Timothy Larsen’s essay, “More Relevant than thou” has got me thinking. Should the church be relevant? That depends on what one means by “relevant.”
I have generally thought of relevance in terms of making connections. This is where the question of relevance gets interesting, because it forces us to ask what we are connecting.
I was recently talking with a local community organizer. He said most young people that he works with are surprised that he works with churches. These young people are amazed that there are churches that care about their community’s needs, about justice, and about the common good. In other words their (weak) connection to the church is a connection to an institution that doesn’t care about the issues of their community and the world.
In another conversation with friends who grew up in the church and left, they were amazed to discover that Christianity has a wisdom tradition as rich as the ones they have been seeking in Yoga and Buddhism. They had connected to a church that seemed shallow. Others have connected with a church more focused on buildings than people, or a church more focused on preserving a culture than accepting people who are different. For each of these people the church seems irrelevant and their charge of irrelevance should be heard as a stinging critique.
It is precisely the sting of this critique that leads us who are in the church to say “Wait! There is so much more!” There is a passion to care for our community and justice; there is a profound tradition of wisdom; there are communities of profound love and care. Christianity is about life in its fullest. How can this be irrelevant? Our cry, while recognizing the power of the charge of irrelevance against us, points to a deeper and richer tradition that lies below this seemingly irrelevant surface.
I would also suspect that those outside the church could turn around and make the same charge to us. Larsen accurately portrays the churches’ attempts to connect with our culture in terms of preaching as comedy, Twitter and Facebook, hip music, mediocre entertainment, and cultural trendiness. I can imagine that those outside responding, “Wait! There is so much more! We are deeper, richer human beings than this entertainment and social marketing.”
The challenge is not in abandoning the concept of relevance, but in reshaping it. It is too easy to dismiss relevance so that we can continue in our ways. I would encourage us to hold the question of relevance as an important religious challenge. It is not a challenge of connecting what is most shallow in us to what is most shallow in others, but rather in making a connection between what is deepest and richest in us to what is deepest and richest in others.
It is a profound challenge for us to discover again the depths of our faith. It is a challenge for us to listen to people’s deepest yearnings and desires. It is a challenge to find ways of communicating from these depths and inviting people into a lived experience. This is a challenge that will require neither a simple repetition of cultural tradition nor a leap to the latest trends. It will require the work of a traditioned re-imagination of faith. Thankfully we have no lack of examples of this being done before: Saint Anthony, Saints Francis and Clare, Martin Luther, and King.
Perhaps it is still relevant for church leaders to engage the question of relevance, if we are willing to engage this question with sufficient depth.