Relevant Relevance

[caption id="attachment_1410" align="alignleft" width="232"] The Avett Brothers are relevant to my "Maken' Supper" playlist.[/caption]

The word relevant is being used pretty selfishly these days when it comes to the church and its teachings. People have become so individualized with their “faith” that they either stop coming to church altogether, or they shop for the one that best meets their own perceived needs and preferences.

This word relevant may be better suited for a magazine title than the reason we attend a certain church.

The Matter at Hand

The definition of relevant is: “having a bearing on or connection with the matter at hand.” When it comes to church, what is the matter at hand? The matter at hand should be the covenant renewal ceremony of God’s people. The climax of this ceremony is the preached word.

Unfortunately, when the word relevant is used for church, the matter at hand is usually a reference to an individual’s life--is it relevant to me? And so, when we accuse a church of not being relevant, we mean that there are not enough messages about my struggles in work, marriage, sexuality, and finances. We mean that the music is so 19th century. Maybe we want it updated to the 21st century; or maybe we want it more like the 5th century. Either way, the matter at hand is what will get me out of bed on Sunday morning.

Relevant Church

Should the church cater to these whims of preference in worship? Is the matter at hand the potential types of people walking through their doors, or is it faithfulness to the Word of God? What shapes our worship service?

In her essay The Dogma is the Drama, Dorothy Sayers confidently asserts:

Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much worse for the pious—others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of being offended at something that is not Christ and nothing like him? We do him singularly little honor by watering down his personality till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is  not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ (Letters to a Diminished Church, 20,21)

That is the matter at hand! Do you see--Christ is everything?! He has made it possible for us to gather together—chosen in him, redeemed by him, called, justified,  and set apart to become like him! We are “called out” (ekklesia) of the world at the beginning of the week to receive a foretaste of our inheritance. Through the means of grace that God has ordained, he is making us like Christ! A church that is faithful to the true drama of worship not only gets me out of bed, but has me looking forward to next Sunday.

Relevant Bible Study

One workshop I attended at the TGC Women’s Conference was titled “Word-Based Ministry to Women,” given by Nancy Guthrie. She made a point that really stuck with me: expect the Word to do its work. Often in a small group Bible Study, there will be times when someone comes in burdened by the circumstances in their life. We are tempted then to put aside the lesson to minister to this hurting person. Guthrie challenged our own arrogance in setting aside the study of God’s Word, substituting advice and comforting for Word-based ministry. We surely should take a moment to pray for this hurting person. But is their situation more relevant than the Word of God, which is the point of the small group study?

Guthrie went so far as to share a personal example. After she discovered that she was pregnant with her second child affected by a fatal genetic disease, she didn’t even feel like going to her Bible study. But she went. God’s Word spoke directly to her heart. That particular lesson wasn’t about losing a child, but it was exactly what she needed to hear. As God’s Word ministered to her that day, Guthrie was able to tell us years later how thankful she is that her teacher didn’t set aside the lesson to “minister” to her.

Sure there are times for meeting together just for fellowship and meeting one another’s needs. But we should never substitute time that is set aside for Bible study to use our own methods of comfort.

So when we use the word relevant, we need to make sure that we are clear on the matter at hand.

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10 Comments

One attends a house of God to

One attends a house of God to commune more openly with God and the people of God. Where both are missing there can be no attendance by the children of God, only nominal Christianity filling the pews.

The emphasis upon bringing God back into His own house is something missed today, amidst so much superfluous speaking, few actually understanding that God is not present in the vast majority of houses that make profess of Him, houses that continually nail Christ to a cross, a cross that cannot provide salvation, as the cross represents a work in progress, rather than work complete, which viewing Christ in heaven is work complete, and where all eyes should be focused.

I think there is a growing

I think there is a growing tribe of us for whom the words "relevant" and "practical" when used in the context of church is like fingernails on a blackboard. I think you are exactly right when you say that it's code for "what can it do for ME?"

I've written several posts about this very thing and had to explain to people why my antenna immediately goes up when I see this word on a church website.

May our tribe increase :)

if Jesus is at the center of

if Jesus is at the center of a relationship, that’s all the “relevance” we really need.

Awesome, Alisa!

I was just talking with a

I was just talking with a friend about this concept! In the context of community, Gospel-centered is really the way that "needs" are going to be met. So often even in friendships we seek relevance...rather than relying on the Gospel and the work of the Spirit to minister to us we seek out what we perceive will be the best.

When I got married I became extremely conscious/careful of sharing about my marriage struggles with my single friends because I didn't want to cause them to struggle. While I also needed some re-analysis of my assumptions in this area, it taught me that God could still work through my single friends to teach me about marriage (insert any other example). That's because what we talked about was the Gospel. I saw my sin in the context of a need for Jesus rather than specific to life as a wife. Is it bad to seek married couples for learning/guidance? Of course not. But if Jesus is at the center of a relationship, that's all the "relevance" we really need. We can trust that God will work through it to bring clarity to more specific situations.

I really enjoy the discussion here. Thanks for writing such thought-provoking posts!

Great reflections, Tim. I

Great reflections, Tim. I think your example also makes a good point about how we need to trust in God's timing with the work that his Word does on our hearts and minds. We want the magic words that will immediately make us feel better. But God works to actually change us through the process.

What a relevant post, Aimee!

What a relevant post, Aimee! (Sorry, couldn't resist.) You prompted me to google for whether there is a church called Relevant here in my state and, as I suspected, there's more than one. Here is an excerpt from the website of one of those churches, and it falls right in line with what you've identified:

There is a need for a new kind of church in ___________. There is a need for a church to be relevant, not religious. A need for a church to be relevant in the community, relevant in relationships with people, relevant in their message, and relevant in their form of worship. It is our purpose to start a new church that will help bring Christ’s life and joy to the young and young at heart in _______________ and beyond. ... Today, there is a large number of people who don’t see a need for church and/or can’t relate to it in any way.

It's all about community relevance, relationship relevance, message relvance and worship relevance, but not for the old or those who just feel old. This attracts people based on how they perceive themselves and what they can get out of that church. What happens when people have new needs but the church doesn't meet those new needs, or see themselves differently and the church does not seek to include their group? The church is no longer relevant to those people and they stop coming? As you say, if instead the church is all about Christ then there is no issue with shifting needs, shifting perceptions and shifting relevancies (or with shifting sand, some might say).

Guthrie's call to expect God's word to do it's work is sound because Jesus is the Word, so the Bible is the expression of Jesus. I remember years ago one morning at Bible study, much like she described. Our son had been through quite a health scare and I was feeling overwhelmed that morning. When we got into small groups I broke down as I related what was going on. The group leader led prayer for my son and then led the study of God's word. I remember thinking at the time that what I wanted was not study but more ministry to my need. I realize now that what I needed was time in God's word with those gathered together that morning.

Sorry that this got long. Not sorry that you made me think so much!

Tim

I'm with Melissa! Amen! The

I'm with Melissa! Amen! The word "relevant" is one of those really good words that has simply been comandeered and drained of its effect.

Let the Word do its

Let the Word do its work...YES and AMEN!

LOVE this article! I remember

LOVE this article! I remember you sharing this w/me after your workshop w/Guthrie at the conference ...thanks for bringing it back to my attention! " Expect the Word to do its work" ... so true and yet, sometimes, we tend to think what we have to say is "more relevant". Nothing takes the place of God's Word!