There seems to be a developing conversation around church relevance. I don’t say that because people are just starting to become interested in church relevance (that’s been happening since Luther and the printing press), but because some people are really starting to challenge its modern conception. At the Cultivate Conference, I repeatedly heard the same question: “How can your church stay relevant to a culture that is constantly evolving?”
I really appreciate the heart and intention behind this question, but I don’t like it. And I want to replace it with something I think is more biblical and more specific.
I think when someone asks the relevance question, they have good intentions. They want their ministry to have an impact on the culture around them; they do not want to be simply passed off as an irrelevant ministry with nothing important to say, because then God does not receive glory.
I get that.
But the word “relevant” is a charged one. At least for me, the word immediately brings to mind images of trendy music, light shows and projection sreens. And as a man who’s done ministry on a college campus for the last 4 years, I can say that those things have already worn their welcome with the next generation. That’s not to say those things can’t be effective anymore, but they’re certainly no longer impressive, and they constantly threaten to convey an image of a church that’s “trying too hard”. And trust me, there’s nothing more irrelevant than that.
Instead of bringing about images and conceptions of provoking the culture, the word “relevant” often represents ways of copying the culture. Provocation is deeply biblical (Deuteronomy 4:6-8, Matthew 5:16, 1 Peter 2:12); copying is deeply unbiblical (Deuteronomy 18:9, Romans 12:2, 1 John 2:15, James 1:27). I don’t think there’s room anymore in the Church for a word that can mean both. And so “relevant” is on its way out of my church vocabulary.
The entire book of 1 Peter is about existing as holy weirdos in a culture that does not know God. I think we need a terminology and a goal that’s as clear as that book on the issue. A question that sounds a little more “1 Peter” to me would be something like, “How can the church stay peculiar and provocative to a culture that is constantly changing?”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t just want to be known as a “relevant” church that speaks the language of the culture. I want to be speaking the language better than the culture itself, compelling it toward the Kingdom of God. None of these are new thoughts; I’ve heard them a million times before. But somehow this idea hasn’t translated to a shift in language in “Church innovator world” when one of the most-read blogs is still ChurchRelevance.com. Hear me out, here: I have nothing against the blog (it’s well-read for good reason). But I think the term “relevance” is doing more harm than good at this point. The general thinking on this topic is moving in a positive direction, but I’ve yet to see the language follow. I want that to change now.
I think the best way to actually engage the culture has alwas been through peculiarity. MLK, Mandela, John the Baptist, Jesus and the prophets did not gain the culture’s attention because they did things the same as everyone else. In fact, they gained its attention because they did things very, very differently. I think the Church would do well to seek to do the same, and use language that makes this abundantly clear.
I realize it’s a bit weird to call the church toward peculiarity when the Church Relevance movement was actually a response to churches being peculiar in the first place. But that response was against a divinely misrepresentative form of peculiarity. Christians seemed more formal, boring, naive, and ignorant than everyone else. The wild power of God to overwhelm the human soul with grace and peace was utterly destroyed through tradition, complacency and insulation.
And people were very right in wanting that to change. But the fundamental error of the Relevance movement was to believe that churches ought to seek to kill their peculiarity rather than reform it to Jesus’ flavor of peculiarity: The Kingdom of God. As has always been the case, when the Church perceives a destructive pattern, the Enemy works immediately to make sure that the response to that weakness is equally destructive. It happens in my life all the time, and I think it’s happening all over the Church in the relevance conversation. And so “Relevant” has got to go, and I think ”Peculiar” is a fine replacement. Let’s just not swing the pendulum on this one too, eh?