The Dangerous Tangent of Relevance
“Relevant” is word that is thrown around often in church circles. It’s applied to everything from music to sermons to attire to the color of the carpet. It’s discussed, chased after, evaluated against and held up as a prized goal. And it’s simply destroying our churches.
Relevance, that desire among church leaders that our worship, teaching and ministries fully connect with those we want to reach, often has us twisting inside out to fulfill it’s obtuse and ever-shifting requirements. In order to understand why relevance is such a dangerous tangent, we must consider:
Relevance has a false target. If we pursue relevance, then immediately the next question must be “relevant to whom?” Relevance always has an objective, be it a person, demographic, culture or interest group. Relevance’s target is never Christ. Christ, by His very definition, is relevant. God’s Word is relevant. We do not make Christ relevant or make His Word relevant—they already are.
And this is why relevance takes us away from Christ, because the focus or objective must, by its very pursuit, be something other than Christ. The Apostle Paul knew the importance of not pursuing people, but instead pursuing Christ. We must be pointing others toward Christ with our full effort, worship, preaching or otherwise. I believe this is why Paul made statements like “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Paul knew that a life most closely exemplifying Christ would draw people toward Christ. No one ever thought of Paul as irrelevant.
Relevance has a nonessential goal. The often unspoken goal of relevance is to please or impress someone. To capture their attention, to intrigue them, to make them think or consider. To surprise or delight them. If the goal of relevance is to elicit a response in an individual or group, how then, can we be sure that this cause-effect relationship with relevance always produces a God-honoring result? It’s in our nature to focus on signs and wonders, and often the contemporary church is found to be an expert in provoking a response with little or no biblical spine behind it.
Ask the average church leader why their worship or message must be relevant, and the answer will most certainly not be “to honor and glorify God”. I’ve been in many conversations related to how relevant a church’s programming was, and the focus, exclusively, is on a group of people we’re trying to impact. On the surface, these differences in the end-goal seem subtle, but the reality is that pursuit of relevance results in a radical change in the very nature of the goal a church pursues. Most often, a goal of pursuing Christ is replaced with the pursuit of something else entirely.
Relevance has an unintended consequence. When we pursue relevance, we are in effect pursuing people. We end up creating a church that looks a lot like us. Over time we remove elements that aren’t pleasing to us, and add elements that are. Relevance is often incompatible with risk, sacrifice, suffering or service in uncomfortable ways—things that Jesus quite clearly taught by example and word in the Gospels. In short, a church that pursues people often ends up worshiping themselves, the object of their relevance.
The one thing. Relevance is among the those results and comforts we pursue in the church that really has very little, if any, role in Scripture. Jesus and the Apostles gave much instruction to the early church. “Find out what people want or need and give it to them” did not make the cut. Pursuing relevance is only possible if we somehow succumb to the lie that God, His Word and His will and ways could every possibly be irrelevant. Pursue Christ, imitate Him, serve the poor, reach the outcast—these were the things that interested Jesus. Often, we are tempted to do anything except for the one thing Jesus told us to do. A church that pursues Christ, no matter the risk or cost, will always find itself relevant.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.