Church In Mission: The Problem With Being Relevant Pt.1

God make us relevant

Series contents | Introduction | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

A big question concerning the church in Western culture is, “how do we make the church more relevant for today’s world?” We see this question get answered in many ways: from youth pastors using the video games like Halo to evangelize their teenagers, to church buildings with Starbucks, to Jumbo trons pumping out “Christian commercials,” to building structures designed after today’s modern malls, to churches creating myspace groups or online social networks. I know I have been guilty of thinking that relevancy is the most important question the church faces, and while the best of intentions are behind this, I ultimately think it’s the wrong question.

When we look at the church and it’s relationship to Culture we can see that question of relevancy is a cloaked version of consumerism. In a world where everything is new all the time, we think of being relevant in terms of newness. Do we have the latest and greatest gadgets, clothing styles, and super-sized this or that? Relevancy is a way of saying, “are you keeping up with the cultural status quo?” In other words, in seeking relevancy, as a mirror of what goes on in our culture, we inadvertently adopt a secular capitalist way of thinking of thinking about mission. Relevancy (as understood within a consumer society) as the primary question for the church and its mission is motivated by an underlying presupposition that the church is old and traditional, and that old and tradition are inherently bad things. It also assumes the that their is some universally accepted “culture” that we can attain, and once it’s attained we will be relevant.

Over the next four featured posts I want to address the church’s mission in our contemporary society, as I set out to develop a perspective of mission that refuses to be co-opted by the consumer desire to be relevant and in turn becomes more transformative and creative than any mission based on the prayer “God, make us relevant.” In order to do this I will use three ways of thinking about the church in relationship to culture which I borrow from John Howard Yoder’s missiological text “For the Nations” (a text I cannot recommend highly enough). I hope you will join me in critically thinking about these issues and engaging in dialogue that can help to create a fresh vision for the church’s mission in our society today.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

22 thoughts on “Church In Mission: The Problem With Being Relevant Pt.1”

  1. Fantastic post my friend. Looking forward to you forthcoming thoughts and happy to contribute in the dialogue. Perhaps one way to attack the issue (maybe Yoder does this in the book) is to differentiate between cultural relevance and incarnational living – I have been thinking a lot about that lately.

  2. I am looking forward to your subsequent posts and agree wholeheartedly that the relevance question is the wrong one. This is a great post and an important question. It is a deficiency in our culture to assume that what is old is no good. In Jesus time, wisdom and goodness were praiseworthy. For the church to fall in line with this cultural feature is absolutely wrong on all fronts and exposes the consumeristic tendencies the church should in truth be a prophet against.

    Thanks for posting this…

  3. I’m looking forward to these posts, Wess. What a great question! I think “relevance” is the wrong question too, but I never considered a contemporary penchant for it as something subtly rooted in consumerism. Interesting. You may be onto something very serious. If so, then many of us who are actually claiming to be struggling against consumerism’s perpetuated values may have to admit that it is a far trickier (subtle) foe than we initially thought!

    I’m looking forward to more of your thoughts on this subject. great post.

  4. Yeah, we’ll make you a Conservative Friend yet. Then you won’t worry about relevancy and feel the need to ask why there’s only ten people in the room (doh!).

    Seriously though: the history of debates within Quakerism in particular and Christianity in general can be seen by arguments over how to stay relevant. Jeanne B over at quakerclass.blogspot.com posted a link recently to a hilarious but fascinating article on the Classmatters.org that talked about how well-meaning cultural lefties often alienate their natural allies by insisting on practicing inessential weirdnesses. It’s made me wonder if we can’t the tradition vs relevancy debate in a similar light: how many of our inherited religious practices are inessential and divide us from our mission–to spread the gospel. Now as you know I’m someone who tends to raise the bar pretty high to changes but still I’ve found it an interesting way to frame the question.

    I’d be interested to hear what you might think of the branding argument. As contemporary religious bodies chase the same relevancy dream they’re starting to look more and more like one another (and more like consumer culture as well), so that the choice between denominations becomes moot. At what point does it become advantageous to be a little weird–a little peculiar, different? When does non-relevancy give you a brand that can give you a “competitive edge” in the spiritual seeker game?

  5. @JR – definitely, the idea of incarnational living will certainly come into play with where I am headed.

    @John – “In Jesus time, wisdom and goodness were praiseworthy. ” Well stated, it’s sad really that anything older than the internet seems to get a bad rap these days.

    @Shawn – thanks I think when it comes down to it, how we related to our neighbors and our culture is at once both completely natural (like fish swimming in water) and very difficult (like swimming upstream).

    @Kristen – thanks! I look forward to your feedback.

  6. @ Martin – Thanks for sending the link, a very interesting article for sure and certainly raises some important questions about how by being “relevant” we can become really weird in the process. It is equally interesting how both the conservative and liberal christians are revolving around the farris wheel of relevancy. I might make use of this image later but this is what I mean.

    Picture originally from here.

    What I think we need to do is switch the axel in this Farris Wheel to something entirely different (but that’s to come).

    Finally, the branding argument in my mind becomes moot if we switch the axel (or at least I think it does). If our tradition is for us a way of life, then what will be most important isn’t how well we sell or brand our tradition, but how faithful we are to its witness. In other words, as soon as we start to play by the world’s rules, i.e. brand yourself is the best way to have a marketable product, the church starts to become the world. And we can certainly see this within some of the forms of Quakerism.

  7. Interestingly, the recent shift in business marketing is towards greater authenticity and transparency. With the Internet, it’s becoming harder and harder to be fake. Churches that strive for relevancy often come across as fake to me. There’s a few problems. First, I’m not sure if many people even understand what relevancy means. In marketing, it’s not about being cool, it’s about being in touch with customer’s needs and what they are looking for. For instance, Google strives for relevancy, it ranks websites based on relevance. A company will either have a product or service or message relevant to people, or it won’t.

    It’s painful to watch people who are not cool, not in touch, who are not genuinely interested in pop culture, try to ‘use’ it to ‘reach’ people. Pop culture is based on novelty, and is a sad basis for culture, though there are certainly bright spots to be found. Relevancy is not a goal. It’s a result.

    If we were to bring cross-cultural mission into this, it again comes back to authenticity, along with commitment. It takes time to build trust with a culture, to really learn what it means, and ultimately, one must take part in culture, and then relevancy isn’t a problem. It’s not about tradition. It’s not about relevancy. It’s about being interested in people and part of that is being sincerely interested in the culture they live in.

  8. It will be interesting to see how you frame what it means to be relevant. I am curious to see what type of language phrases you will use to define and classify themes within the missional movement.

  9. I’ll chime in too… I struggle with this as a designer working largely for ministries and churches. Staying relevant in visual communications means blending in with the marketplace, which has frightful implications of consuming faith and church. Yet I go back and forth because there is some basic level of relevance needed to maintain effective communications despite the slippery slope. I’m looking forward to your posts!

  10. I must confess that I haven’t heard the question of “relevance” raised since the early 1970s, when I was still moving close to academic circles. Somehow most of the places where I’ve gone since then have been places where the issue hasn’t seemed to matter. And in the few places I’ve gone in the past three decades, where the question probably has mattered, it hasn’t come up while I was in the room.

    Back in the early 1970s, though, whenever I heard that question, my almost-kneejerk reaction was to ask, “Relevant to whom, and relevant according to what tests?” — For in the first place, it seems to me that without a specific, concrete set of faces (a “whom”) to attach the question to, this question becomes just a stalking horse for the questioner’s own spiritual quest: what he is really asking about is relevance to himself, without being willing to acknowledge openly that his own needs and search are the driving issue involved. And if he’s looking for the relevance of religion, the Church, and the Gospel, to himself, then we need to get that truth out on the table where we can talk about it! — And in the second place, without a specific set of tests by which relevance can be established, we have no actual way of knowing whether religion, the Church, the Gospel, or whatever it is that is supposed to be relevant here, is truly relevant or not. And if the questioner cannot offer specific tests for relevance, we need to proceed very tenderly —

    “Relevant to the cultural status quo” is no real answer to the first part of my responding question, or at least that’s how it seems to me. The cultural status quo isn’t a specific, concrete set of faces, it’s an abstraction — and abstractions don’t take out membership in a church or meeting; only specific, concrete people do. And if we’re trying to sell religion, Church, and Gospel to the cultural status quo, we’re opening up shop in the wrong marketplace! So I’d want to press further, and ask: what specific groups of people are we trying to address here? Academics in the school to which you are attached? Co-workers at the place where you hold a part-time job? Relatives who are giving you a hard time? Let’s talk about these people further, and try to understand what their condition is, that we might speak to it.

    Your essay suggests that the answer to the second part of my responding question — “relevant according to what tests?” — might have something to do with trendiness. And if that is the case, it might help us answer the first part of my responding question, because what’s trendy for one group of people is meaningless to other groups. What specific group of people in the questioner’s life are defining what’s trendy and what’s not? And on what grounds to they decide whether a novelty is satisfactorily trendy? For there are doubtless many novelties they simply ignore.

    I suspect I know where you’re going with your comments on the axle, and if so, I suspect I agree. I look forward to your remaining postings in this series!

  11. Wess, it will be interesting to see your further posts on this.

    The Quaker phrase of speaking to one’s condition fits in with this topic. The drive for “relevancy” is sometimes a reaction to an observation that the church is not speaking to the condition of many, if any, people. The right question is, “How does God seek to speak through me/us to the condition of those with whom God brings us into contact?” This could lead us to doing some of the things churches yearning for “relevance” do but should not lead us to rush out to follow the latest fads in worship style and evangelism without prayerful discernment.

    Being associated with “emerging” Christians now, I find there that folks generally find themselves called to a mix of the old and new. The emerging conversation is finding things in pre-modern Christianity that speak to our condition.

    At my church, being authentic is a core value. We seek to be who we are, warts and all, and authentically open ourselves to Christ’s transforming love. Visitors find that very refreshing. In too many churches (and meetings), old-fashioned as well as “relevant” ones, people find themselves pressured to put on a mask. This is deathly to spiritual growth.

  12. Hi everyone, thanks for your comments. I am going to try and incorporate in some of the questions, and insights as I go and hope that you continue to read and discuss with me.

    All of you have brought up some great points and added to what I was planning on saying so I may carry this series out further, we’ll see how it goes. But I wanted you to know I appreciated all the remarks even though I am not going to address them all specifically at this time.

    I would say that Marshall’s point about “whose relevancy” and the subjectivity even behind the “status quo” is essential to this discussion. As is Bill’s point about the Quaker confession of Jesus “speaking to our condition” is an underlying assumption (while I hadn’t put it in those terms) of what I will be sharing.

  13. Seth and Kristen M – I also meant to say that I plan on some kind of synthesis of these ideas in regards to media, creativity and online communities probably in my 5th or 6th post. Thanks for bringing up these great observations.

    Also – I’ve just posted part two.

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