I recently read an article addressing the apparent exodus of young people from churches. Of the ten reasons the author gave one of them stood out as an ironic danger. “The church is ‘Relevant’”. The author rightly ridiculed the attempts of churches to package things as ‘cool’. Truth be told when churches try to be cool they often come across as cheesy instead. Skinny jeans and lattes are not going trick people into thinking the gospel is cool. On that note that article made an obvious point. On the other hand if you say ‘a pastor must not wear skinny jeans’ or ‘must wear a tie’ you have lost me completely. The externals are not the issue, the principles are.
There is danger that runs next to this ‘Relevance’; I’d like to call it ‘Post-relevance’. That is adopting a ‘means’ or ‘way’ that was relevant during the 1700-1800′s and assuming that it is the right way to communicate truth today. We could say this is the mindset of the traditionalist over and against that of the progressivist. One is trying to be ‘grand’ (old word for cool) to an audience that is no longer around, the other wants to be cool to the audience that is around, but they just can’t hack it.
As far as I can see traditionalists are motivated by two things. One being fear, fear that others in my conservative and traditional circles will judge and reject me; I mean surly if they see me doing something beneath my ‘class’ to communicate with the riff-raff. This fear of man is renamed ‘fear of God’, because we all know God only likes 19th century British and Dutch culture right? Flip the coin over and we see not fear but cultural superiority. He doesn’t wear a tie, how can anyone take him seriously. It’s the assumption that a single moment in a single cultures history is the most excellent expression of Christian values for the whole world in every time. Now I am not saying that they were not expressing those values well, nor am I saying that we cannot learn from them. I am saying that Scripture and not that previous momentary expression of the truths of Scripture should be our rule.
As for the ‘progressivists’, we see a similar thing. There is a fear of becoming ‘unliked’ and thought of as regressive that drives much of the cheese. A fear of what people in the culture will think about us; which is cleverly renamed as ‘care’. Oh we only care about the lost and so we want them to see how fun and cool it is to be a Christian; how in touch with them we are- maybe if they see that we are cool, they will think Christianity is cool. This also manifests in a certain pride, that looks down on the traditionalists as regressive- it breaks unity in many churches and often caters only to one generation, because its only twenty and thirty something’s that need the gospel right. The whole idea of Christ breaking down boundaries is foreign here, unless it means doing a short term missions trip… to the beach… where we spend some time with another generation, culture and class so they can have one week of hip and happening Christians among them. In churches it means that we don’t care about communicating the gospel to anyone but western, middle to upper class, yuppies.
What do we see when we look at Christ? One who though He was rich, for our sake became poor. Who did not consider equality with God as something to be held onto but humbled himself and took the form of a servant. One who apparently had children and adults come to hear him speak, in the same setting. One who spoke to an agrarian society using pictures from the agrarian world, or to students of the law using texts from the law. One Who had to be with people and bear with people that they might understand the truth; that the truth is a person.
The answer is not ‘wear skinny jeans when you preach’, nor is it wear a tie when you preach. The answer is ‘how can I preach is such a way that I remove as many obstacles as I can from these people seeing Christ’. How can we sing in such a way that pressures the traditionalists to not make an idol out of an era or the progressivists not to make an idol out of a niche subculture. How are they missing Christ by not seeing Him as a Christ that offends every culture and yet is the deepest answer to every culture’s aspiration?
Perhaps a safer word that relevant is contextualize. Because unless you embark on some kind of generation colonialism (that works for both sides by the way) the only other alternative is to relate the solid unchangeable truth of Scripture in a way that the entire spectrum of the contemporary audience will be able to clearly see Christ. It will be loving people too much to care what they think about you and loving Christ so much that you will share Him in the clearest way possible.