The problem with pursuing relevance

It was one of those Christian buzzwords for a while. Every other church was lining up to label itself ‘relevant.’ The question I had whenever I saw that was usually, relevant to whom?

The big problem is that churches landing hard on the term ‘relevant’ in their descriptions of themselves very often had a similar profile. They tended to be young and hip and trendy. Now, don’t get me wrong, if that’s you and you want to setup your church that way, fill your boots. I’m a believer in a wide range of churches because it takes all sorts. That sort of church will certainly attract a certain kind of person that other churches won’t (and vice versa) and all those people need the gospel.

But that term ‘relevant’ very quickly came to mean relevant to twenty-somethings. In fact, relevant to a particular brand of twenty-something who is drawn into a particular kind of church. No doubt the way the church was setup was relevant for them. But I always felt painfully aware that in focusing on being relevant for them, it made it less relevant to me and even less relevant than that to my parents and even less relevant again to my grandparents.

You see, nobody wants to make their church irrelevant. That would be stupid. Some churches accidentally make themselves appear irrelevant to the lives of people round about them. It’s not that they are irrelevant – what they preach is very relevant – it’s just that those in their communities don’t see that they are. They see dozens of people in suits and posh frocks going to sing songs from two centuries ago, read a book translated in English from four centuries ago that was written two-millennia ago and wonder what on earth that could possibly have to do with them. It seems about as relevant as The Sealed Knot.

You see, we should all be aiming to be contextually relevant. It is all very well for you to hold your annual hog roast in the church car park and invite your neighbours, but should I do that in my part of town it might be seen as more than a little provocative given our area is dominated by South Asian Muslims. It is all very well my friend in a South London council estate telling you that you need to think about hip-hop in order to reach the yoof, but that’s going to look a bit weird in the middle of a Cotswold village. We’ve got to know our area and make sure that we connect with it.

Being relevant to your area is going to mean being sensitive to local cultures. But if we use relevant as a by-word for aiming at all the young dudes, we are going to find ourselves pretty irrelevant to large sections of people we are trying to reach too. Most areas will have their own culture and sense of what’s right and proper but all areas will also have a cross-section of people. Some places will have a range of ethnicities, others will have a range of languages and just about all places will have a range of ages. Each of those groups, regardless of whether they are from the same country and speak the same language, will come with their own cultural understanding of how things should be.

But when we describe ourselves as ‘relevant,’ we very rarely have in mind the relevance of what we are doing for the pensioner. We’re often not thinking about relevance for the struggling single mum from the estate. We’re not considering our relevance for the parents in their 50s with the teenage kids. None of those are the ‘relevant’ segments of society we’re after. We’re trying to be relevant to a different kind of clientele. Normal the young, hip breed of Christian who will help make our church super cool.

But we can surely agree that the gospel is for all, right? Which means, in whatever locale your church is based, you presumably want to be relevant to the widest possible cross-section of people in your community. That is going to mean being contextually relevant to your area without attempting to base your relevance on any one demographic that lives there. So, how are we going to achieve that?

We have to work out what makes the church relevant at all. If our relevance is mainly based on our clothes or our way of speaking, the whole community is just as relevant as we are so there’s no particular reason for anyone to come to your relevant church when they just as easily go and meet their friends in the relevant pub. So, that’s probably not the place to try and uniquely set ourselves as relevant.

Clearly, the thing the church has that nobody else has is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The thing that makes us relevant to anybody is the gospel. The reason liberal churches are falling into irrelevance and their buildings becoming monuments to a Christian heritage of the past is because they stopped preaching the gospel a long time ago. If we want to make ourselves relevant, preach the gospel. It is the gospel that will uniquely click with people. It is the gospel that will uniquely offer what nothing else can offer. It is when we grasp the implications of the gospel that we understand not only its relevance but the relevance of the church also.

And as we focus on the gospel, we will find ourselves being quite relevant to the OAP and the teenager, to the Muslim and the Hindu, to the young single mum on the estate and to the parents of teens in their 50s. It is the gospel that makes us relevant and that same gospel means we won’t over-focus on any one demographic. Instead, we hold out the same gospel to all, which is relevant to all.

Of course, as we hold out the gospel, we must be contextually relevant. Preaching about the rugger to the local Asian Muslims would be as odd as speaking about kabaddi on a white council estate. Talking about things that are largely outside of the experience of the people to whom we are speaking isn’t going to help. But we need to try and make ourselves as relevant as we need to be to as wide a group of people as we can be so that the Lord might work to save some of them.