The desire to be relevant is a phenomenon that surfaced in the American Church during the last decade or two, but varying understandings and expressions of relevance appear throughout the ecumenical landscape. If you don’t mind, I’d like to explore the meaning of relevance for those of us who serve in a church context and suggest some (hopefully) helpful discussion points. Believe it or not, I’m not afraid to start this conversation like a valedictorian’s graduation speech—with a definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
1 a: relation to the matter at hand b: practical and
especially social applicability
From this definition, we see why relevance is important. Conversely, we see why irrelevance is not a trait we want imposed on ourselves or our churches. None of us want to be labeled as having no relation or applicability to the lives of people we want to reach with the gospel. But what if relevance weren’t about us at all? What if it was about our communication and our message? We might find this distinction comforting because it saves us from the pressure to become something we’re not.
Here’s what I mean: perhaps the most unsatisfying interpretation of relevance in the local church produces what amounts to a veneer of visual media and pop culture. This veneer is frequently comprised of worship bands performing context-free covers of Top-40 hits and sermons made to fit around the adventures of Jack Bauer (instead of the other way around). The implication is that churchgoers will respect the church as hip and aware; and therefore, the church will have earned the relevant credibility to communicate spiritual truth. Thankfully, many church leaders are wary of this expression of relevance.
When I posed the questions, “What does relevance mean to you?” and “What doesn’t relevance mean to you?” on the COLLIDE blog, reader Chilly Chilton voiced his belief that relevance doesn’t equal “cool.” Jeff Miller said, “Relevance doesn’t mean flashy, slick, produced, or packaged.” In other words, relevance can’t be attained through appearances.
Tim Stevens, author of Pop Goes the Church and executive pastor at Granger Community Church, was kind enough to share his take on relevance with me for this piece. “Relevance doesn’t mean cool or flashy or trendy,” he said. “Relevance doesn’t mean it’s never been done before; relevance doesn’t mean you do something so crazy that you get the attention of church leaders from around the country.”
Interestingly enough, Relevant Media Group weighed in on the issue of relevance in the Church in explaining the launch of Neue Resources: “The RELEVANT name was being hijacked by well-intentioned but (we feel) misguided people in ministry circles. We saw pastors starting to use the term ‘relevant’ as an adjective describing a style or approach to ministry, and it made our skin crawl … Never, ever did we intend RELEVANT’s name to imply that Christians or the Church need to be ‘relevant’ in style or approach to reach non-Christians.”
I believe the key word in that statement is “style.” For many of our brothers and sisters in church leadership, relevance or a lack thereof is perceived as a style issue. As a result, it seems we’ve devoted an inordinate amount of attention to creating elements (media, music, sermons, etc.) we hope will appeal to the ever-changing tastes of our audiences.
If we return to the thought that relevance is about communication, we’re able to simplify things a bit. At its basic level, communication is about the message that is sent and the medium used to deliver it. One aspect of relevant communication becomes simplified for us when we realize that what we’re called to communicate—the love of God, the gospel of Jesus—relates to the matter at hand and possesses applicability for everyone (whether they realize it or not). On the other hand, communicating a message that deviates from our calling will inevitably lead to problems. (Oh, if only we had the time and space to delve into what messages deviate from our calling! But alas, we must move on.)
The other aspect of relevant communication, the medium, is a fascinating exploration. The Bible provides us with examples of street preachers, letter-writers, songwriters, poets, dramatists, and oddly-dressed prophets. Throughout the centuries, we began employing debates, liturgies, stained glass, painted ceilings, pamphlets, tracts, books, Sunday School lessons, and lecture-length sermons. These days, we rent billboards or buy TV airtime; we supplement our 40-minute sermons with short videos and dramas; we invite people to ask questions via text message; we blog and tweet, and we form small groups. We setup health clinics, work in soup kitchens, fund homeless shelters, and mentor kids who don’t have all the advantages we have.
Tim Stevens says, “Relevance is all about being missional. You are studying the culture and figuring out what works. The goal is to communicate. So you figure out what it takes to communicate (either one-on-one or in a group setting) to the people in front of you.” (For more on Stevens’ thoughts on relevance, visit his blog at www.leadingsmart.com and search “relevance.”)
Thus, the media we employ will continue to grow and change as we seek to package or deliver our relevant message to a changing world. (Sock puppets will disappear as 3D animations take their place, and so on.) As this happens, I think it’s important to remember two things. First, Marshall McLuhan insisted that the medium invariably shapes the message it delivers. I believe this is true even if the effect is indirect, subtle, seemingly negligible, or initially imperceptible. A gospel message that is written down and published as a paperback is different from a gospel message that is spoken face to face or broadcast on TV. This is not to say one is necessarily more or less valuable than the others, but they are different.
Second, we must remember that the person or organization behind the communication of the message matters—character, actions, authenticity, and love matter. In John 13, Jesus instructs his disciples to love another just as he loved them. He said this love would communicate to everyone that the disciples served and followed Jesus. I believe this tells us that the best source of relevant communication of the spiritual truth is authentic (though not necessarily perfect) individuals and communities of Christ-followers.
In his book The Fine Line, author Kary Oberbrunner describes three types of Christians: Separatists who reject culture, Conformists who embrace culture, and Transformists who change culture. Only the Transformists are relevant, he says. In a Q&A on Ed Stetzer’s blog (www.edstetzer.com), Oberbrunner cited the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a depiction of true relevance. In the story, the priest and the Levite pass by the injured man, but the Samaritan ignores religious and culture boundaries and shows compassion. The Samaritan—irrelevant in ancient Jewish culture—embodies relevance to the dying man on the side of the road. “Separatists think they love God and end up failing to love people. Conformists think they love people and end up failing to love God,” Oberbrunner concludes. “But only Transformists love God and people.”
As we continue to wrestle with the subject of relevance, let’s do our best to identify our message, evaluate our media, and refine our character. I think those things are our best bets for taking us where we want to go.
Scott McClellan is the Editor of COLLIDE.