Friday, September 08, 2006


Ordinary Time

Alan had a great idea the other day, and I'm going to run with it.

First, however, his little paragraph on "liturgy" is a good answer for when folks ask a certain question. Sometimes when I'm explaining the use of prayerbooks and set liturgies to folks, they respond with, "So you have to read this, this and this?" Now, it's an honest question, and there's nothing wrong with it; it just shows that when some people think "structure," think they rigid and overly confining. (There is, after all, a good kind of "boxing-in.")

Go check it out. Now here's my quick take:

When a church says it's "relevant," I assume they are less faithful to the proclamation of God in Jesus Christ.

I think they mean to say, "our sermons and expositons of the Scriptures appeal to the values and lifestyles of people in our society."

I don't think the Christian proclamation is very appealing to the typical American lifestyle or its values, and it shouldn't be. "Relevant" means, "we're offering you a way into what you think is a good or better life," and "Jesus makes good things better." Has anybody seen that recent popular devotional book, Just Add Jesus? That's just the kind of stuff I'm talking about.

(You know, kind of like this. HT: Kendall Harmon)

I would never consider being part of a church that calls itself "relevant," for those reasons. But, I could change my mind about the whole thing - which is why I'm asking y'all. I also realize the question isn't overly diplomatic, but I thought it was more fair to state my position at the beginning rather than say, "Oooh, what do you guys think" and then pounce.

What do you critters think?

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Brannon Hancock said...

I don't think every church that labels itself "relevant" is necessarily un-(or less)faithful to the Gospel in some default, a priori sense, but I think you're probably right that many churches, especially in the English speaking world, who are concerned about being regarded by their communities and cultures as relevant tend to veer toward being more interested in relevance - which as you say usually implies something about the content of the preaching, the style of the music, and maybe the fact that it's "casual" - than they are about bearing witness to a Christ who bids us "Come and die." But I'd like to think that on the one hand certain emergent trends (while they remain somewhat foreign to me), and on the other hand, certain syntheses of Christianity and indigenous culture that often takes place on the mission field, are examples of churches who seek to be culturally or societally relevant while maintaining faithfulness to the gospel as the highest priority - but of course, while actually being quite relevant, those kinds of churches don't typically advertise themselves as such. In short, I think the critique you level is spot on, but only when applied to certain churches in certain parts of the world.

A said...

I think relevance is a crock of...well, you know....

stephen said...

I agree 100%

I like what Henri Nouwen says about being revelant in his In the Name of Jesus.

Josh said...

I really think it depends on who is using the word "relevant" and their motivation behind it. I think in many ways people misuse relevant in the exact way you've suggested. They take the gospel and shape it to culture today, thus losing the loyalty to the true text. BUT, I also believe that a church can profess a theology that is "relevant" and do it sincerely. Do it in a way that takes many age-old doctrines and practices and incorporates them into a service that is "un-naive" (if I may?) about today's culture and society. A service that reaches out to the needs of a community in a way that is sensitive to the specifics of the area and time. I think that is relevant. You can have a service that is loyal to the "true word and practices" that is extremely stand-off-ish to people. Or you can have one in the same light that is "relevant" to the people to whom you are reaching out.

So, I think it depends on the motivation behind the word and the incorporation of its purpose.

Josh Williams said...

I guess it really depends on what someone means when they say "relevant". I don't think the word is necessarily bad, but I would have to hear the word in the context of whoever is talking about "relevance" to see whether or not they're using it in a compromising way. Whenever I hear the word, though, I tend to associate it with the whole seeker-sensitive movement. I associate it with Joel Osteen-style preachers and more of a focus on games and entertainment during worship instead of Word and Sacrament. My whole problem with "relevance" is that it seems to be more centered on doing what makes people feel comfortable. But the Gospel isn't very comfortable. "Take up your cross and follow me..."

Chris T. said...

I dunno. I mean, on the one hand, you're right that "relevance" is an instrumentalist approach to a faith that absolutely defies that kind of approach.

On the other hand, I'm reminded of Urban T. Holmes' comments in his Ministry and Imagination. He talks about the need for an incarnate, transcendent ministry to "take account of the problems of plausibility" and not "work out of a meaning whose signs and symbols are dead." In that respect, faith is not fashionable, but it also must address itself to the way religious experience works itself out in its time and place. Religion can (actually, must) be responsive to the culture and even the individual without sinking into the very fashions it criticizes.

So I guess that's my take on "relevant." I think many of the churches that use the label are a little far from some important traditions of the church (especially liturgical ones), but they're mostly good Christians. Frankly, it's the mostly evangelical churches thumping their chests about their fidelity to Tradition and The Bible, Dammit, that are sunk most deeply in a cultural morass that compromises their very identity as Christians, IMHO.

But that's another conversation altogether.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a better question would be: To what extent did the actual authors of the Bible attempt to make their story "relevant"?

Obviously, Jesus' parables didn't involve iPods and Starbucks but rather mustard seeds and whores. He was speaking within a certain context, as are we all. The message of deliverance from bondage played a lot better in those days than it does in contemporary America. Hence the disconnect.

It seems patently obvious that Bible writers sculpted their narrative to play to a certain audience. The addition of Hell being the greatest marketing decision in the history of the world.

Did the men who decided which texts to cannonize make any allowances for "relevance" as they saw it? Do Christians not pluck the most "relevant" verses from the Bible for their own purposes while ignoring the bits about who we should and should not stone to death? Believers have not garnered some deeper meaning from those passages by way exegesis or interpretation; they simply ignore them.

And why? The encroachment of modernity has made them utterly and forever irrelevant.

Tommy Mohan said...

Whenever in the gospels one or more persons had a problem with what Jesus said he always let them walk away. He never sent one of the 12 after the rich young ruler to apologize.

Jesus wasn't seeker sensitive - why should I be?

Tommy Mohan said...

It has been stated better by others but essentially I agree that what is "relevant" is something Christ and his church dictate to the culture and not the other way around. In this sense I want to be relevant.

James Church said...

Well, Anonymous I think you have wonderfully and completely missed Kyle's point. It is not that being relevant is a bad thing but that relevance is often used to set an agenda that does not match the kingdom manifesto that Jesus set. I don't think the first Christian martyr Stephen thought that hell was a marketing ploy. Nor do I think that telling the Jewish authorities that he spoke in the name of 'Christ whom you crucified' was a particularly media savvy approach.

I also think you know that the whole debate over canonical texts is a total red herring. And when you refer to Christians picking verses from their Bible that suit their situation you are either corroborating what Kyle has just written or ignoring the process of interpretation completely.

Kyle said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, everyone.

Brannon, I think you make good points, but you're using a different definition of "relevant" than I am, and my argument comes down to whether or not it's the same definition used by churches who employ the phrase when they talk about themselves.

When and if "relevant" is really meant to express, "incarnational," meaning that that the faith is carefully translated into a new host culture while practitioners at the same time try not to import the accoutrements and mores of another culture," that's cool.

So if "relevant" means "business suits are not required" and "we don't use organ music because we don't like it," that's cool by me. If, on the other hand, it means, "our sermons are about your life and the things you think about everyday," that's total crap. People don't think about the right things everyday, that's part of the point of conversion.

Cool? Thanks for chiming in. :0)

I swear, A., you're like an older version of me ...

Stephen, which thing?

Josh, I like that: "profess a theology that ... takes many age-old doctrines and practices and incorporates them into a service that is "un-naive" about today's culture and society." If that's what relevant means, it also means "incarnational" and "missional." I stumble over it, I guess, because my words are theological, while "relevant" seems essentially to be a marketing word. So whether it's marketing or not is a case-by-case issue, as Josh W. touches on. And ditto, "The Gospel isn't very comfortable."

I know I'm having a heck of a hard time with it, myself...

I follow you, Chris T., good points all.

Hiya, Anonymous. How - or rather who - the heck are ya?

In a nutshell, I don't think the biblical authors tried to make their story "relevant" as such - there's no need to translate across other cultures an event that happened a few years ago, even with all of it's theological significance.

The pericopes in the gospels and the issues addressed by the apostolic writers were written out of the context of the worshipping communites, and for those communities. I don't think that's "playing to an audience," so much.

"The encrouchment of modernity has made them utterly and forever irrelevant."

I don't know what that means. :0)

Hey, I'm with you, Mr. Mohan.

Hey, welcome to the blog, James. I appreciate your thoughtful comments, and I'll respond in due course. I think our anonymous interlocutor was fishing for reactions, and you've called it out pretty well. The matter of canon and interpretation of Scripture aren't really what I was working on here.

That's kind of another conversation entirely...

SaintSimon said...

The word 'relevant' has arisen from a church that was using obsolete language such as 'thee' and 'thou'. Jesus spoke his local language - so should we. Paul used local culture as a starting point for theologically sound sermons. Relevance in his sense is about removing human obstacles to the gospel. Sadly, we aften use it to mean adding human obstacles to the gospel.

Kyle's basic point about 'relevance' being a more dominant theme than the gospel itslef is very important. We should not dilute the gospel when presenting it in a way our society can understand.

Kyle said...

Good point, SaintSimon. That's a relevance I'd want to get behind. :0)