I was wandering around Faith & Leadership checking out articles the other day. Timothy Larsen's article “More Relevant Than Thou,” which he wrote earlier this year, caught my attention, because I had just had a heated discussion with a colleague about the word “relevant.” I’m the second pastor of a ten-year-old UMC church plant and we’re supposed to be relevant, but the word sounds so cliché to my ears. Every hip new church today and even some old stodgy ones advertise that they are relevant.
Larsen laments this state of affairs in his small church saying, “One of our church’s more annoying features is a rather pathetic desperation to be culturally trendy.” Given my recent heated discussion, it might seem that I’d read Larsen’s thoughts on being relevant and agreed, but I found the article had the exact opposite effect. I found myself wanting to defend being relevant. But with more reflection, what I really want is to move beyond relevance.
What do I mean by this? I’m not sure, but here are some initial thoughts. The question of being relevant is actually a first-generation missional one. It’s the question that a missionary who comes from another context asks his or herself when entering into a new and different one and is trying to contextualize the gospel in that locale. The failure to be relevant in some contexts can be fatal (think “Poisonwood Bible”). At this stage in missions, the question of being relevant is essential. I even think that while it may look to another white Western as “a pathetic desperation to be culturally trendy” (Why are you wearing those silly clothes that don’t fit your personality at all?), it will look to the local like a welcome attempt to value her culture (She thinks my clothes are valuable enough to wear).
And yet at some point this is only a first-generation issue of an outsider attempting to build relationships with an insider. It is a question the founding pastor of my church who was a fifty-nine-year-old grandma had to ask to reach out to people who weren’t fifty-nine-year-old grandmas. But if the mission is long-term, then it will seek to raise up leadership from that context that will no longer have to ask about being relevant (or at least will not have to raise the question as often). The new leader will be relevant to the culture simply by virtue of who he or she is. There will be no “pathetic desperation to be culturally trendy,” just a habitual being of oneself in one’s own skin. It will dodge the problem that Marilynne Robinson raises when she says, “The issue seems to be, ‘Should we imitate others?’ and it never seems to be, ‘How can we be more fully ourselves?’” This is the freedom I have in my current setting: to simply wear what I wear, use illustrations, media and music that I’m already familiar with, and communicate naturally because I am a thirty-something pastor.
I think Larsen (and to some extent Robinson) has misdiagnosed the problem. It is not a problem of poorly attempting to be culturally relevant, but rather a failure of raising up local leaders who no longer have to ask about being relevant; they are, simply by being more fully themselves.
I want to move beyond relevance and start empowering new leaders to live naturally in the best of their culture and to communicate the gospel, wherever that culture may be, and with whatever variations of cultural expression that may entail. This means giving them permission to explore outside accepted liturgies and to not question their commitment to the church universal. It means not sneering at their desire to communicate with new media. It means giving them the freedom to wear what is natural to their missional context rather than what was natural to the 1950s professional clergy or to the first century church. It means being open to their use of slang, the Koine Greek of today, to communicate the gospel. It means trusting that their distaste of church music isn’t just a shallow desire to imitate the worst of popular music. It means a willingness as their supervisor to allow yourself to feel just a little anxious about what is being done under their leadership.
How is your church, denomination or institution doing at giving permission to this kind of leadership?
Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.