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Friday, March 25, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Getting Relevant

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

I heard that most young people drop out of church today, either for a short or indefinite time, around age 18-19. I was concerned: after all, if we lose the next generation, what’s going to happen to the church? But then I found this glossy new resource, and it’s really helping me to understand what today’s young adults are going to find relevant by way of spiritual stuff. I’m sharing it with you, Tom, because I know you’ve got young-adult children of your own.

Just in time, eh?

Tom: Uh, thanks, IC, I think. Why is it that some Christians seem to think that being “relevant” actually means “pandering” or “condescending”?

Immanuel Can: Heh. Yeah, you caught my ironic drift. I’m not just thinking of wasting much time on mockery, though.

Two Kinds of Irrelevant

Here’s where I’m thinking of going with this. There’s a lot of talk about “relevant” Christianity. And I do think that we sense there’s something behind it all, though perhaps not always what the pop culture version of Christianity thinks it is. So let’s talk about that. Is there any truth to the allegation that our conventional evangelical churches are not sufficiently relevant?

Tom: Absolutely. At times they are painfully irrelevant.

IC: Okay, Tom: unpack that for me. Let’s suppose it’s Sunday, and together you and I happen to enter an “irrelevant” church: by what signs or indicators do we come to recognize that the place is not as “relevant” as it should be?

Tom: Well, “irrelevant” is a bit of a catch-all. It’s almost an excuse sometimes. There are different kinds of irrelevant. Wildly different, in fact. Irrelevant churches can be polar opposites.

Say I walk into Church #1. It’s old, small and run-down. Its congregants are reading the King James and appear to be speaking in code. They are singing things out of dusty hymnals that sound like 19th century poet-speak. The preacher’s anecdotes are peppered with references to a society that no longer exists. That’s one kind of irrelevant.

Now I walk into Church #2. It’s big, organized, youthful and hopping with activity. It’s got a band that plays the kind of music I like. It’s got a speaker who is polished and tells stories about things I can relate to. In fact, he tells me exactly what I want to hear. But in his desire to be modern and relatable, he waters down the word of God so much that I get nothing of spiritual value, and as a result my spirit is starving after a few months watching him perform. That’s another kind of irrelevant. And there are other variants, of course.

Relevant to What and to Whom?

IC: Nice description. I believe you.

You raise an excellent point: there are different kinds of “relevant”. And that reminds us that before jumping to conclusions, we ought to pin down what we’re looking for: “relevant” to what, “relevant” in view of what goals, and “relevant” to whom? These are not idle questions ...

Tom: That’s why I say the term is almost an excuse at times. Not all the time, of course. But I’ve heard it all my life: “My church isn’t relevant”. And what that often means is “My church is telling me I should live a certain way, and I’ve decided I don’t want to do it”, or “My pastor doesn’t preach on the subjects I think are interesting”, when the content of his messages may actually be pretty important to Christian living.

But assuming we’re talking about situations in which the complaint is legitimate — and there are many such cases — I don’t think the example you gave me from Relevant magazine is the answer. Dropping Taylor Swift’s name doesn’t make you cool. Whether or not other people at your church understand “tech etiquette” is not going to be the deciding factor in whether or not you continue attending, is it?

IC: I don’t think so. I think that so long as we don’t get too picky and particular with it, there is such a thing as being “relevant”. A modest definition might be something like, “showing a clear connection between my situation as a Christian and the kinds of things that the Lord would want me to deal with, whether in the church or in the larger world”.

Tom: That’s fair enough.

The Next Step

IC: If we keep the definition at that level, I think it might not be too much to ask that a church should try to be relevant. Is that fair? Or are we still asking something unreasonable of the church?

Tom: Oh, I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all. Are all Christians mature enough to ask that question though? Or are some still wondering what Christianity can do for them? I think that might be why some people feel certain things about their church experience are less relevant than others: they don’t necessarily have a biblical perspective on what salvation involves and what comes after it in the Christian life.

IC: That’s a good point. What’s relevant to the church is what’s relevant to aiding a person in becoming more conformed to the image of God’s Son. It’s not necessarily what’s relevant to his personal interests, or to the political world, or the world of entertainment. But I think that it’s also true that in that process we have to catch people where they are, not at some more advanced point where we would think they ought to be. Relevant ministry or service, then, takes a person from where he or she actually is, and points the next step out. But the direction is always toward the spiritual maturity God intends for us, not toward some goal we want for our own reasons.

Sparkly Baubles

Tom: I certainly agree with you on that. That said, from what I’ve read of the article you linked to, Relevant magazine does not grasp that at all. Their whole emphasis is on telling teenagers how to achieve their own goals. So they reach into modern culture, grab a handful of what they think are sparkly baubles, and wave them in front of the next generation of church teens in the hope of keeping them around when they hit that vulnerable age you mentioned.

Not the way to go, I’m thinking. I’m going to say something heretical here: Sometimes it’s better to let kids go if that’s how they are disposed. The Lord never trotted out his cultural bona fides in the hope of increasing his fan base. He was constantly putting people off who weren’t serious about him. I’m not saying we should be deliberately offensive, but there’s no value in encouraging a pretend-Christian teen to sit in the pews until he or she rots. It’s almost better for them to leave, experience life and find it wanting. That’s my take.

IC: I’ll go with you there. And on the flip side, a mistake we make with young people is not setting sufficient challenges in front of them.

Tom: That’s absolutely right.

Setting Spiritual Benchmarks

IC: I’m talking about inviting them to step up to spiritual benchmarks and achieve things that they can see will take them in the right spiritual direction. They want and need to prove themselves to themselves. If we don’t give them a way of marking their progress forward, how can they see any kind of serving, striving and learning as “relevant” to becoming a mature and approved man or woman of God? They’re more likely to settle back for what’s easy or what’s average: and not much that’s easy and average is relevant to making them spiritual.

Tom: I agree. Find the teens that are serious about Jesus Christ and give them the tools they need to serve him. I believe if we challenge them to step up and identify with the Lord Jesus, there are always a certain number who will do so, and will be thrilled to be dealing in spiritual realities rather than in comfortable platitudes and condescending, parochial fluff.

But there will definitely be people in any local church — and you know this, IC — that will be on your case to water down what you’re doing and make it more accessible to teens that are uninterested, unmotivated and probably unsaved in the hope that you will be able to do something with them that their parents have not.

How do you handle that?

IC: Watering down isn’t something we’re about. Now, reaching down to start someone up from a low place, yes, we’re all about that. But the goal is upward mobility or nothing. If you’re not coming to be challenged, taught, stretched, and developed as a Christian, we’ve got nothing for you … and we shouldn’t have anything for you. That is, if we’re really relevant.

Make sense?

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