The Peace and Love Hippie Hostel is one of Paris’ most budget-friendly, a dingy sanctuary for under-showered backpackers. It was there that I met Derrick. Derrick didn’t believe in organized religion. Derrick didn’t believe in unorganized religion. He didn’t believe in God, holy books, or that there was any transcendent meaning to the human story. Derrick believed in Marijuana, and that Marijuana alone gave life meaning. One factor that drove Derrick to find meaning in chemicals rather than Christ was, quite frankly, Christ’s people—the church. In Derrick’s own words, “Whatever the world can do, Christians can do ten years later and worse.” He went on to cite Christian music, movies, literature, and church trends that struck him as derivative, contrived, inauthentic, shallow, and kitsch. The version of life’s meaning coming from the Christian mainstream seemed utterly irrelevant to Derrick. The big irony was how so many of these Christian endeavors were aimed precisely at being relevant to guys like Derrick. The harder the church tried to be relevant, the more irrelevant she became.
There’s something about achieving irrelevance in our quest for relevance that is just so typically human. We find our efforts achieving opposite results at every turn. The harder we try to achieve happiness, spending all our time and energy making our three best friends—Me, Myself, and I—happy, the more dismally unhappy we become. The harder we try to fit in, the more we feel self-conscious and out-of-place. The more bent we are on creating a utopian heaven-on-earth, the more hell-on-earth we unleash. The Bible is full of this upside down logic. Cling to your own life and you will lose yourself. Lift yourself up and you will end up low. Seek first place and you will finish last. Human logic says “To move forward push the gas pedal to the floor.” Divine logic reminds us that, although we are moving full speed, the transmission is in reverse. The self-clingers lose themselves, the prideful end up humbled, those jostling to be first end last, and, now it seems, those trying the hardest to be relevant end up most irrelevant.
The Relevance Question
Behind this irony lies a question that is both good and dangerous. It is what we may call the “Relevance Question,” which asks: What would it look like for us, as believers, to be relevant to unbelievers? We don’t want the Derricks of the world to see us as a quirky tribe of xenophobes. We don’t want to look crazy and cultic to outsiders. So in answering the Relevance Question we usually come up with a projection of what we think those unbelievers out there are like. Once we think we’ve got a good grip on the tastes and preferences of our unbelieving target demographic, we take the Relevance Question further: we reinvent how we do Christianity so that what we’re selling coincides with what they’re buying. As perceived demand shapes what we supply, innovative church models begin to emerge. We exodus from the old and dead to the new and vibrant. We re-infuse the story of Christian meaning with fresh power. We make Jesus relevant again.
Or do we?
Not according to Derrick and the many like him. Many end up feeling patronized and put-in-a-box. Even more tragically, they see Jesus as little more than another product for comfort and convenience. Why? Because we have manufactured a messiah no more worthy of worship than the latest luxury sedan or smart phone. With the Relevance Question as the first step in our journey, our final destination is irrelevance.
Sure God is big enough to make Himself relevant even when we are at our most irrelevant. Sure the Relevance Question has its place (e.g., Paul didn’t speak Hebrew on Mars Hill or cite the Stoic philosophers in the synagogues). The Relevance Question is a good question; it is just not to be the first question. When relevance is our first priority we end up powered not by the Spirit of Christ, but the spirit of the age. There is a more fundamental question we must face squarely together. Before asking what relevance looks like to this or that culture (or subculture), we must first ask “Who is the Jesus we exist to worshipfully reflect with our lives?” Let us call this the “Reflection Question.” Much of the tragicomedy of today’s church, the irrelevance of a movement waving the banner of relevance, can be traced to our allowing the Relevance Question to trump the Reflection Question.
When Relevance Trumps Reflection
I briefly highlight four effects of putting the Relevance Question ahead of the Reflection question:
1. We alienate anyone who doesn’t fit the bill. If we start with a drive to be relevant to postmoderns, then we become instantly irrelevant to anyone who still puts faith in science, still values logical propositions, or holds out hope for objective truth. If we assume that postmodernism is in the oval office of ideas in Western culture (and that’s debatable), there are still protesters in the streets who voted for the other guy. That’s not to mention people who couldn’t care less about modernism or postmodernism. Don’t all these people need the Gospel too?
2. We play a never-ending game of follow the leader. Like every other “ism” created by human minds, postmodernism’s days are numbered. One day the polls will come in and some new “ism” will be sworn into office—post-postmodernism. Eventually we will realize that our postmodern church is yesterday’s news, ask the Relevance Question all over again, and dream up a post-postmodern church. In this train-of-thought, the church has made herself the caboose, always trailing distantly behind culture. What’s even more of a problem is that culture itself has become the engine, pulling the church caboose along. Shouldn’t Jesus be our engine, and His Word the tracks we follow into the future?
3. We present a torn portrait of Jesus to the world. Postmoderns, so we are told, value the image over the word, narrative over prose, poetry over math, mystery over certainty, questions over answers, the relational over the rational. So the relevance-driven church follows suit. If post-postmodernism one day swings the pendulum back toward reason and objectivity, then what happens to the relevance-driven church? She packs her candles and icons in storage, swaps out story-telling time with serious study time, and replaces open questions with closed answers. Yet Christ is simultaneously relational and rational. He used stories and prose, words and images, mysteries and certainties, questions and answers. When we begin with the Relevance Question, we allow cultural trends to determine which few aspects of our multidimensional Christ the church expresses. Shouldn’t we be displaying a wider spectrum of Jesus’ radiance to the watching world?
4. We lose sight of the chief end of everything. The chief end not only of man, but of everything—waterfalls, education, subatomic particles, romance, art, science, food, sex, sleep, golfing, parenting, mountains, humor, tears, etc.— is to glorify God. Driven by the conviction that “the aim and final end of all music is none other than the glory of God” Johann Sebastian Bach created some of the most original, powerful, and beautiful music ever composed. Imagine, however, if he saw the “aim and final end of all music” as being relevant to a culture that likes music. What if the primary factor determining where Bach’s dots fell on the score sheet was not glorifying an infinite Being, but merely making something that people would like? Do you think that his music would have been as powerful? Me neither. When we put the Relevance Question first, yes, we will make art (if that’s what people want, of course). But there is a profound difference between the art motivated by adoration for God and that motivated by the approval of people. Anyone who has listened to both Handel’s Messiah and the latest Christian music mega-hit knows what I mean. Shouldn’t worship be the deepest motive behind every thought we think, word we speak, and sound we make?
Becoming Truly Seeker-Sensitive
In sum: live a life of authentic reverence for Jesus and you become relevant to the watching world. Live your life to become relevant and you become both irreverent to Jesus and irrelevant to the watching world. Let me say again, the Relevance Question is a good question, it is just not to be the first question. Before we ruminate on how to reach seekers, we must focus on how to revere the Great Seeker, the God who seeks worshippers who worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). Christians exist to “ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name” (Ps. 96:8a). You exist “to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:12b, 14b), “so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you” (2 Thes. 1:12a), that your life and mine would shout together Paul’s anthem “to Him be glory forever” (Rom. 11:36b)!