Churches can become irrelevant for any number of reasons. Spiritual pride can keep us from considering that non-Christian guests may not understand our highly developed “Christian-speak.” Administrative incompetence might make it difficult for people to find us, or to enjoy being with us once they do (possibly due to crowded conditions, erratic temperature control, musty smells, etc.). A faulty understanding of what it means to be “in the world but not of the world” may result in a narrow interpretation of what external practices constitute godliness. Churches that don’t use electricity are one example that comes to mind. Each of the churches I’ve described here would bring greater glory to God by becoming more “relevant.”
However, the idol of relevance is rooted in the fear that people may not like us because we seem different from them. We want them to know we eat at the same restaurants, watch the same TV shows, listen to the same bands, laugh at the same jokes, and go to the same movies that they do. Our greatest fear is being perceived as out of touch.
Obviously, there are many times we’ll engage in the same activities as non-Christians. It’s one way that we maintain a conversation with and presence in the world. However, we’re fighting a losing battle when relevance becomes our aim – to convince the world we’re just like them. There are aspects of our culture that we clearly want to set ourselves apart from, simply because they contain so much that is opposed to glorying in Jesus Christ.
Martin Lloyd-Jones addressed the desire of preachers to be “relevant” in his book, Preaching and Preachers. His point is applicable to worship leaders as well.
“Our Lord attracted sinners because He was different. They drew near to Him because they felt that there was something different about Him. That poor sinful woman of whom we read in Luke 7 did not draw near to the Pharisees and wash their feet with her tears, and wipe them with the hair of her head. No, but she sensed something in our Lord – His purity, His holiness, His love – and so she drew near to Him. It was His essential difference that attracted her. And the world always expects us to be different. This idea that you are going to win people to the Christian faith by showing them that after all you are remarkably like them, is theologically and psychologically a profound blunder.” (p. 140)
Jesus possessed an “essential difference” that people, both religious leaders and prostitutes, were aware of. That difference included a profound humility, an unshakeable joy, and a servant heart. Ultimately, it was a refusal to bow to the god of this world, and an unyielding commitment to love His Father and obey His will. (Jn. 2:24-25, 5:30) Jesus related to sinners because He had come to give His life as a ransom for them. He hung around the “low-lifes” of his day enough to be accused of engaging in their sins (Lk. 7:34), yet we never get the impression he attended parties to prove that he was just like everyone there.
I could provide links to a number of church websites right here that would illustrate pursuing the idol of relevance. (After poking around the Internet, I’m convinced that truth is definitely stranger than fiction.) I decided not to do it, though. Like me, you may find it’s too easy to be tempted to self-righteousness, uncharitable judgment, or false accusation. I think the following description of the church in Acts succinctly communicates the distance that exists between the church and the world, and how God adds to His people in spite of it – or perhaps because of it. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women. (Acts 5:13-14 ESV)
What I believe every Christian pastor and leader needs to answer are questions like these: Are people who visit our church more aware of how different we are or how similar we are to them? Are the people in my church growing in their likeness to the values of Jesus Christ or the world? Do the songs we sing and the references we make communicate the supreme treasure of God’s Word or the godless pride of our age?
On a more personal note, as a leader I want to carefully watch my own intake. It’s revealing to measure how much time I actually spend reading, studying, and observing the thoughts of non-Christians for the purpose of being “relevant.” How much is necessary for me to enable meaningful contact with the world around me? That’s a question I need to answer from the Lord’s perspective, not mine or the world’s.
I’m in the middle of reading Os Guiness’ book Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance. It’s an excellent read. I think this quote says what I’d like to say better than I ever could:
“By our breathless chase after relevance without a matching commitment to faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity but our authority and our relevance. Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant.” (p. 15)
“Father, by your grace make us faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ – in our words, our deeds, and our thoughts. And like the early church, we trust that more than ever believers will be added to the Lord.”