an open letter to those besotted with relevance


I don't know who you are. I don't know where you are. But I do know that there are heaps of you out there and I find myself thinking about you a lot. So much so that I thought I'd write you a letter.

First let me try to ensure that we are talking about the same thing. By 'relevance' I mean that approach to church and mission where we flow with cultural trends in order to minimise the difference between the believer and the unbeliever. This becomes a central mission strategy. But I sense it goes a little further than this with you. Your hope for the church seems to lie with it becoming relevant. You might even be among those who say silly things like 'unless the church becomes relevant, it will die'. In your heart of hearts the church and the Bible are in need of an extreme makeover. Because of this you probably spend considerable energy scanning the horizon for the next big thing to make mission effective in your setting.

But let me rush on to say what I don't mean. And if this letter annoys you, this will be the paragraph you choose to ignore! I am not saying that you should go Amish (although the Amish:Mennonite story provides a fascinating case study). I am not even saying that relevance is bad. Goodness me, I travel with Langham training preachers to be 'faithful, clear and relevant'. I've developed courses on Gospel & Culture. One of my favourite teaching topics is what I call preaching worldviewishly. Relevance is OK, but it is this obsession with it that is not OK. Your instinct, even your hope, seems to lie here. Listen to yourself talk. Look at what you read. Your sociology drives your theology and shapes it. That is not good...

How are we doing so far? My guess is that with the first paragraph it was, 'yes, that sounds a bit like me' - but with this second paragraph, you are saying 'that is definitely not me'. Are you sure? Rather than making more exclamations, may I ask some questions of you? Please hang in there with me for a few more minutes.

The love and justice of God is probably at the core of why you get out of bed in the morning. That's great. But where does the holiness of God rank for you? It should be right up there with the others. I hardly ever hear it spoken about among relevance-besotted ones. But in Jesus-focused, biblically-based mission, we will be wowed by God's intention, in Exodus, to come and live with his people. Then we will linger in Leviticus discovering how hard it is for that to happen. For a holy God to live with his people, those people will need to become holy - and that means maximising their differences from the surrounding nations, at the risk of looking decidedly irrelevant. Is the holiness of God as important to you as his love and his justice?

By the way, can you ever imagine those shining examples of godly influence in the public world - Joseph, Esther, and Daniel - ever worrying about whether they are being relevant? I can't.

Come across to Jesus. The stuff about salt and light. I think your impulse will be more to mix in, than to stand apart. Might you have lost the tension in this basic teaching? As Stottie expresses it, being salt reminds us of the danger of unworldliness, while being light reminds us of the danger of worldliness. Both dangers are ... well, dangers! Some day check out the use of light as a descriptor of the missional people of God. The OT's, 'light to the nations' becomes the NT's 'light of the world' - and in both places it is used both of the Messiah/Jesus and of his people. And what does being 'light' assume, elementally, if not that there is a clear difference from darkness? The christian community is to be a 'contrast community' or, the phrase I like to use, it is to live distinctive lives with distinction. A lighty saltiness. To echo Stottie, too much salt and we confront the danger of relevance - just as with too much light we confront the danger of irrelevance.

The letters of 1 Peter and Revelation are favourites because they written to encourage Christians living in tough times. The churches in Revelation are not just real churches, they are representative of all churches ever since. Why not read again to see if relevance is on the agenda for such churches? I can't find it. What I can find is the relevance of endurance, not the endurance of relevance. The mission of God's people is about discerning the cultural flow and living against it, not with it. And with Revelation, please remember that it is written both to persecuted churches and complacent ones and so as one of the Torrances expresses it, 'a church cannot be a true church without causing trouble'. Where are you causing trouble in the world?

Pop across to Paul for a moment because I know you are bursting to give me that Pauline line about 'becoming all things to all people'. Well, I hear that one - but let me raise it with three more. In your relevance-besottedness, where will be the settings in which you experience the gospel as foolishness, as Paul did? As you move around in the public world, when will you experience the offensiveness that comes with believing the cross? At what point will you be the aroma of Christ which among some is the fragrance of life, but among others is the stench of death? Could you not be in danger of managing and marketing these kinds of responses out of the missional equation?

This leads to a biggie for me - a real biggie. My work takes me through Buddhist-majority, Hindu-majority, and Muslim-majority countries. Explain something to me. Why is it that in such countries, when people come to faith in Christ, so much focus is given to drawing lines in the sand to mark the change - but when people come to faith in countries where secularism and atheism is celebrated (just as much religious systems as the earlier ones, no matter what their adherents say) so much energy seems to be expended on keeping the lines out of the sand? I don't get it. [Psst: I wish you could see the look on the faces of Hindu converts when I tell them that many Christians in the West like to practice yoga!]. And of course, generally speaking, the delicious irony is that the church tends to be shrinking in those places where the lines in the sand are blurred and it tends to be growing where the lines are kept distinct. Might you be backing the wrong horse?

If I was a cat, I'd spend one of my lives developing a biblical theology of relevance. It is that important. Relevance-besottedness is a blindspot so big that it houses an elephant in the room. In bending over so far, might you have fallen in? You need to hear again the Reformers' warnings about the 'cultural captivity of the church' and the way 'our thoughts about God can become too human'. Relevance-besottedness is linked to a lack of confidence in the naked power of the gospel to change lives. It reflects an impatience with the time that biblical faithfulness takes to bear fruit. Oh yes, there is a success that can be found by managing a succession of culturally relevant ministries, but you know full well how exhausting that can be and how it can take you to life on the precipice of burn-out.

I suspect many of you have reached this far in this letter are pastors. I've always had a pastoral heart for you. Believe it or not, it still flows full and strong in this letter. Can I offer some encouragement as I finish?

Why not worry a little less about how you look from the world's perspective and get back to how everyone looks from within a biblical framework. Think deeply about what makes the world go around and then determine to live your life going the other way around. Probe for the tap roots of your culture, but rather than trying to graft yourself onto them, plant yourself nearby as a flowery, fruity, and aromatic tree. Be more willing to be odd, attractively odd, for Jesus' sake. Stop trying to be so trendy and fashionable with your ideas. Read James Davison Hunter's To Change the World and marvel at the simple liberation that comes with being 'faithfully present' in the world.

While being relevant is easily over-rated and over-hyped, it still has its importance. However the secret to that importance is found primarily in being held by biblical truths, rather than by following contemporary trends. For example, give yourself the opportunity to watch how being deeply owned by a biblical doctrine of humanity keeps you relevant. Notice how being mastered by a biblical doctrine of the church keeps you relevant.

I do not have my head in the sand. I did spend twenty years of my life (off and on - mostly off, to be fair) working on a thesis that emerged finally as 'the role of intrigue in the communication with sceptics'. I am increasingly persuaded that every time the instinct to be relevant surfaces in you, shut it down and ask instead 'how can I be intriguing in this situation?' They are not the same thing. Why not move on from relevance to intrigue? Why not get out of bed each morning determined to intrigue people with the sheer distinction of your gospel-shaped, cross-soaked, Spirit-filled, faithfully bibline life - knowing always that for some it will be foolishness, offensiveness and a stench? And don't be in a hurry. In enduring against the flow, you won't grow as tired because you will be given a resource by a God who delights in refreshing your 'faithfully present' life marked by such a lighty saltiness.

nice chatting



not a wild hera said…
I really like the juxtaposition of relevance and intrigue. Thanks for that (and for the whole post!)

I'm keen to hear Mike Crudge's reflections on this and how it connects with his research on how non-churchy people perceive the church, too.
Richard said…
Excellent thoughts Paul. "Your sociology drives your theology and shapes it". The great irony of this is that this point is essentially the same one leveled at much of the liberal theology of the late 19th/early 20th century - this is exactly the point Barth tried to make against his liberal contemporaries. I find it puzzling that some church leaders, especially those with evangelical roots, seem to have such a poor recollection of those events. I also find it interesting that the problem seems fairly universal within contemporary protestantism - the same issues afflicts as many mega churches as it does liberal mainline churches, not to mention large swathes of western evangelicalism. The difference is mostly one of method - the sociology of the mega churches is shaped by marketing, brand and consumer culture, in contrast to the more explicitly secular one adopted by more liberal churches.
Greg and Sarah said…
You know Paul I just want you to know that his has spoken so deeply to me today. As I walked on a kindy trip this morning chatting with a beautiful mother who's friendship I am coming to highly prize I realised the reason for her openness with me today was because I am so distinctive from others in her life. Hopefully not too light but she is opening to me for some lighty saltiness and why? Mostly because I am just not as relevant and go with the crowd as everyone else.... You know when you're listening to someone and praying for the right words from Jesus all at the same time... These verses sprang to mind and now I come home and read this from you whom I trust and respect. THANK YOU I am so encouraged
Anonymous said…
Worth sharing Paul. Thanks Janet and Sam :)
robk said…
Interesting Paul but I'm inclined to think of this on another level altogether. Part of the issue is not being driven by sociology but being ignorant of science and the incredibly relevant insights it offers into a world of chaos, perpetuation through sacrificial love and the meaning of God being a God of Kenosis. Nothing of the new science seems to have penetrated our theology to help us return to Hebraic earthiness and so we remain with irrelevant Grecian constructs and a holy God who is not the God of the Bible. To suggest that theology isn't molded by sociology, historical context and plain old social movements is a rather quaint view of the 'God with us' project I suspect
Rhett said…
Super helpful post, thanks Paul.
Mike Crudge said…
My comment is in response to "not a wild hera" since she mentioned me by name in her comment :)

There is a difference between the relevance of the church in society - from society's perspective, and the church being relevant - from the church's perspective.

In my recent research my observation of people outside the church is that relevance is the evidence that what is signed up to in the Christian faith actually makes a difference. Using Paul's word, this evidence they notice is intriguing. This is quite different to the in-house perspective of relevance Paul is critiquing here.

Thanks Paul!
Heather said…
I find it hard to resist the temptation to present an inoffensive faith. The last year or so I've been in email discussions about Christianity with a 'seeking' friend. So often, when I go to answer a question of hers, I have to actively resist the pull to say something I believe she'll find more palatable. I need to remind myself that I'm preaching the gospel, not trying to win her over (and to what?) at the cost of presenting near-truths that are actually lies!
Paul Windsor said…
Good to have you all jump in with various comments. I don't tend to rush to respond as I feel like I've had my say and I am keen to give others space - but then I know it ceases to be conversational which is not so good.

Richard: On facebook someone saw my letter to be pitched at mega-churches and I responded by saying that if I was taking a cheap shot at one section of the church, I wouldn't have written the letter. I agree with you - I think this is 'fairly universal within contemporary protestantism'. While you speak of liberal churches here, I would add churches overly enamoured with postmodernism (pomo does have its place - and so I choose my words carefully). Mega-church and postmodern church have been taking potshots at each other for a generation - and yet the irony is that both are so often united around an over-sized concern to be relevant.

Sarah: this is exactly the kind of context that came to mind as I wrote. A Mum befriending another Mum on a kindy trip. Fantastic. I love the word 'distinction', Sarah. At one level it speaks of excellence (in tertiary education) - but at another it speaks of separation. And when that dual distinction is intriguing?? WOW. Double WOW. It is one of the great preparations for effective gospel work - and the beauty of it is that we can all do this - in everyday relationships and familiar settings. The big thing is to ensure that the intriguing distinction of our lives is followed by a simple courageous willingness to 'say a little word for Jesus' at every opportunity. The Spirit is well able to do something with our fumbling and stumbling words. You go, girl (or, Mum, as the case may be!)

I confess that I do not quite understand what 'robk' is articulating - and Mike may need to provide some examples for me to get my head around what he is saying. Sorry! I am a bit slow...

Heather: I think the issue here is that you aim to be full of grace and full of truth, like Jesus. Always be gracious with people. Always, always, always. But with the ideas they express, there is a time to bear witness to the truth as you understand it to be. Sometimes trying to win and to persuade - but at other times content to just put it out there and leave it there. And maybe, just maybe - it will cause offense or be mocked as foolish. That is OK. Being faithful to the gospel is more important than diluting it in order to make it palatable to others.

As for you, 'not a wild hera' - go the juxtaposition!

thank-you, friends

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