“Relevance has always been a priority and value for us as a church." So wrote a leader of a large church as he articulated the reasons for the youth oriented emphasis of his church. The leaders were deeply concerned about the fact that young people were migrating away from church and the leaders were striving to address the disturbing trend.
I admire the leader's passion and cannot argue with his stated goal of reaching out to young adults who are outside the faith. What I do argue with is the misguided emphasis on social relevance as a priority and purpose of the church. My argument begins with the definition of relevance and with its inappropriate place on a church’s list of priorities.
The definition of relevance most often put forth by church leaders is an approach that addresses the concerns and needs of the intended audience, young people. Young people today seem to be more concerned with how the church interacts with the less fortunate or marginalized and less concerned with traditional values such as morality, purity and holiness. Church leaders often cite studies by researchers such as George Barna showing that the millennial generation considers Christians to be harsh, judgmental and unloving. The most common reasons given for this negative impression are the "church’s" positions on hot button issues such as same sex marriage and sexual morality.
No one wants to be called harsh and judgmental, especially churches. In an effort to counteract negative perceptions churches are beginning to emphasize programs that “prove” Christians to be nice people. Community service projects, neighborhood beautification efforts, after school tutoring programs, food banks and the like abound. All are worthy and noble causes, but the priority given to these works and their promotion suggests that service is not the only goal. The goal is to also show that the church is relevant to modern culture.
Relevance is defined in more superficial ways as well. Many churches intentionally remove all possible signs of pretense or formality. I know of one church in South Orange County that went to great lengths to obscure its pipe organ from view. It was beautiful, but it was not relevant. Many churches have taken steps to remove any semblance of formality and casual dress is the standard pulpit and platform attire. Informality is the new ideal, with parishioners often arriving in shorts and flip flops and carrying lattes into worship services. Concert style lighting and bands playing contemporary Christian music are all intended to add to the cultural accessibility.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these changes and one can argue against formality in worship there is one thing of which I am certain. None of these changes in focus or style has anything to do with relevance.
The relevance of the church is not defined by the culture in which it exists. It is instead defined by the message that is preached and the God who is served. Some of the greatest works of God in the present day can be found in cultures where the Christian message has been declared not only irrelevant but illegal. An example is communist China, where millions of Christians worship in “underground” house churches whose message defies, rather than appeals to, the dominant culture.
The pursuit of relevance is dangerous. Circumstances will inevitably arise in which the doctrines and teachings of the church will be considered outdated and judgmental. The temptation to compromise values, alter emphasis or change focus may be difficult to resist. The church should instead pursue truth, holiness and grace, in any style it can.
When the church is defined by holiness, grace and truth, cultural relevance becomes- irrelevant!