Monday, February 04, 2013

Repost: The Adventures of the Post-Relevant Church

I was looking back through the archives and ran across this piece from April 2011. It was written when I was working for a small parish in Toronto, and I still think it is applicable. I'd love to hear your thoughts.


My wife, Dr. Monique, and I have great conversations. One day recently, as we discussed my recent Contra Factum post on collared evangelism, she said something that jumped out at me: "Welcome to the adventures of the post-relevant church." Wow, what a phrase. It hit precisely the right note.

So, yes, welcome to the adventure.

The evangelicalism that I grew up in was concerned with 'relevance.' We had to make the Gospel relevant to our culture in order to fulfill the great commission. In college, this concern metamorphosed into a preoccupation with 'context.' The context determines everything, we thought, and it even gives us the incentive to frame the Gospel story in completely different ways, even in ways that our fathers and mothers in faith might be unable to recognize. See, for example, the growth of the megachurch movement, or the absence of the cross from many seeker-sensitive churches, or the equation of worship with emotional experience.

What I realized going to seminary is that evangelicals share the concern with relevance with their sworn enemies: the liberals. They both agree that the Gospel has to be translated into a new key in order to be relevant to the world. They only differ on the amount of 'translation' they are comfortable with.

The problem is that neither camp has done relevance well. When you step back from both the evangelical and liberal attempts to contextualize the Gospel and really look at them, you can see how severely dated they always already are. We in the churches are always find ourselves about 15-30 years behind the curve. That curve is being established in the classrooms of Ivy League universities and the halls of power, not in the Christian popular press.

The crux of the issue is that 'context' and 'culture' are moving targets. By the time that we can publish the book on being relevant to the culture, it has already moved on. As soon as we think we've become relevant, we find ourselves irrelevant again because that to which we calibrated ourselves has already changed.

So what are we left with? An adventure: the adventure of the post-relevant church. We have to stop allowing our churches to act like self-obsessed teenagers; instead, we need to embrace the fact that context just happens. It happens every moment of every day, and it is only in the faithful response to the context in which we actually find ourselves (not in the context imagined for us by the think-tank in Michigan) that the real adventure happens.

We can't catch up with the culture. All we can really do, as Andy Crouch says, is be culture-makers ourselves. Our work is to create a context, to create a space in which God may be found, and to invite others into it in order that they might become relevant to it and therefore relevant to God. (This is the meaning of Baptism, is it not?) In other words, we can only be relevant by being a little strange, by keeping our own council, and by showing hospitality to people who find that the Gospel we proclaim is the scent of life and not the stench of death.

What does the post-relevant church look like? I don't know yet. I think it will probably look different everywhere that faithful men and woman struggle to fashion themselves in the image and likeness of Christ. For me, I think this will mean wearing a collar, introducing myself to strangers, and inviting our parish's neighbours into the life of Christ's Church through Baptism. It will mean talking about sin and grace and encouraging active participation in the sacramental life. It will mean forgetting about myself for a while and just allowing the church where I find myself to be the church that it is ... and the church that it will become. In other words, this is un-self-conscious Christianity, unconcerned with 'relevance,' just concerned with being alive in Christ wherever he has put us.

In this adventure of the post-relevant church, I think we will find that relevance, like context, just happens. 

2 comments:

Eva said...

Jason, I remember reading this post back in 2011 and being impacted then. Your words are still true, shocking me into a reality that I often forget exists in my hum drum little life. Thanks!

Jason Ingalls said...

Thanks, Eva. I doubt your life is hum drum, but I appreciate your words.

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