I have encountered the word “relevance” with regard to the Church a number of times this past two weeks. I am reminded of the movie The Princess Bride – “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means” says Mandy Patinkin’s character to another who keeps using the word “inconceivable” in odd ways.
Relevant is a word that gets used when people want to say the Church is no longer a present fact or factor in people’s lives – either because of outdated liturgy, doctrine, language, or for manifold other reasons. For many, the Church is not relevant because of some thing it does that makes it no longer a valued voice in the cultural or consumer marketplace.
For many, it is true, the Church is no longer the dominant voice in their lives and no longer drives their weekly life in the way it once did. We know that wide swaths of the Christian landscape are changing under our feet and that younger people are moving away from organized religion. Yet, I would argue, it is not the Church that has become irrelevant but the ways in which the Church is led.
For many, institutions in general are irrelevant. Moralism is irrelevant. Cultural facsimiles are irrelevant. Politicization is irrelevant. Shame and guilt are irrelevant.
The Church is irrelevant not because we look too different from the culture but because we look too much like the culture. We are not actually offering anything particularly counter-cultural in many of our parishes so what real reason do folks have to stay other than habit? Why come to a Church that offers more of what they get in their day-to-day lives?
Whether it is in teaching, liturgy, service, or preaching, the challenge is not making the Church easier to understand or making it relevant but living in such a way that the counter-cultural narrative we offer is one that Christ would recognize as his own message. Is there a way for the Church not to be relevant but to matter in a living, breathing way? The key to relevance is not to be one more option amidst a panoply of distractions but to be the foundation and summit of people’s lives and hopes.
All the marketing and institutional change in the world is not going to change the simple fact that when many walk into our churches they will be able to tell, rather quickly, whether or not the people and clergy there believe that the Holy One is coming among them and doing something new with their lives.
Are the people there obviously in the Presence of the Living Christ?
Are you greeted in a way that Christ would greet you? Are you hearing preaching that sounds like Christ’s message of grace and the abundant love of God? Do you see around you people who look like they just might be sinners or tax collectors – or the types of folks at whom others might throw stones? Does the liturgy remind you that you are welcomed to take Christ at his word – that this is his Body and this is his Blood? Are you hearing about and seeing the kinds of sacrificial service that Christ would have asked his friends to offer to the least and the lowest?
This is the only definition of relevance the Church needs to care about – does our common life look like Christ’s? Is the pattern of our common life one that is relevant not to the world around us but imitates, with all our heart, and soul, and mind, the one who came among us to serve?
Relevance is a tricky thing because it tempts us into thinking that the answer is to make a Church and a message that don’t upset and don’t offend. Yet, we see in Christ’s own ministry a deep abiding love mingled with the most holy of proclamations that God longs for more for and from us. Christ is deeply in relationship – relevant in the ways that mark Christian companionship. Yet relevance is not the call to comfort but the call to make one another better disciples.
The Church, in our encounter with Christ, is a Body of people who help one another see that which we do not readily see with our own eyes. We are pointed toward the mystery of Incarnation when we would only see a manger. We are pointed toward the Crucifixion when we would only walk by those suffering on our own streets. We are pointed toward the Resurrection when we would only see a casket lowered into the ground. We are pointed toward Body and Blood when we would only see bread and wine. We are pointed toward Reconciliation when we would only feel anger. We are given wounds to touch when we only know doubt.
The relevant thing about the Church is its ability to fix our hearts on Christ. This is a challenge and it is a challenge that, in our weakest moments, it is too easy for us to ignore amidst the press of the comfortable and the familiar. Whether we are avoiding the discomfort of serving those who look and sound different or we are avoiding the hard truths of a sermon that hits too close to home – each of us will find reasons to squirm out of the weight of Christian discipleship. It is natural and sometimes even necessary – sometimes we just need rest. Yet the Church exists to call each of us to confront those blind spots in our lives in which we are falling short of the wholeness of Christ’s own ministry.
People in our society are craving the challenge of a Church that actually lives into the call of following Christ. The Church will be relevant when we look and sound like the Christ they too rarely encounter. The Church will absolutely thrive when we are utterly invested in the discipline of Christian living – which is more than relevant.
My hope is that we will not strive for a sort relevance in which we prioritize accommodation and ease but that we will throw ourselves into the difficult, challenging, messy, and unsettling work of transformation. This is the only kind of Church that is worth cultivating – one in which Christ’s love is so palpable that each and every member is a partner and a friend in a difficult and sometimes painful striving for faithful living. Our people are up for the challenge and we will find ourselves having very different conversations when our metrics are not only judged by attendance and resources but are rooted in presence and discipleship.