We often talk about the Church being relevant or irrelevant. This is frequently said in the form of obligations or imperatives: the Church needs to be relevant. If it is not, then it is doing something wrong. It is derelict in its duty to the world. When it becomes irrelevant, it is supposed, the Church fails to be what God wants it to be (which is, presumably, a force that shapes culture, society, and history).
But what does it mean to be “relevant”? If something is relevant, it means, first, that it pertains and, second, that it pertains to something. Something that is relevant has something important to say about something else. Additionally, that “something else” is envisioned by this word “relevant” as the central reality, the object around which other things gravitate. In other words, what makes something relevant is its importance in proximity to something else whose importance is not questioned, at least in the given context. There is a central reality, and then there are things that are relevant to that central reality.
So when we talk about the Church being relevant (or irrelevant), what is it that we are taking as the central reality in relation to which the Church has an obligation to say something pertinent? Clearly, what we intend is that the world is the central reality, and it is the Church’s God-given duty to pertain to the world and to whatever the world’s present state might be. When we understand relevance in this way, the Church is obliged to adjust what it has to say to the changing circumstances of the world. This means that there are things that the Church has to say that were once important, but they might not be so important any longer. Likewise, it might be that the Church needs now to say something that it has never said before. Looking at things this way, it is conceivable (and, one might argue, inevitable) that a time might come when the world would not need the Church to say anything at all. This way of understanding “relevance” in relation to the Church is well summarized by the World Council of Churches’ slogan from the 1960s “Let the world set the agenda for the Church.” The Church, we are to understand, exists for the world’s benefit, because the world is the fundamental reality, and the Church is the derivative reality.
This is why talk of the Church being relevant or irrelevant tends to rub me the wrong way. It cheapens the Church and makes it the handmaiden of the world rather than God’s glorious new creation, the people who sit at the center of God’s cosmic temple and bear his image, his kingdom of priests who reign together with Christ forever. The biblical picture of the Church is not that it exists as an auxiliary for the world that moves around and makes adjustments as needed to keep the world moving in the right direction. No! The Church is God’s radical alternative to the world, a competing reality against which there is not really any competition because God himself has determined our reality and perpetuity. The world self-importantly maintains its centrality in our collective cosmic destiny, but the Church says “Jesus alone is Lord”, and God says, “You are my own special possession out of all the peoples of the earth.”
What the Church ought to be concerned about is being relevant to God, saying and doing things that relate to him as the most fundamental reality. Inasmuch as we do that, the Church participates in and becomes the primary reality against which the world is judged relevant or irrelevant. The only thing the Church has to say is the prophetic Word of God. If that is what we speak, what the Church has to say is by definition the most relevant thing that can be said, because it is the eternal and unchangeable declaration of God himself. The Church that speaks the Word of God is the immovable center. It is the world that constantly flies about shouting irrelevancies and inanities as it tries to locate a ground reality anywhere but in Christ and his Church. The spirit that compels the Church to be “relevant” to the world, in the sense of adjusting the content of its message to the changing circumstances of the world, is not the Holy Spirit but the spirit of antichrist. When Christians have become convinced that “Jesus is Lord” is not the most relevant, powerful, and prophetically confrontational thing that can be said, they are no longer led by the Holy Spirit, but their minds have been conformed to the pattern of this age.
Ironically, as segments in Christianity seek to become relevant to the world by adjusting the content of their message, they actually cease being relevant, either to the world or to God. The saltiness of the salt of the earth is not something the Church has to strategize about in order to attain. It is something the Church automatically is when it proclaims and believes the Word of God. What the world needs is not a Church that looks identical to it. That is what the world wants, but it wants it so that it can dismiss the Church as unnecessary rather than accept its message of repentance. The world needs an immovable Church that stands for all time in radical opposition to its own worship of self and power. The world also cannot accept such a Church. It hates such a Church, precisely because this Church removes the world from the center of reality. The sign of true relevance is not that the world loves us, but that it despises us for the sake of Christ.
So let us not be overly concerned with being “relevant”. We are relevant in all the right ways when we focus all our energy on the Church’s primary task of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.