What Is Truly "Relevant", Anyway?


Relevance is a shifting notion that ebbs and flows with our lives and with the people we walk alongside. How can we stop obsessing about relevance and start engaging with people?

Church attendance in the U.S. is on a downslope. Researchers like George Barna point out that while growth happens, in most cases a booming new church on the corner means a congregation down the street is closing up shop. Leaders wonder what it will take to flip this trend, with many tossing around solutions that include words like "relevant."

Webster defines relevant as “having significance to the matter at hand.” I know, still vague. For some this significance means adjusting music, wardrobe, sermon style or church location. When I lived in Colorado significance meant mid-week worship so outdoor enthusiasts could disappear into the back country for a whole weekend.

For others significance means candles or liturgy, homeless shelters or social justice. Or perhaps, videos, hair gel and Rob Bell glasses. But ultimately, each community must discover for itself what God has deemed relevant to the matters he has placed in its hands. I find my proverbial feathers ruffled when I hear leaders prescribe overarching fixes for the church universal; leaders who wax eloquent about how exactly we all should rise from our slumber.

Here’s the list I typically hear: stay fashionably detached, rally around flashy justice issues, wear vintage t-shirts highlighting those issues, hang out in local coffee shops, lament the church every chance you get and always vote in a particular direction.

Now I don’t have a problem with any of these issues. I support global micro-enterprise, advocate for those in need and drink plenty of local coffee. I even sport my own t-shirt or two on occasion and believe justice is a mandate from God, not an option.

What I am adamantly against is the prevailing ethos that says a thoughtful and relevant leader must be about these pursuits, especially since Jesus does not strike me as overly trendy. And while he prescribed universal fixes for our world (justice, love, mercy), the manner in which he carried these out varied depending on his context.

Back to Webster. To be relevant is to have significance to the matter at hand. Frankly, not every matter is as sexy to the world as the list above. When we pastor and lead the elderly, relevance may look different. The “matters at hand” are aging with grace and leaving a legacy. Relevance when my grandmother passed was sitting at her bedside listening to Benny Goodman. When the matter at hand is holding a dying infant or comforting a family who lost a child, no one really cares how you voted or if your coffee is Fair Trade Certified; they want to know that you will listen.

Relevance is a shifting notion that ebbs and flows with our lives and the people we walk alongside. No longer does it make sense to offer sweeping prescriptions for what makes a church relevant. Rather than chase the trends of national leaders perhaps we should simply engage with the matters at hand—the lives God places before us each day. And if we relish these lives, obsessing over their well-being rather than a trend, we may just find ourselves utterly and indescribably relevant indeed.

Written by Tracey Bianchi

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