Why Relevance is Completely Irrelevant

November 9, 2012

As Christianity continues to struggle, Christians, pastors and bloggers continually ask one thing:

How can Christianity become more “relevant?”

The idea, of course, is that Christianity is fundamentally outdated, and therefore “irrelevant” to people. Basically, the church is a lumbering dinosaur, ready for extinction, waiting to be struck by a comet and be put out of its misery.

Unless, of course, we find a way to make ourselves important again.

Is it new music?

A different message?

Integrating technology?

I read a lot of blogs about how some churches are attempting to be relevant – and failing in various ways. But for all of this struggle and failure, I am surprised it has taken me this long to realize one important thing:

The pursuit of relevance is completely irrelevant.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Relevance

Every day, at least one blog in my reader features a picture of an embarrassing church sign.

Another has a video clip of some off-the-wall preacher.

Or a mega-church with their flashy gimmick from last Sunday.

Or some crummy Jesus art.

I have seen churches featured on blogs that many of you go to.  They are massive, sexy churches.  They look like they are trying to win a high school popularity contest.  They are all trying to be relevant.  Some of them do it by trying to tie secular music into their worship set.  Some of them try to make quippy church signs.  Some pastors try to give eyebrow-raising sermons.

And if this is how they are trying to achieve cultural relevance, then they are all missing the point.

What Is Relevance?

My school holds chapel each week. Here we are with the youth of America and the future of the church.

We sing some really old music. In Latin.

Sometimes we sing without instruments.

You could not be more irrelevant than Latin, by conventional wisdom…unless it was Latin, a capella.

Yet, here are these kids joyfully singing and eagerly listening to the messages. So what makes our chapel services relevant to these kids?

We preach the gospel to them.

Relevance, Perhaps, Doesn’t Come From a Store

That’s where the church is missing it big time.

Relevance, like Christmas isn’t something that comes from a store. Relevance, perhaps, means a little bit more.

It’s just the gospel of grace, preached by Jesus, sealed in his blood.

Over the course of thousands of years, our technology, languages, and cultures have changed.  But the human heart has not changed.  We have the same needs that humans have always needed.  We have our physical needs.  We need to be loved.  And we are in need of a Savior.

If the church would just give people what they need, then we would be eternally relevant.

Instead, we chase gimmicks and fads that easily leave us in the embarrassing position of being behind the times, while the world has already moved on.

Just give them the gospel, and you will always be relevant.

33 responses to Why Relevance is Completely Irrelevant

  1. I love it! Keep up the good work!

  2. Matt,

    There’s nothing to add on this one; you hit the nail on the head. If we need to doctor up the Gospel to make it appealing, then we may not have a firm grasp of it ourselves. What make special forces superior to regular grunts? Not necessarily better training, just more training of the basics. Stick to the basics, and let God work his piece.

  3. Fog machines. We do need fog machines though. Fog machines + Jesus = eternal relevance! =)

  4. Hoping this is not semantics, but it is quite important to introduce Jesus relevant to the person hearing. Paul spoke to the Romans based upon their culture and understanding. Jesus spoke to people relevant to there circumstances and understanding.
    We can’t make the gospel anything (including relevant) but it does not get more relevant than getting to know people, their lives and circumstances.

    • Maybe it’s not so much “relevance,” but just actually meeting people where they are. And isn’t that at the heart of the gospel message — God reaching us because we couldn’t reach him?

  5. The Gospel and story of Christ and His redeeming act onj the Cross will ALWAYS BE RELEVANT!

    When churches try to become “relevant” they really mean modern. And unfortunately, being up to date aften leads to trying to be hip, and hip (to them) means watering down and/or being edgy…it goes on and on….

    When I see the large props and light shows that would make Pink Floyd jealous, I cannot help but wonder how much of their budget is spent on making their building modern vs. how much they spend on missions/widows/orphans, etc.

  6. Short, to the point, and entirely relevant! This should go on your “Best of My Blog” list.

  7. You’re on to something Matt, but this isn’t quite the complete picture. For example, what is a worship service, any worship service, but an attempt at relevance? Across the world, we are always trying to bring the eternal to the here and now in a way that matters and makes sense, both to ourselves and to others. That’s not just true of music and sermons, but art, books and events too.

    Is the church above its broader culture? No, that’s arrogance.
    It the church beneath its broader culture? No, that’s capitulation.
    Is the church purely attractional? No, that’s inauthentic.
    is the church purely antagonistic? No, that’s contemptuous.

    We are in the world, not of it. There’s something else going on in this, something that doesn’t exactly click with the simple authority paradigm that calls out “pandering to the culture” or “watering down the gospel”.

    There are a myriad of expressions of church, and also a myriad of ways that each seeks to be relevant. Ironically, even singing in Latin doesn’t escape that tension — within postmodernism these attempts at irrelevance become relevant, and so are subject to the same critique.

    We must be careful about judging external paradigms from our internal priorities. We are all wrestling with the same paradoxes, and we are all imperfect. And Christ is sufficiently transcendent that a lot of variety can still point toward him.

  8. Good word bro!

  9. “If the church would just give people what they need, then we would be eternally relevant.”
    Probably most churches would agree the gospel is what people ultimately need. But to get people in the door so they can hear the gospel, some churches feel they need to put on a show. Perhaps a more widely acceptable method is humanitarian aid — meeting physical needs as a door to meeting spiritual needs. Though I can’t equate the two, on some level, it’s a similar idea. Unfortunately sometimes the show takes center stage, but in some respects so does the gift giving in Samaritan’s Purse. Just because the external hoopla naturally draws more attention, does that mean the gospel message is diluted or less of a priority? I imagine the answer is different in every case.
    That said, I agree with your line of thinking on this, Matt. The presence of God is all that’s needed to draw and keep us.

    • And I think that’s the inherent problem – we feel like we have to “get people through the doors” of the church. We have this inherent misunderstanding of the purpose of the church – thinking somehow that it’s for the _unbeliever_ and the _seeker_ instead of being for the encouraging and equipping of the _church_ – the body of Christ – believers. When we realize that the church is for _BELIEVERS_ instead of non-believers, we have no more reason to be “relevant.” All we need to be is obedient in living our lives according to Scriptures.

      • If our worship (so-called) service or for that matter preaching is only for believers, then what have we done with the call to preach to the whole world? (Mark 16:15)

        What are we doing with the admonishment from Jesus to the pharisees: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” (Matthew 23:13 ESV)? While I wouldn’t equate any church that I’ve been to with the Kingdom of Heaven, there is clearly a call here to welcome people into godly community, not repel them.

        When the disciples thought they knew that Jesus shouldn’t be approached by children, he responded: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:16b-17 ESV)

        From these passages I read that, not only is our loving welcome immensely important on a human scale, God’s welcome toward us is contingent upon it. If true relevance is a reflection of love of God, and love of mankind, then attempts to dispense with it are folly.

        • There’s much to be said about “…to the Jew I became a Jew…” However, that was Paul’s engagement with people in their marketplaces and spheres of life. The role of the pastor-teacher, in Eph. 4 is clearly one that is oriented around the building up of believers. As such, the gathering should be built around such.

  10. What is TRULY relevant is relevant in all places and at all times.

    That we have not lived up to our high calling, and that we need a Savior, will always be the most relevant message that anyone could ever hear.

  11. No, I don’t necessarily buy that, Steve. God’s love is behind the whole narrative, so I would say that’s got a pretty prominent place in the hierarchy of relevance.

    • Brad, you don’t think that people need a savior is the most relevant message in scripture? And what is God’s love? 1st John 5:3 explains it clearly. “For this is the love of God, that we follow His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.” Given it’s impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6), and without faith we really can’t love as Christ loved us, then I do think the most relevant message is we need a savior. Without that, no one can come to God and be loved by Him. There is a lot of misinformation propagated in churches today because of an erroneous understanding of God’s love. God loves those who seek Him and His kingdom. He does wish that all will repent, but those that don’t are under His judgement, not His love. We need to help people understand they live in darkness and they need to repent and walk in the light. That’s the loving thing for Christians to do and that will always be relevant because that’s how God has set up His kingdom.

  12. This is really good! Thank you! Thanks for following me on Twitter or I wouldn’t have found this blog. I will for sure be reading it regularly — I’ll add it to my blog list on m blog too. I’m going to check out one more post today then I’ll have to go (I told my 9 year old she could play on the computer).

  13. As someone who moved several years ago and had to look for a new church and STILL remembers the sometimes painful process, I think the biggest element churches should strive for apart from preaching God’s word and worshiping Him how they feel led is to make those brave people who visit a church for the first time to feel welcome.

    This is based on personal experience from two different times of looking for a new church because of a move. The first time I started looking, I was single and had recently re-dedicated my life to God and fulfilled a promise that I made to Him to start worshiping Him in a church setting. The worst experience at that time was a church where I went up to a circle of ladies talking among themselves during “intermission”. The circle barely split upon my introduction and then quickly re-formed after the ladies dutifully but briefly responded to me before continuing with their conversation and I spent the rest of the fifteen minutes basically standing alone. Actually, that is, by far the worst experience ever because I just didn’t feel alone, I felt rejected.

  14. m’love and I are “church shopping” again after yet another move. We really do not enjoy the process. I have learned on thing, though. Even if a church is by our standards “perfect”, if it is not the fellowship that God wants us to be in, it won’t feel right or even dare I say relevant. We won’t be at home. We need to find the congregation that God wants us to fit into, regardless of their style of music, etc.

  15. The only way to be relevant is to bring Jesus to our communities. There are lots of ways to do it, but if it’s just another good idea that works on the west coast, or in the Bible Belt; what about the frozen chosen in New England?

    The real gospel with sign and wonders is about all that works up here. If it is about debates, the guys at Harvard and MIT win. If it is about pop Christianity, what about Chinatown?

    It’s got to be more than a show, more than talk; it’s got to have power.

  16. Amen! Love, charity, compassion and Christ are always relevant.

    Thank you.

  17. Man! This is so relevant to my setting!!!

    Sorry, had to do it! :-) great stuff man. loved it. The Living Water is the attraction.

  18. Great post. This should be a no-brainer.

  19. Elizabeth Johnston February 16, 2013 at 4:59 am

    You hit the nail squarely on the head, Lisa: “So what makes our chapel services relevant to these kids? We preach the gospel to them.” Many (most?) churches today are unaware of the power of the Gospel and the spiritual and intellectual appeal of deep teaching from the Word. I am convinced that a church that majored on the Word and worship would be a relevant church, because the Word is timeless. I would add, however, that there is no evil in relevance itself. The NT church was relevant to its culture. The problem arises when a church’s relevance equals worldliness and a dismissed emphasis on preaching and teaching the Word.

  20. I think that “relevance” in the context of church growth has potentially evolved beyond that of the good intentions that it may have had when it first entered the discussion. When I first heard the term, it was more of a rally against a christian sub-culture and language that didn’t speak to young people. It was more of a movement against this out of touch culture than a quest for developing some kind of relevance beyond the gospel. I find it somewhat offensive to equate “relevance” with an absence of the gospel.

    Relevance should simply be communicating the gospel in the language of the hearers. And sometimes not-so-simply reflecting the gospel in the art of the hearers.

  21. I used to be advised this site by means of my nephew. We’re no more positive whether or not it posting is actually provided by ways of your pet because nobody realize like described in relation to my own challenge. You happen to be wonderful! Appreciate it!

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  1. More on Relevance…I’m Not the Only One, Who Thinks So | Lisa Robinson - February 15, 2013

    […] Why Relevancy is Completely Irrelevant succinctly brings this central truth home, “If the church would just give people what they need, then we would be eternally relevant.” […]