The Irony Of Relevance

A pastor friend of mine recently gave me a copy of chapter five of Oz Guinness’s 1993 Dining With The Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts With Modernity. I have to tell you that, 20 years later, it’s obvious to me that this book was hitting on something really, really important. The church growth movement of his day, with all of its auditorium filling relevance was a flirtation with modernity, and the proof is in the product.

This particular chapter is talking about the ironies of the pursuit of relevance. The major irony that Guinness is pointing too? Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches will become (looking beyond 1993) the most worldly of all Christian traditions because of their eagerness to accommodate cultural expectations in the name of growing churches. In this way, today’s Evangelicals are not that different from yesterday’s liberals. As I’ve written before, selling out to the spirit of the age leads to no where good. Liberalism is dying, and Evangelicalism will not be far behind because we are playing the same game. Liberals sold out to high brow and academic cultural expectation, and Evangelicalism has sold out to pop culture expectations. We are losing our identity as a movement, our kids are not maintaining faith in Christ, and we desperately need reformation. I don’t mean to continually sound like an alarmist, but…

Guinness on relevance:

     For the church-growth movement, what matters are the breeding grounds in which such ironies and unintended consequences multiply. Two are paramount. The first breeding ground is the more traditional one: the uncritical espousal of the ideal of “relevance” and its companion church-growth slogans, “seeker-friendly,” “audience-driven,” and “full-service churches.”

As stated earlier, relevance is a prerequisite for communication. Without it, there is no communication, only a one-sided sending of messages addressed to no one, nowhere. But having said that, it must also be said that relevance is more complex, troublesome, and seductive matter than its advocates acknowledge.

For a start, relevance is a question-begging concept when invoked by itself. And when absolutized, relevance becomes lethal to truth properly speaking, relevance assumes and requires the answer to such question as: Relevance for what? Relevant to whom? If these questions are left unasked, a constant appeal to relevance becomes a way of riding roughshod over truth and corralling opinion coercively. People are thinking or doing something simply “because it is relevant,” just as “relevance” becomes irrelevance if it is not related to truth. Without truth, relevance is meaningless and dangerous.

In addition, relevance has a false allure that masks both its built-in transience and its catch-22 demand. Dean Inge captured the transience in his celebrated line “He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.” But it was Simone Weil who highlighted the catch-22: “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.”

Modernity makes this problem worse. Compounded by the conforming tendency of mass society, relevance without truth encourages what Nietzsche called the “herd” mentality and Kierkegaard “the age of the crowd.” Further compounded by accelerating change, which itself is compounded by the fashion-driven dictates of consumerism, relevance becomes overheated and vaporizes into trendiness. … Instead of “the contentment of a tree in its roots, the happiness of knowing that one is not wholly accidental and arbitrary but grown out of a past as its heir, flower, and fruit,” feverishness is the condition of an institution that has ceased to be faithful to its origins. It is then caught up in “a restless, cosmopolitan hunting after new and ever newer things.”

The pursuit of relevance thus becomes a prime source of superficiality, anxiety, and burn-out. (“Hell,” it has been said, “will be full of newspapers with a fresh edition every thirty seconds, so that no one will ever feel caught up.”)(pp. 62-63).

To that last sentence I say, “Welcome to the internet age.”

That the “pursuit of relevance becomes the primary source of superficiality, anxiety and burn-out” is exactly and profoundly true. Churches are frantically trying to stay relevant to a fast changing post-modern culture, and the result is that we are the dog chasing his tail. Always running, never catching.

Here is how I summarize this idea: Relevance in the eyes of the world that is devoid of truth, is by definition worldy and ultimately irrelevant. We don’t become truly relevant until we become radically irrelevant. This is a strong reason why I think the path through the future lies in the recovery of what is valuable in our past. We’ve jettisoned far too much in the name of relevance and progress. We have a rich heritage of truth and worship waiting for us if we are willing to take a step back and realize that the locomotive of relevance is running off the rails.