The Myth of Relevancy

Pronunciation: \ˈre-lə-vənt\
Function: adjective
Etymology: Medieval Latin relevant-, relevans, from Latin, present participle of relevare to raise up
1 a : having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand
b : affording evidence tending to prove or disprove the matter at issue or under discussion

Back in my youth one of the buzz words of the ‘70’s in church circles was relevancy. In those “Jesus people”, blue denim bible days, the church strove to be “relevant” to the changing world around it. This was true for the Baptist tradition of my youth (don’t you remember silk shirts and polyester leisure suits) as well as the United Methodist communion that I would ultimately become a part of. There are times when I believe that the start of the numerical decline in the United Methodist Church can be directly tied to the desire for relevancy, the willingness to cast aside things like the traditions and scriptures of the faith in an attempt to speak the language of the time, a language focused more on challenging authority and pushing on old traditions instead of discerning how those “old” notions might apply in a new time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those days, and the call for a “relevant” faith in conversations I’ve had recently around the ReThink Church campaign, and the direction (or lack of it) that seems to be the focus of our denominational agencies. Recently I was told that a meeting of one of these agencies regarding layoffs of employees was filled with the language of relevancy, while things like prayer and pastoral concern were cast by the wayside. “That’s what our Bishops want!” said another employee I spoke with. “All of our outside marketing consultants tell us we have to make our church and faith relevant to today’s young adults.” Repeatedly I hear Baby Boom era church marketing gurus suggest that the reason we aren’t growing in our ministry to youth and young adults is that the church seems irrelevant to their lives.

Certainly, I believe that Jesus Christ offers meaning and purpose to all persons, and that the way of Jesus is pertinent to one’s daily existence (otherwise, I would get out of the preacher business). Yes I recognize that the traditions of the church can seem stale and outdated, serving to alienate young adults from participation in those communities. Yes, we need to help connect the grace and love of God to the need of all persons in the world.

However, I am not at all sure that is what is meant by most of the church marketing types. No, I am becoming more and more convinced that when these consultants talk about “relevant,” they are actually in fact meaning “hip,” or “contemporary,” or “appealing.” You see, I am not convinced that most of these folks actually believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to effect change, I am not at all sure that there is a belief that ancient traditions may indeed have a power to speak to people today. The fact is that we don’t really trust God and our traditions to have meaning, maybe because we spend too much time going through the motions ourselves.

I’ve been recently reading over and over again Jason Brian Santos’ book, “A Community Called Taize: A Story of Prayer, Worship, and Reconciliation.” This book attempts to outline both the history and the experience of the Taize Community in France, noting the unique ministry that this community has among the young people throughout Europe and the world. This is a community that draws thousands of young people each year to its gates. The worship isn’t hip. The setting is beautiful, but rustic. Santos writes:

Why do so many young people travel so far to spend a week in a community of brothers who pray three times a day, offer several hours of Bible Study and sharing groups, and asks the young people to participate in work around the grounds? North Americans practically bribe young people to come to our churches. We lower the bar of expectations in the hopes that our young people will grace us with their mere bodily presence in our dank basements and remodeled youth rooms. The brothers give them jobs like cleaning toilets and cooking meals and we give them foosball tables, ping pong, and second hand sofas. The brothers invite them to join in three prayer times, a Bible Introduction and sharing groups for almost five hours of direct spiritual engagement, whereas we often just hope they won’t leave early and miss out on our songs and five minute talk about a radical hippie names Jesus. The whole thing [Taize] seems counterintuitive.

Santos goes on to talk about those church leaders (including himself) who visit Taize in an attempt to “crack the code” of what that community is doing. But they usually fail to find a code…

Once in Taize, however, I realized that there was no secret code and this nothing really to crack, per se. What I did find was a real community of brothers who are authentic and living examples of Christ’s reconciliation in the world. While I wasn’t aware of it at first, as my research continued I became more confident that they appeal of Taize isn’t some “thing” that could be exported or imported, but rather theological threads that are woven into the fabric of the community.

The older I become and the more I participate in this community we call church, the more convinced I am that finding relevancy in the way that we mean it is a myth. It is a belief that someone we can update the task of discipleship in a way that is contemporary, that we can invent something new that doesn’t involve the theological and communal lifting required to become an authentic Christian community. The fact is that much of the faith experience can seem very irrelevant to contemporary life. We live in a world of drive-ins and drive-throughs, insulated in the steel and glass bubbles of our lives, while Jesus calls us to sit at the table with people who may be very different from us and feed one another. We live in a world of announcing our existence through “tweets” and status updates, while Jesus calls us to sit at the feet of another and listen for his voice to shine through. The traditions of faith may seem very old and out of date, but they are also filled with mystery and awe. Any desire we have to be relevant can only be born in our ability to present Jesus as the center of our lives, the source of meaning and community. That is what leads communities like Taize to be a source of meaning among the young.

The problem with our approaches to church marketing is that they fail to recognize the centrality of the theological streams that are necessary to being a source of meaning in our lives. We can talk about service projects and active entry points into church, but if there isn’t a coherent and deep underlying theological understanding rooting those programs, then we fail to connect with the deep needs of the persons we are trying to reach. Our problem is that we continue to lift up programs, ministries, projects, worship services, and all sorts of external things rather than connecting persons to the source that hopefully feeds all these things. Our failure is that our attempts to be relevant in the externals often leads to an irrelevance to the desires and longings of the heart.

The question that we as United Methodists continue to fail to answer is “What are the theological threads that are woven into the fabric of our community?” Those threads are the things that we need to be sharing, no matter whether they are “relevant” or not, for those are what make us who we are.

But then again, maybe if we ask that question we will discover that the empire has no clothes, that we are standing naked in a cold world with no theological threads that unite us.

I hope and pray that is not the case, and I in fact believe that we do wear a common theological garment that is often ignored in the face of the accessories when think we should wear. I just wish that we would trust that this robe is indeed one that can be shared with all.

8 thoughts on “The Myth of Relevancy

  1. Wonderful post, Jay. If the sermon clanks, you can just pull this out and read it.

    I do wonder if “relevance” is a Boomer solution. It is what that generation has demanded for itself for decades now. Is it what the younger generation wants or just a projection of Boomer sensibilities on the younger folks?

  2. Spot on, Jay. The Boomer drive has been for relevance; younger generations are looking for authenticity. But we seem to still be using & chasing that Boomer approach! Great post.

  3. The theme I hear again and again is not the need for relevance, but the desire for authenticity. I think there is a recognition that relevance in the way we generally use it is a narcissistic desire for the gospel to relate to me and my needs, the ongoing personalization of faith that makes it all about us. I think that younger generations have seen through that and recognize that the claims of faith are often counter-cultural and counter-intuitive, that authentic discipleship moves the focus away from “me” to “you,” and “them,” and “everybody.”

    What Taize offers is something that is seemingly irrelevant to the needs of the world, but is an authentic expression of Christian community focused on reconciliation and prayer. It is in a group of people authentically devoted to such irrelevant activities such as prayer and bible study that the kingdom of God is revealed.

  4. Absolutely brilliant. Relevance is a contemporary idol among church leaders, and while I understand the intent behind “relevancy”, I have witnessed the effects that you have mentioned: shallow biblical and theological exploration, weakened pneumatology, and, finally, a lack of engagement with the one who constitutes us in the first place–God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My desire is that the church would rediscover her identity as a “remarkable” community centered on the person and work of Jesus that presents an alternative to the world while remaining engaged with that world, rather than striving to be a “relevant” community that contorts and shifts in matters of character in an effort to maintain a constituency, fund a pension, bolster a denomination, etc..

  5. How would you define “tradition” in the context of this article? It seems that if we are to value the traditions of the Church, we should understand what we’re choosing to cherish. Is it theology? Is it worship styles? Is it the fact that we sit in pews facing a podium every Sunday?

    1. Ben, defining tradition is always an interesting exercise for one person’s tradition may be another’s radically new practice of faith. This was brought home to my the first time I say in a class taught by Dan Kimball of Vintage Church on the emerging church. Dan kept talking about moving beyond “traditional worship.” What took a while for all of us to realize that Dan’s concept of traditional worship in his context was seeker-sensitive, praise chorus oriented worship, what many United Methodists would identify as far from traditional, and very contemporary.

      Although I used the language of tradition in this article, I actually prefer to talk about the common guiding stories (narratives) and practices that provide a sense of identity. For me, these narratives have a common theological framework upon which our system of communal life is built (what some might call a metanarrative). These stories and practices go far beyond issues of style and architecture. These are the things that make us who we are regardless of our worship style or the type of building in which we worship.

      Take the Apostle’s Creed for example. For many the recitation of a creed like the Apostle’s Creed might seem like dead words from a bygone era. However, as I have been preaching on this creed the past few weeks, my congregation is discovering a sense of common identity and developing a common grammar upon which we can build our lives on. These words are ancient, going back to at least the 7th century and probably much earlier, but when pulled apart, studied, meditated on, and simply used, they can provide a means of better understanding who we are in the face of a changing world.

      For the Taize community (at least as identified bySantos) the common stories and practices revolve around reconciliation, freedom, and trust. These common threads are woven through all that is done in that community, providing a focus which leads to and authentic relationship with Jesus Christ.

      Thus, for me, the “traditions” are those things which provide a common theological (and perhaps philosophical) coherence to what we do. It isn’t adopting a certain style. It’s about being a particular kind of people.

  6. I understand. And great article. I asked because, as a young person, I feel that sometimes Christians create an unneeded dichotomy between steadfast tradition (styles and customs) and a desire to appeal to the needs of our communities. While living out the biblical mandate to love God and love others, we can (and indeed should) go out to the world in a manner that inspires people. And this requires us to allow for new ministries and new methods of doing ministry with the world–ReThink Church comes to mind here. In this sense, the best defense is a good offense, so to speak. If we are always striving to meet the needs of the world, our ministries will naturally adapt for the task.

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