Tag Archive for relevance

Relevance and Importance

When some people speak of “making Christianity relevant”, they are referring to demonstrating Christianity’s importance and applicability. They fret over the fact that unbelievers and the wider culture dismiss Christianity and religion so easily. Secularism provides people with enough food, shelter, conveniences, comforts and sufficient diversionary amusements to keep them morally anesthetised from the pain of contemplating ultimate questions. Today’s secularist finds it all too easy to ignore questions of eternity and Christ, an attitude which was less common to previous generations who felt their mortality more acutely. When noticing the disturbing ease with which unbelievers ignore God, some Christians feel that ‘the church has become largely irrelevant’ and that it must ‘establish its credibility and demonstrate its relevance to unbelievers’.

Here is a jumble of truth and error. On the one hand, it is clearly true that few ages in world history have possessed such irreligious attitudes. Today, you can grow up in a secular culture and live most of your life feeling that religion is a strange practice performed by strange people. It’s undeniable that the average secular unbeliever does not see how church, Scripture, or worship is germane to his life. In that sense, the things of God indeed seem irrelevant to him.

On the other hand, the Bible explains this phenomenon. It does not say that the fault is with the church for failing to contextualise the Gospel adequately by adopting every available cultural form to clothe the Gospel in. Instead, it describes human beings as intractably set against the lordship of God. Romans 1:19 explains that the knowledge of God is part of created human nature. John Calvin put it this way, “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty.”

What does man do with this knowledge? Verse 18 tells us. He suppresses it. What dictators do with bad press is what the human heart does with continual evidence that God is, and God is a judge. Secularism just makes it easier for people to do what they have always preferred to do: ignore God.

In other words, the problem is not that an unbeliever cannot see how Christianity is relevant to him, because of some inadequacy in Christianity or its evangelism. The problem is that a man cannot see Christianity’s relevance after deciding that he will not see its relevance. This is a willful overlooking (2 Pet 3:5), a chosen rejection, and a blindness by shutting one’s eyes. And if this natural, stubborn blindness isn’t enough, Satan compounds this with added blindness (2 Cor 4:4).

When a man is blind, we don’t speak of making potentially dangerous obstacles in his path relevant to him. They are relevant to him! Given his propensity to injure himself by walking into them, nothing could be more germane, important, applicable or relevant to him than those obstacles. A neighbourly thing to do would be to tell the blind man what he’s about to walk into.

Christianity does not have to be made relevant. It is relevant. Nothing is more relevant to a creature made in God’s image than his standing before his Creator. Matters of life, death, eternity, goodness, evil, justice, and the soul are relevant to every man. Christians cannot make these things more relevant to a man than they are. We can only speak of them clearly, and live soberly and righteously in this present age. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can change one’s perception of the message from foolishness to wisdom (1 Cor 1:18).

Having said that, there are ways that the church can make the message of the Gospel seem less relevant. When it clothes its message in trendy slogans and commercial schtick, it appears as if it is one more product being marketed. When it uses entertainments and amusements to create interest, it appears as if its message is weak and in need of marketing props. When it tries to appear wise and noble in the world’s eyes (or cool, hip, trendy, sick, whatever the word), it appears as if it is a sycophant of the world, limping between two loyalties. All of this shouts louder than words can say, “Yes, unbeliever, your dismissal of God is justified and normal! We, too, are bored with the plain Gospel! But look! We have some shiny attractions which we’ll give you, if you deign to patronise us with your attention!” Instead of confronting the believer with his moral rejection of God, we treat his sin as natural and normal, and beg him to come for other reasons. Christianity does not become less relevant when Christians act this way, but it does compound the problem by giving unbelievers even more hardness to their hard hearts.  The unbeliever intuits, “The Christian doth protest too much.” Such ways and words do not sound much like Paul:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. (Rom. 1:16)

Relevant or Current?

When some people speak of the importance of relevance, they don’t mean relevance at all. After all, relevant, strictly speaking, merely means ‘pertinent to the matter at hand’. Relevance needs an object: relevant to whom or what matter?, we may ask.

The fact that some people use the word relevant as a quality not requiring modification demonstrates that they really mean something else by it. One particular usage is perhaps the most common: describing whatever is current as ‘relevant’. If something is current, it could have several qualities. It could be something currently in use. It could mean it is a new development. It could mean it is fashionable, trendy, en vogue. It could mean it has been adopted by the youth, the trend-setters, the celebrities (those famous for being famous). Yet all of these share one unquestioned value in the minds of the relevance-devotees: novelty is good.

Ours is a world where “new!” on the product’s packaging boosts sales. “Brand new season” is supposed to invite wide-eyed excitement. “Never before seen” is a moniker of greatness. We check our phones for updates hourly. This is the age where the new is true, and the true is new. Only the recent is decent.

We shouldn’t be surprised. If Darwinism is true, then the latest development is always the most advanced. If science is man’s saviour, then the newest gadget is necessarily the best. In such a world, you are permitted to say these words with a sneering disdain: old, tradition, custom.

Actually, the logic behind equating relevant with current contains three premises.
1) We need to bring practical value to this world.
2) What is of practical value to this generation must be current.
3) We are only relevant to the degree we are current.

With some qualification, the first premise is hardly objectionable. The second is the most problematic, but it represents the spirit of the age. Our culture practises chronological snobbery, a term coined by C.S. Lewis and defined by him as, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

Lewis goes on: “You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

The Christian view of reality has no partiality toward the current age. The fifth commandment itself, in commanding reverence and obedience to parents, is implicitly demanding respect for the past: honouring the accumulated wisdom of one’s parents gained in the decades they are in advance of you. And to be sure, their wisdom was not self-taught, but came from their parents, who received some from theirs, so that we find the command to honour one’s immediate parents is really a command to honour one’s ancestors. God’s people were even to honour ancient landmarks, to rise in the presence of the aged, to regard the gray head as a sign of gathered wisdom. So convinced were the Jewish people of the value of tradition, that Christ had to confront them with their unwarranted obedience to man-made traditions. This seems a far cry from modern evangelicalism, with its anti-traditional tradition. At least we can say that enough Christian voices are out there reminding believers that a church with no understanding of the past is amnesiac.

While no Christian would argue the importance of bringing value to the world, a Christian steeped in Scripture recognises the difference between what is permanent and what is current. Permanent things may or may not be currently popular (2 Timothy 4:2-4). But what is true, good, and beautiful is permanently pertinent to the life and well-being of a creature made in God’s image. Something current, on the other hand, may be one of countless spasmodic experiments in novelty that a godless culture will produce. The church that weds itself to a particular generation finds itself a widow in the next. Nothing is as irrelevant as a trendy church.

Those who build with gold, silver, and precious stones, are permanently relevant. Those enamoured with the wood, hay and stubble of the fashions of the day, may find little is left of their ministry at the Judgement Seat of Christ.

Ten Mangled Words – “Relevant”

Perhaps one of the great put-downs today is to be told that your church is not relevant, or that your preaching is not relevant to “the issues people are facing”. Being called irrelevant cuts a little deeper than being called intolerant; for if you’re cited for being intolerant, it merely means your teaching may have hit a nerve, whereas being called irrelevant is to be dismissed as useless, with a casual wave of the hand. We can handle having opponents to our view; being sloughed off as redundant is harder to stomach.

But as we keep listening, we soon realise that the word relevant has near-infinite flexibility in the minds of its abusers. Some mean something like “current”. Something is relevant if it represents what is novel, or contemporary. Relevance means something like what is currently being said, done, or used. Promoters of this meaning of relevance have a snobbish disdain for anything older than, say, the year of their birth. What’s new is true, what’s true is new, and therefore whatever is familiar is what is relevant.

Others, when speaking of relevance, have a vague notion of a something like importance, or value. Relevance is a measure of importance, even of urgency. Something is relevant if it has enough weight or force to merit attention, and if something is irrelevant, then it no longer carries the weight to demand our attention.

For others, relevance carries the idea of practical value. Something’s relevance is measured in terms of tangible effects and results. If it can achieve whatever end was set out for it, then it is relevant, and if not, it’s simply irrelevant. Similar to this, some think of relevance as intelligibility. If it seems too cerebral and abstract, it becomes, to them, irrelevant.

Still others think of relevance in terms of notoriety. If one has celebrity status (famous for being famous), thousands of followers, or some kind of fame, then one has consequent relevance. By implication, the anonymous and little-known must be, well, irrelevant. What is widely known is often widely loved, and so whatever is relevant must simultaneously be appealing to as many people as possible.

Smuggled into this mangled use of ‘relevant’ are a lot of assumptions. One is that the chief end of man is to appeal to his current generation’s lusts and appetites. A second is that the dead have nothing valuable to say to the living, and that the current generation represents the furthest man has come and the best he can be. A third is that if we focus mostly on means, the ends will take care of themselves, that instruments are more important than ideals. A fourth is that fame and power are forms of value that are necessary to a life of eternal significance.

These, and others, will be our delightful duty to demolish, to restore a sane and thoughtful use of the word relevance.