Monday, April 25, 2011

The Adventures of the Post-Relevant Church

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. 


Anonymous said...

Wow! Great comment but I would take it 1000 steps further. I think post relevant means truly adopting new believers by take them into our inner circle, our literal family. Living with Christians and seeing the reality of walking out the challenges of faith is the best way for a new believer to grow. On the periphery I see us having spaces for seekers to live nearby but not in the midst of where they can investigate the life of Christ without having to be in the midst of all the struggles inherent in community. It is really silly to think that church buildings hold any relevance at all. We should live together, worship in our homes, and seek wisdom directly from God through his written word. If one more church building is built I think I will throw up. True growth in our walk with Christ comes from living out the word day by day with those that have made the same commitment and yes, that may mean inviting the homeless person to live with you and your small children and being humble enough to understand that most of the lessons are actually for you and your family. Just sayin...

Charlie Clauss said...

I think this is exactly right. The word (much misused) 'incarnational' jumps to mind. Relevance always has a specific, immediate context - two friends talking, a group meeting together, maybe even a nation at a specific moment in their history.

The Evangelical still has the advantage over the liberal - the liberals ultimately don't believe there is any thing _except_ contecxt. Evangelicals have _resources_ beyond just the context.thunstua

Anonymous said...

Kevin DeYoung's essay "The Secret to Reaching the Next Generation" urges against an emphasis on seeking to be "relevant" or "culturally engaged" with respect to young people.

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