Recently a young couple moved into our neighborhood. While we were getting acquainted, the man began talking about the church that they drive across town to attend. “Yeah,” he said, “the pastor out there is really relevant. He cracks me up. He’s so funny.”
In that conversation, “relevant” seemed to mean “with it” and “entertaining.” I asked what some of the recent sermons were about. He responded, “Well, I don’t know the Bible very well. But he always says something that makes me feel better.” Relevant as anesthetic.
Just yesterday I had the opportunity to participate in a commission to install a new church development pastor in our presbytery. It was a wonderful service of worship, celebrating an exciting ministry and what seems to be a really great match between pastor and steering committee. I had a wonderful time.
While I was looking at some of their printed materials, there again was the word “relevant” — worship that is “relevant.” In that context, as in so much of new church development and redevelopment talk these days, relevant seems to mean something such as “This is not your mother’s Presbyterian church.”
Sometimes we use it in an almost desperate way, as if we are trying to justify our existence or as if, could we just capture it, it would be the magic bullet to fix our churches and turn around our spiritual and ecclesiastical self-esteem.
Often when unchurched people are asked why they are not part of a church, they say, in essence, that the church is not “relevant.” I take that to mean that it is not somehow connected to the realities of their daily life and struggles. The church lives in yesterday’s world with yesterday’s values. Webster’s Dictionary definition would fit here: “logically connected with and important to the matter at hand.”
But what about the matters that are not at hand? What about matters which are global, eternal and otherworldly? What about matters that are illogical, or seem so apart for the “yes” of faith? What about things that are not germane, pertinent, related or suited to us? Does that mean that those things are not “relevant” to God? That they have no value in the life of discipleship?
I was recently in a training class having to do with the future of churches. It could well have been called “Being Relevant 101.” It was a stimulating and thought-provoking class, but also disturbing. In it we learned that there is no longer a need for systematic theology, only practical theology; that angels are relevant, that the cross is not; that praise music is relevant, and Bach is not. We learned that self-sacrifice is not relevant and self-affirmation is. We learned that “experience of Jesus” is relevant and knowledge of Jesus is not. That makes me sad.
I truly wrestle with this. As the pastor of a redeveloping urban congregation, I long to find ways to help to connect God’s people to the incredible grace, mercy and forgiveness of God. I long to find ways for Jesus to come alive in people’s lives. I long for worship to touch the heart, for people to “feel better,” for every generation to find a way to worship and to serve in the vernacular.
But I also long for people to learn what sin really is and how it robs us of life and lies to us about ourselves and God. I long for people to learn that grace is a costly thing, that the cross is at the center of our lives, that it is our mission statement, too. I long for people to pore over Scripture and to allow God both to free and to bind us by it.
I long to help connect them to the deep reservoirs of spiritual life, to the angels and the wonders. But I also do not believe that religion is a dirty word. I long to connect people to a discipline, to help them come to terms with obedience, and relinquishment and dying to live. I long to teach people that they must put the living-out of their faith and worshiping with the community first in their lives, even when it is not fun or funny or convenient or comforting.
Oh well, perhaps I’m just our mother’s Presbyterian.
Eugenia Gamble is pastor of First church, Birmingham, Ala.