More relevant than thou

Remaking church life in a pathetic desperation to be culturally trendy is a losing proposition. Maybe confused 14-year-olds find it unsettling, perhaps even frightening, that church is so pliable on the basis of their fickle whims, writes Timothy Larsen.

For sheer linguistic genius, you cannot beat advertising firms. I remember a restaurant chain whose posters announced that its chili was now “zestier.” It made me want to march deep into the corporate headquarters, find the ad team who came up with that campaign, and beg to become their unpaid intern.

There are God-fearing Americans who would not be ashamed to say they don’t like chili that is “hot” or “spicy,” but who on earth would object to foods being “zesty”? Some words seem irresistible.

In the Christian world, one such word that has by now had more than its fair run is “relevant.” I love the little church where we are members and would defend it against all outside attacks. Moreover, when people invite me to criticize it, I always remind them that if all my well-thought-through reforms were implemented, the congregation would probably go into a rapid decline from which it would never recover.

Nevertheless, faithful are the wounds of a steady tither. One of our church’s more annoying features is a rather pathetic desperation to be culturally trendy. All I have to do to keep up with the latest celebrity or show or phenomenon is attend corporate worship and sit reverently waiting to hear God’s word expounded.

Our church has a slick, well-publicized list of core values, one of which is “If it’s not relevant, it’s not God.” When potential new members read this value statement, who could possibly object? It is irresistible; who would dare defend irrelevance? Clearly, we must be their kind of church.

There is something in my nature, however, that likes to see how conventional wisdom looks when stood on its head. Maybe a better slogan would be “If you’re worried about whether or not it’s relevant, then your heart is probably still far away from the things of God.” Or maybe “If you’re thinking that something in our corporate life and worship is not relevant, that’s probably a sign that your Christian spiritual formation is still incomplete.”

In other words, the value of “relevance” can easily degenerate into the shedding of the real, solid, indispensable features of the Christian life in a demeaning chase after the latest fads. Such an undesirable outcome is perhaps merely a manifestation of a larger tendency, which has gone on for several decades now, to remake church life in the image of the tastes of 12- to 16-year-olds.

It is just possible that our youth do not find these efforts as inviting and reassuring as we assume they do. Maybe confused 14-year-olds find it unsettling, perhaps even frightening, that church is so pliable on the basis of their fickle whims. One can imagine that it would be hard for them to find the words to articulate such unease. If they ever did, perhaps it would come out in an exasperated protest: “Stop trying so hard to be relevant, for God’s sake!”

It is just possible that many of them go on to leave the church in their 20s because they have become disillusioned that there is not enough “there” there. I suspect that they long to encounter something bigger, deeper, older, wiser, steadier and more grounded than themselves, not a sad parody of their own adolescent distractions. Twenty-somethings are unlikely to respond to a sad parody of the trivial cultural preoccupations of the current crop of junior-high-schoolers.

“Relevant” can be code for the practice of holding the deep wisdom and resources of the church hostage to the immediate interests of the least discipled and spiritually formed among us.

As with so many things, the Catholic writer Henri Nouwen -- that great, wounded prophet -- foresaw all of this back when the “relevant” deluge was still merely a cloud the size of an ad man’s handheld device. Nouwen’s “In the Name of Jesus” expounded Christ’s temptations in the wilderness (to give them in reverse order) as the temptations to be powerful, to be spectacular and to be relevant.

Jesus’ response to the temptation to be relevant was to insist that the Word of God is an essential that offsets our preoccupation with the immediate by reorienting us toward the perennial, the enduring, the eternal: “People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4 NLT).

The desire for church to beat pop culture at its own game is a futile one. I’ve heard some preachers who could enliven their sermons with hilarious comedy routines. I’ve heard some worship bands that had it really going on. I’ve seen genuinely compelling drama and videos during corporate worship. Nevertheless, even if one could put them all together on the same day -- the worship planner’s dream -- it is still not good enough.

If there is one thing our culture does not have in short supply, it’s entertainment. People do not need to get up on a cold Sunday morning, get dressed, get the kids ready and drive to another building to hear a bit of comedy or see a well-produced skit. Diversions devised by the best professional entertainers in the world are easier to procure than that. Amateur hour from some local wannabes who have forgotten their real mission will not win this competition.

Maybe we should consider a moratorium on trying to be relevant. Let’s instead see what would happen if we thought of Christian ministry in terms of what is eternal. What if we re-evaluated our priorities and work by asking the question, If Christ really had not been raised from the dead, would this be a stupid, absurd and incomprehensible thing to do?

If the board members of your church or Christian institution concentrate on that question the next time they gather, I am quite confident it will make the meeting zestier.