I’ve been thinking lately. About things. You know, nothing really important, just stuff like Relevance in the church and how it affects people, Christian and non-Christian. Yes, I know I could have been thinking about more important things, like the impending release of Jeremy Camp’s doomsday machine new album, or the death of Anna Nicole Smith’s son, but unfortunately, my mind just isn’t strong enough to spend its energy contemplating such heavy topics.
So I started thinking about Relevance, and asking myself some rather inane questions. Questions like:
“Do more people really come to Christ as a result of our naming sermons after reality TV shows?”
“How many Southerners can be converted in one day by comparing Christianity to a NASCAR race?” (Because you know, Jesus Christ is our driver, and the angels are his pit crew, and we’d never be able to go this fast without God)
So… seriously, what good is this sort of Relevance doing us? Are we doing any good by seeking to make God’s Word “accessible,” as though the last fifty years have rendered the message of the Bible obsolete after thousands of years of it being relevant on its own? Is Relevance really worth all the effort we put into it?
My answer is… well, no. At least, that sort of Relevance isn’t worth it. But let’s talk a bit about what Relevance really is.
When we speak of making something “relevant,” we usually mean we are making it understandable and applicable to some user or recipient. Therefore, when we speak of Relevance in the church, we are seeking to do one of two things: We are either trying to make the church relevant to people’s lives, or we are trying to make the church’s message relevant to people’s lives. One of these goals is quite alright, and even admirable, but the other is nothing short of destructive. Can you tell which is which?
The church itself is the body of Christ, and it has always been our job to be relevant. That is why Jesus said we are “salt” and “light;” we exist to be applied to the lives of others, that they might come to know of the salvation that has been freely offered to them. We in the Church are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and if we do that, we will always be relevant.
On the other hand, making the church’s message more relevant to people’s lives is nowhere in a Christian’s job description. We have no obligation (and furthermore, no authority) to tamper with God’s message; yes, it may be 2006, but the Kingdom of God is still like a mustard seed. There is no need to include an uninspired sports analogy (complete with a powerpoint picture of Muhammad Ali) in the message to keep the masses interested in what you have to say.
But what, specifically, is wrong with illustration-laden sermons about the Ten Commandments and the rules of Baseball? I would suggest that the problem lies in the fact that adding something extra to the message implies that the Word of God itself is insufficient. Would any of us say that the revelation of man’s depravity through sin and the revelation of his salvation through Christ is less relevant today than it was two thousand years go? Perhaps technology has progressed a great deal since then, but man’s spiritual state has stayed the same, as has his perception of it. The simple fact that we have sports, movies and television in this day and age doesn’t mean that our understanding of all things spiritual is based out of Monday Night Football and Survivor.
Of course, I’m very much in favor of the use of metaphors and illustrations to help people understand the Gospel or difficult-to-grasp theological concepts. It seems to me, though, that there is a difference between the use of analogies to help people understand a point, and the hijacking of some part of popular culture to keep people’s attention. As limited as our minds are, we often need the aid of some example or illustration to help us understand something that is foreign to us, and for such purposes, an illustration is fine. However, when the purpose of an illustration is simply to cater to whatever people happen to be interested in at the moment in hopes that it will hold their attention, it detracts from the timeless quality of the message of depravity, sin, grace and salvation.
We must not pretend that pop culture references can do the Gospel justice. Pop culture is merely a set of passing trends, as shallow as it is pervasive, and there is not a person on the face of the earth who can only understand a lesson if it is taught in terms of that culture. If there were, then surely the curriculum in public schools would have been altered beyond recognition by now to accommodate those individuals. But the simple fact is that people are more capable of learning and understanding the Gospel than the Church wants to give them credit for. They need not be enticed by some cheesy ripoff of a reality television show in order to become interested in the condition or eternal destination of their spirit.
And now, someone objects…
“Oh, but surely you are mistaken… We should be using every means we have to reach the world with the Gospel, or to teach Christians how to live! If reality TV is what gets people’s attention, we should use it! We should be all things to all men, you know..”
Right. The problem is that people, as inconveniently smart as they are, can tell when they’re being baited. To be all things to all men is to understand the culture, and to let the message we bring influence the way we live our lives, not to let the culture influence our message. It is the difference between Paul saying on Mars’ Hill “It is this unknown God I proclaim to you,” and “I proclaim to you a God that is pretty much like your gods, only cooler!”
This is the danger of Relevance, that we seek to make God understood in terms of something that is superficial and passing –an impossible feat– rather than causing the superficial to be understood in terms of a God who never changes and a grace that runs deeper than we could ever understand. Yes, it’s fine to use examples, analogies and illustrations to further our understanding of Scripture, but when the use of such illustrations is favored over the simple teaching of God’s Word, something is out of balance. No matter how we teach it, we can’t improve God’s Word; nothing will ever be as relevant to humanity, as easy to understand or as attention-grabbing as the pure Message that provides us with a way to escape the eternal damnation that we inarguably deserve.