Irrelevantly Relevant

27 05 2010

One of the constants in discussions concerning church growth and evangelism is the issue of “relevance.”  At a popular level, “being relevant” as a church or ministry means to do things that are considered normal in the world outside the church.  Large projection screens, worship music with drums and guitars, preachers in blue jeans, and café style seating are all attempts at being relevant to the culture at large.  The argument goes that unless we do such things all the lost sinners in our communities will never come to our churches to hear the Gospel and, consequently, our churches will shrink and die.  To be “irrelevant” (which I suppose means things like using an organ, singing old hymns, the preacher wearing a suit or vestments, sitting in pews, etc.), therefore, means to turn people away from the Gospel, condemn them to Hell, and slowly watch our churches die.  Of course, many mega-churches and other contemporary churches have the stats on their side in this argument—many success stories.

But I have a question.  What if what is relevant to the culture at large is irrelevant to entering the Kingdom?  Which leads me to more questions:  What if in our striving to look like the world in order to attract the world we inadvertently proclaim a false gospel?  What kind of disciples are we making through our “relevant” worship services and ministries?  And what will the church look like in a generation from now as we reap what we have sown?

Let me be clear:   I’m not advocating a return to worship spoken only in Latin, nor am I calling for sermons that only doctoral students can understand.  I am calling for a serious engagement with the practices of the ancient Church that brought about unbelievable growth, solid disciples, and longevity to the Church.  Practices, by the way, that have by and large been jettisoned in favor of more culturally sensitive things.

The counter-argument claims that it doesn’t matter what we dress the Gospel in (jeans or an alb, crosses or art-deco walls) as long as we stay true to its content.  The flaw in this reasoning is exposed when we realize that humans are not merely verbal creatures—but also auditory, visual, and sensory.  I would not go so far as to say, “the medium is the message,” but I think it is obvious that how a message is packaged communicates a great deal to the recipient about the nature or value of that message.  I suppose I’m just odd, but to see the Gospel Book carried high in procession to the middle of the congregation, handled by robed worshipers as people sing, bow to and even kiss the Scriptures speaks a great deal more about the value of God’s Word than a preacher in blue jeans with no pulpit who reads only those passages relevant to his sermon.

But wait (it is often argued)!  The pastor in blue jeans is communicating to the average person out there that the Gospel is for everyone and is accessible to all and can be understood by all.  High-falutent liturgy just makes it seem like God’s Word isn’t applicable to daily life.  Perhaps… but God’s word is also holy, life-giving, and worthy of our rapt attention.  And quite frankly, in my daily life I don’t need another common, easily accessible word.  I need a high and holy Word and that is above me, able to rescue me and to instruct me in the Way that will set me free from my daily anger, selfishness, and fear.  The preacher in the blue jeans does not reveal the other-worldly power of God’s Word.  And it is power from that other world, God’s Kingdom, that I need the most, that is more “relevant” to my need.  I don’t need more advice, even Biblical advice.   I need God’s very power and love coursing through my physical and spiritual veins.  I need a Word that I ought to bow to and give my undivided attention to, not a word that I can passively listen to while sipping my latte.

If the people in our churches are missing the full and powerful and confrontational Gospel because of the relevant garb we have dressed it in, then we must come to confess, sooner or later, that we are proclaiming a half-gospel; or more likely a false gospel.  A gospel that proclaims, “It’s all about you and what you like!  Whatever you want we’ll do it just so you’ll come to our church.  Big screens, espresso machines, a cool preacher, symbol-less décor, lots of fun for the kids—whatever it is, we’ll provide it!”  This sounds suspiciously like a wide and easy road to me. . .

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

My advice:  Let’s save our blue jeans for the actual café down the street where we can invite our un-saved co-worker to discuss life issues over a cup of joe.  And then, when that co-worker is ready and the Spirit leads us, invite him or her to a whole new world—the worship and community of the Church.

This passionate post was inspired by an article entitled “How the World Lost Its Story,” by theologian Robert W. Jenson (re-published in the March 2010 issue of FIRST THINGS).

In it Jenson points out that the postmodern culture around us has rejected the idea of a true story—a story that all can have a part in and that is heading towards a happy ending.  He argues that the Protestant churches have spent the greater part of the last 200 years striving to be relevant and acceptable to the modern culture surrounding them.  So the language of worship was changed (even the terms used for the Trinity!), the embarrassing parts of the Bible were carefully explained away, outdated art and liturgy was removed, and the church became a major political player in order to “save” society.  Liberal Protestantism was born—and is now already near death.  I would ask, do we think our current attempts to be relevant will prove to be any more successful 50 years from now?

Jenson argues persuasively that:

“In the postmodern world, if a congregation or churchly agency wants to be ‘relevant’, here is the first step:  It must recover the classic liturgy of the Church, in all its dramatic density, sensual  actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life.  In the postmodern world, all else must at best be decoration and more likely distraction.”

He goes on the state that in conjunction to this, the Church must also be the place where the Gospel story is realized—a place where the promises of Scripture become real and tangible.  For example, how can the “seeker” believe that God will keep His eschatological promises if His people do not keep their promises within their own community?!  The Church must look something like the Kingdom it is proclaiming.  As Jenson puts it, “The assembly of believers must therefore itself be the event in which we may behold what is to come. . . .  ‘Going to church’ must be a journey to the place where we behold our destiny, where we will see what is to come of us.”

Lastly, Jenson asserts that if we are going to communicate the Gospel narrative successfully in a postmodern world, it will require not only the classic liturgy, and a genuine Kingdom of God community, but also a re-appropriation and use of sacred art.  The clean, blank walls of our churches must once again surround us with the Gospel story.   Jenson states:

“If we in our time rightly do apprehend the eschatological reality of the gospel promise, we have to hear it with Christ the risen Lord visibly looming over our heads with His living and dead saints visibly gathered around us.  Above all, the Church must celebrate the Eucharist as the dramatic depiction, and as the succession of tableaux, that it intrinsically is.  How can we point our lives to the Kingdom’s great Banquet if its foretaste is spread before us with all the beauty of a McDonald’s counter?”

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