The Irrelevance of Relevance
“We must be relevant”. Anyone who has been part of a church in Europe or America in the last few decades will have heard that said at one time or another. It comes from a fear that the world is indifferent to the Gospel, and to the church, and so we must show them that we are “relevant”. That might mean making social justice or political reform the centre of our message. Or it might mean offering people health or wealth if they trust God. Or it might mean making worship entertaining and accessible to someone who isn’t a Christian. Or it might mean offering guidance on everyday issues such as “ten tips for a great marriage”. Whatever, the unspoken assumption is often that the church is an organization marketing a product, the Gospel, and in a consumer society the customer is king. We must give people what they want, offer the seeker what he or she is seeking.
The call for “relevance” is often very well-intentioned, and springs from a genuine love for those who are without Christ. But it runs into a major problem: the Lord Jesus himself thought in a very different way. Next Sunday, we will think about John 6:25-40. Here Jesus has just fed 5,000 people in the wilderness. So they come to him, looking for bread. But Jesus won’t give them what they want. When, in v30-31, they ask him to do it again, he refuses, and instead offers them bread from heaven, the bread of life. As far as the crowd is concerned, this is irrelevant to their needs, and so not surprisingly in John 6:66, many of the crowds turn away from him. Jesus refused to be relevant.
The writer and pastor Brett McCracken has put it very well:
“It may be tempting for churches to “meet individual people where they are,” celebrating and coming alongside the unique spiritual pilgrimages of every churchgoer. But this is unsustainable for the simple reason that people are all over the map. For a church to meet and affirm every congregant in his or her totally unique, individuated spirituality is to fragment in a hundred different directions, losing any sense of a beautiful, transcendent core that makes church matter in the first place. A better approach is to call the congregation, in its diversity, to meet Christ where he is, even if it means asking people to redirect or abandon their various self-defined spiritual paths. The lordship of Christ, not the lordship of consumers, should always hold sway… Do it because it is reverent, not because it is relevant”.
– Bret McCracken “Church Shopping with Charles Taylor”, in Colin Hansen, Ed., Our Secular Age. Ten years of reading and applying Charles Taylor (Deerfield: The Gospel Coalition, 2017), page 84.
If we put all our energies into trying to be relevant to the world, we will become irrelevant. We will exhaust ourselves trying to catch with the latest thing that the world cares about, only to find that the world has moved on. We will having nothing different to offer to a world that has all that it wants. Especially in youth ministry, we will never be able to compete with the entertainment industry. We need the faith and confidence to embrace irrelevance, and to offer everyone, young and old, the message of the cross which is “foolishness to those who are perishing… a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). The first Christians preached the most irrelevant message of all, the message of a crucified Messiah, who called people to take up their cross and follow him. Yet this turned out to be for those “who are being saved the power of God… Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18,24). It may not be a crowd-pleaser, or a product that can be marketed. But only the message of the cross has the power to give eternal life.