches will fall into four categories:

  1. Not Relevant, not relational
  2. Relevant, but not relational
  3. Relational, but not relevant
  4. Both Relational and Relevant

Why then would churches choose to be relational and not particularly relevant? I think there are two reasons for this. First, being relational is much easier and does not cost us much. We all learned in elementary school that it went better for us if we adopted the latest trends and fashions and were friends with the most popular kids. Differing even a fraction from the dominant elementary school culture put us in the outcast group and we hated being relegated there. We still do. Pastors and church members don’t want to think their approach to living is all that much different than their neighbors. They want others to know they don’t indulge in the more extreme activities of secularism (like drug use and listening to Insane Clown Posse), but they are proud to be able to make a comment on the American Idol Final 8 or to express a preference for their favorite cocktail. It is easier to blend in.

Second, most of us don’t think counter-cultural living is valid. We wrongly look with suspicion on anyone who swims upstream on issues –  especially Christian issues. Note how decidely Rob Bell was excommunicated by people for his book on Hell even though most people had not read it. I remember when Tony Campolo’s wife came forward to talk about the issues related to her pro-choice stance. Not only was she summarily rejected by evangelicals, so was her husband. Though I disagreed with her on some points, she needed to bring the issue to the forefront. It was a pertinent voice in a sea of “sound-alike” Christian voices.

There are churches today that are both Relevant and Relational. They are seldom large churches, but I suspect fifty years from now they will be the ones we think back on fondly as having the biggest impact on our culture both secular and Christian. So, the question is this: Do you really want to be Relevant or just call yourself that while simpering away in Relational?

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One comment

  1. To get 10,000 people – heal the sick, give sight to the blind, open deaf ears-set the captives free… the absence of this is fertile soil for gimmacks and fund raisers and caused by focusing on how to be a good little Christian instead of how to be intimate with our precious Lord. It’s “….go away from me I never KNEW you”….. not “….go away from me you weren’t good enough….or whatever. Now, I’ll shut up and go humble myself and spend Time with God.



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