Several times recently in classes at the seminary I teach at and in seminars I have conducted with church leaders I have said something about the need for the church to be “relevant” in the current North American/Western Post-Christian milieu. This has provoked someone in the class or the crowd to raise their hand and object to my desire for the churches relevance. They inevitably say something like, “the church is not called to be ‘relevant.’ It is not called to be “cool” or “hip”. It is supposed to be faithful to its calling and this may mean that it looks odd, or out of step with the culture.” Whenever this happens I have to take a deep breath and clarify myself (which is fair enough).
The word “relevant” literally means (according to the Oxford dictionary of the English language), “bearing on or having reference to the matter at hand.” Is this not something that we would want for the church? Relevance is not about being “cool,” “hip” or “sexy.” This is a misunderstanding of the term and when applied that way I would never argue for the church’s need to capitulate to being relevant on those terms. However, relevance is ultimately not about being thought of as “cool” within a particular cultural context. It is the idea that what you have to offer to society has “bearing” on its current discourse, or it has “reference to the matter at hand,” in that it has something constructive to contribute to the needs of people in contemporary culture. It is to be a part of the conversation. It is to bring ideas to the table that have some heft and could potentially inform the public discourse. To be relevant is to be taken seriously. If the church stops being relevant then that means that its message has nothing to offer contemporary society and that its meaning as an institution is obsolete. The idea that the gospel should not be relevant is a misunderstanding of both the term and the nature of the gospel. Relevance matters to the church. God created the church to be relevant. To matter to its context. In fact the church has to figure out how to become more relevant in these days of transition and post-Christendom existence. One of the key questions Christian leaders face is how can I help my church be relevant within my context? How can we have a bearing on the matters at hand in our community, country and world?
In the current post-Christian milieu, the church is seen as genuinely irrelevant by many. This is not something we should ever be proud of because it is simply an indictment that declares that the message of Jesus has no real bearing on life in the contemporary world. To address the post-Christendom context in which we live is to earnestly seek the relevance of the church and its message within our society. It is to strive for relevance by demonstrating how the gospel message has deep bearing on the realities of life in the Western world today.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*