Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing of Relevance
Being irrelevant is a bad thing. Screen door companies should not market to submarine manufacturers, and you don’t bring football pads to a nursing home. These things are irrelevant to the stated contexts. Irrelevance is foolishness and wastes time, money and effort. Does this mean that the search for relevance is the wisest and noblest goal for business and churches alike?
What is the danger when we talk about relevance in regard to the church? The danger is an unbiblical understanding of the fallenness of mankind. If you don’t understand the fallenness of man, your pursuit of relevance will fall victim to deceit. Jeremiah 17:9 teaches us that the heart of man is deceitful above all else. This means that pursuits for relevance in the church will normally be full of idolatry booby-traps. For instance, the desire for relevance often means you talk about this subject and avoid that topic because of the perceived relevance to your audience. Churches will do this instead of just preaching what God’s word says, when it says it, and how it says it. Or perhaps the desire for relevance means a church serves this cause or that cause because people think that is where effort should go. This happens instead of churches doing great commission, gospel-spreading activity.
Relevance has everything to do with perception. What do people think they need? What do people think will answer that need? Those kinds of questions are what businesses ask, and because churches start to ask those questions they start to get run like businesses. Business are supremely concerned with relevance because they need customers. Customers are in the driver’s seat because they have the needs and they have the money. If you don’t meet the right need, then you don’t get the money. Businesses should always be innovating, refining their product and business model to address market perceptions, market demand and threat of competitors.
But churches are not businesses. Churches’ great need is not customers (aka attenders), but faithfulness to God and his word. Churches should not…must not… ask what people think they need. Churches must seek what people actually need. Churches don’t do market research to answer that question because fallen people do not want what they actually need. And because fallen people do not want it, they will never think it is relevant.
Instead, churches ask God about what is actually needed. God knows what people actually need and he has told us in his Word: they need God. They need Jesus to give them life through the gospel. They need his illumined Bible for understanding God, themselves, and God’s world. These are the true needs. This means that God’s word and God’s gospel are always relevant. Always. People always need them, people are always changed by them, and the issues that matter are always addressed in them. Churches that are continually seeking relevance are the ones that will become irrelevant. As soon as those churches have zeroed in on something the culture deems relevant, everything shifts as it always does, and those churches are scrambling for relevance once again.
Relevance is always defined for us by God. If it is in the Bible, it is relevant. Let’s run a test case on that statement. Are O.T. food regulations relevant? Yes they are. The skinny-jean gamer college student may not think it is relevant, but thank the Lord he is not the judge of these things. His eternal life and your eternal life depend upon a Savior who came from a precisely defined people (who were to only eat certain foods), and who obeyed a precisely defined law (that regulated food) in order to purchase a salvation that defines everything else. That college student was created to worship even in what he eats and drinks and wears. His soul can only be saved by a promised Savior who came from a certain people who obeyed a certain law in his stead. By learning the O.T. food regulations, he is pointed to a Savior and his worship is deepened by seeing what the Savior did perfectly for him. Therefore, if we go by what a blind and self-driven populace thinks is relevant, then the gospel will be ignored and worship will be stunted and/or defiled.
The push for relevance is often touted by saying the message cannot change but the method must. The problem with this is that the method and the message are intimately tied together. Or as every wise communicator knows: it’s not only what you say, it is also how you say it. Can you do a funeral message with a carnival method? Never. The method must match the message. They must connect and support one another. Making God’s word and the gospel “relevant” by using methods that are trivial, silly, man-exalting, or by using man-centered, worldly elements is not being relevant; it is revealing that you have made the gospel a commodity to market and sell in support of your idolatrous habits.
So where is the place for variance and change? Well, it is first a submissive place. The message and the matching method are preeminent. Perhaps we can say that the secondary peripheral details can change. For instance, we use microphones and computers and email and smartphones. Those things might look like relevance, but really they are only newer means for communication. Having and using a smart phone does not make you relevant any more than a car without an engine is relevant. The engine of relevance is the content. We must ask, “Is the content something that matters?” “Is this a purpose and activity that matters?” A smart phone only matters when it is used for reasons that matter. This demonstrates the need to have “what matters” defined for us. Only God in his Word can determine what truly matters. How something looks and sounds almost never connects to relevancy. If how something looks and sounds really is relevant for someone, that only means what matters to them has been warped by worldly values.
If you are handling God’s word rightly, you are being relevant no matter what anyone says. Can someone handle it poorly? Sure. They may miss the point, ride a hobby horse, insert their own ideas, or a host of other problems. But this is corrected not by a better pursuit of relevance, but by a better pursuit of faithfully interpreting God’s Word. His Word is sufficient, which means it is relevant in the truest sense. Cling to him and his word and you will bear life-impacting fruit. And that is always relevant.