Thursday, January 10, 2013

Chasing Relevancy to Irrelevance?

Hey, all y'all fellow evangelicals:

You know how our Christian culture is supposed to be "relevant" and all that?

Well, how's that "relevance" schtick workin' out for ya?

Remember back in the 1980's and 1990's, when the contemporary Christian music movement washed through North American evangelicalism?  The focus was on changes in music style, but we also got big PowerPoint screens and fancy slides, kitschy skits and props, worship teams instead of choirs, dark warehouses instead of bright sanctuaries, parking lot attendants, and outlandishly lavish theme parks instead of children's ministries.

We had to be relevant to reach our culture.  We had to mimic our culture in every way possible without compromising the basics of our faith.  We had to attract, win, relate to, copy, woo, change, refocus, shift our paradigms, be like a business, deploy savvy marketing, know our consumer, and break the Bible down into clever sound bites.

It was a lot of work, it made a lot of long-time churchgoers mad, and it dumbed-down a lot of theology.  But we were told it was all worth it.

Well, was it?

You tell me.  Today, it was announced that for all practical purposes, the Obama inauguration committee had pulled the plug on evangelical pastor Louie Giglio and their invite to have him give the benediction at this month's grand event.

Apparently, somebody dug up an old audiotape in which Giglio was preaching about homosexuality as a sin.  Increasingly, public sentiment is turning against anything that they think compromises an inclusive, non-absolutist, "everyone right in their own eyes" paradigm.  Giglio may be hip and happenin', but all that style means little these days if he's also trying to claim traditional moral standards.  Some evangelicals are publicly pouting that the president's team is doing an about-face to save face with one of its aggressive constituencies, but why the surprise that worldly values are conflicting with God's?  Have we stumbled into the last stop on this relevancy train?

Hey, both liberals and conservatives pounce on people they don't like, and root around in their forgotten closets until they find some skeleton they can trot out as representative of all that's wrong with that person.  But even if you didn't like the tone of Giglio's sermon, was he wrong in his basic message?

Obama and his inauguration committee believe he is.  So he's out.  To his credit, Giglio is willing to let his principles stand on their own merit.  Which are God's merits, anyway.  And they don't need to be "relevant" to be right, do they?

Meanwhile, wasn't all that relevancy stuff two decades ago supposed to help us avoid messes like this?  In addition to Obama's latest snub of orthodox Christian theology, consider our nation's overall reaction to the mass shootings in Newtown and Aurora, in which guns are popularly targeted for blame, instead of personal responsibility.  Consider New York State's governor Andrew Cuomo, and his call for stripping any last vestige of legal and administrative wording or conditions implying anything immoral about abortion from the state's "health" laws.  Consider how censorship on the Internet is being applied disproportionately to religious content with relative impunity in the United States.

Maybe being "relevant" has worked for evangelicals who championed relevancy as a reason to change why we do church.  Maybe if we weren't so relevant today, our country would be in even worse shape than it is.

Alternatively, however, might we have become so relevant, we now have as much integrity as everybody else?  That wouldn't be a good thing, would it?  Have we stooped so low to meet our culture, we've lost our credibility?  We've got rock music in church now, but does any unchurched person really care?

What have we done for our country lately, besides meeting it where it is - on the slippery slope to irrelevance?  We complain about the poor, and we complain about Social Security for widows.  We bemoan one-parent families, yet divorce* at almost the same rate as the unchurched, and let our political talking heads vilify women who get abortions.  We scoff at environmentalism and insist we have the right to waste and destroy God's creation.  We hoard instead of share.  And we dismiss every single person who calls us on the carpet for these sins as a leftist liberal, as if the truth is relative, which we claim it is not.

In our push for relevance, doesn't it look like we're on the verge of becoming irrelevant?  If you work really hard to look like the culture around you, what's there to distinguish you when you blend in?  By trying to match our culture, did we take our eyes off of our true mission:  honoring God?

Not that hymns, choirs, stained glass windows, and flannel graphs instead of videos in Sunday School would have won our country for Christ.  To the extent that we rely on gimmicks instead of the Holy Spirit, we short-change our country whether its by traditional or contemporary styles.  Unsaved people don't truly care whether your pastor wears a suit and tie while preaching.  They want to see what you truly believe - especially when you're not listening to somebody's sermon, or "talk," or whatever it's called these days.

We're taught to think that the opposite of "relevance" is "irrelevance."  Paradoxically, however, trying to be relevant can make one irrelevant.  At least, judging by how society seems to be shunting us off into the margins of our cultural discourse.

Turns out, we're really supposed to be pleasing God after all, aren't we?  Not the people around us.

We can be disappointed by Obama's jilting of Giglio.  But we shouldn't be surprised.  Especially if it means our honor of God is what the world is spurning.

*Don't fall for Focus on the Family's funny math on this subject.


  1. Gentile believers didn't have to abandon their roots and become Jewish in order to become followers of Christ.

    People of Mayan origin in Mexico and Guatemala don't have to abandon their roots and become Hispanics in order to become followers of Christ.

    'Relevance' isn't entirely wrong. (I'm not sure you're saying it is.) But if we let it direct our convictions to the point that we are allowing 'the world around us to squeeze us into its own mold' (Romans 12:2 JBP) we cease to be a 'peculiar people' with a clear message.

    1. Yes, thank you, David - it's that many churches have put more effort in being relevant than preaching the whole Gospel. Obviously, it's not relevancy that's the problem, but our slavery to it. God expects us to be different, so we shouldn't care how odd we may appear, especially as the society around us continues to degenerate.


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