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When Does Relevance Become Irrelevant?

Unfortunately, I think our inability to shape culture—and, instead, play catch-up with culture—through philosophies of relevance is the result of having the wrong types of people leading key positions within the Church. I believe our hunger to become relevant exposes one of our weaknesses, which is that we have placed managers in roles that demand innovators … gatekeepers instead of freedom fighters … comfort keepers instead of risk takers. Though the Church needs multiple gifts represented in places of influential leadership, I think we must demand more creativity and innovation from one another. This comes through the combination of a team of people who have been wired to take countercultural approaches to ministry, listening to the Holy Spirit and acting with the rest of the gifts represented within the Church.

I don’t remember how it happened. I think I was researching some stuff for one of my messages, and somehow I stumbled into a mine shaft that held YouTube gold. The kind of YouTube gold that has fewer than 150 plays and you can’t believe it hasn’t been dug up and forwarded through cyberspace a million times.

The video that stopped me in my tracks is a youth group called Coldpray from Germany that performs a music-video spin-off of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The main difference is, they have changed the lyrics and recorded a song called “Feels Like the Holy Spirit.” There are so many things wrong with this. Later, when I wanted to show one of my friends what I had discovered, I Googled “Coldpray,” and the first thing Google said to me at the top of the page was: Did you mean: Coldplay. It’s as if Google didn’t even take me seriously. As if the search engine was mocking me by sarcastically whispering, “Surely you just misspelled the name of one of the biggest bands in the world, and you’re not actually looking for a Christian knockoff.”

For centuries there has been an ever-growing conversation about the Church becoming relevant to the rest of the world. And yet every time I hear the word relevant used, it seems as though it makes the issue being described much less relevant. It doesn’t help that most of what is copied from the world and into the Church is as unfortunate as having to hear an elementary-school orchestra attempt Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony in C major.

My theology leads me to believe that when God inspired the idea of the Church, He hoped we would live out our created design to produce new mediums of art that would awaken the soul of the world to understand life and how it is supposed to dance with faith. I believe God wants us to take art seriously and understand that every time the Church creates something, it reflects on Him personally. It’s a huge weight and responsibility, but one that is meant to challenge us to not think through the filter of relevance to the world—but instead, through the filter of creativity as people living inspired by the ultimate Creator. The issue of relevance goes even deeper, as many churches not only steal creativity from the world in hopes of finding relevance, but are also guilty of copying the strategies of other churches to stay relevant to Christian culture. Part of the problem exists because many churches have become followers. The Church’s pursuit of relevance communicates and assumes that we’re following culture, even church culture, rather than shaping it. Though each church is building the Kingdom of God, I believe the blueprints and plans He has for each individual church community will not look the same … and should not look the same.

It’s well documented that church leaders love themselves a good church conference. For the cost of registration, you get a notebook to write down and copy the best practices that are being used around the country and a goodie bag of free stuff. This copy-and-paste problem runs from the strategies that churches have plagiarized from one another, all the way down to the branding of church names and ministries.

If we dig below the surface of the Church’s desire to be relevant to the world and to Christian culture, I think we’ll first discover that at the core lies a beautiful heart to reach people who are currently unreached outside of the Church body, as well as a deep love for those inside the Church community who live their lives asleep and unmoved by their relationship with the world and their relationship with the Trinity. I love the fact that so many leaders are in conversations right now about how to change what it is they are doing.

Unfortunately, I think our inability to shape culture—and, instead, play catch-up with culture—through philosophies of relevance is the result of having the wrong types of people leading key positions within the Church. I believe our hunger to become relevant exposes one of our weaknesses, which is that we have placed managers in roles that demand innovators … gatekeepers instead of freedom fighters … comfort keepers instead of risk takers. Though the Church needs multiple gifts represented in places of influential leadership, I think we must demand more creativity and innovation from one another. This comes through the combination of a team of people who have been wired to take countercultural approaches to ministry, listening to the Holy Spirit and acting with the rest of the gifts represented within the Church.

It is my opinion that the reason so many churches have copied and pasted original and creative ideas from the world and other churches is the result of uninspired leaders who have embraced spiritual laziness and have covered it with the ideas of others. Ideas that, many times, God never meant to be transferred to their Church and their city. Sometimes it feels as though we want others to release the tension we feel regarding the questions we’re asking about how this era of ancient-future Church is supposed to look. We have to begin to believe that this tension is good. That somehow as we work out the tension through the giftings of the right people and the wisdom of God, churches will start looking differently—not because of their history, denomination and tradition, but because they’re actually lovingly living God-inspired ideas in the city they have been planted in.

As many know, Francis Chan, pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, came back from a sabbatical a couple of years ago convicted that the church was preparing to just build another large church building to fit more people. He and his leadership team continued to feel more and more unsettled by the idea and felt led to instead build an outdoor amphitheater and a park for the community to use throughout the week. They are planning on holding all of their worship gatherings in the outdoor amphitheater so that even when it is cold or hot or raining, they are symbolically communicating to the Church body that following Jesus is a commitment of sacrifice that is not built on being comfortable all the time.

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Sometimes the logical and relevant next step becomes irrelevant because God has another idea altogether. I believe a Spirit-led group of people will often find themselves in lonely waters that demand a deeper dependence on the voice of God because what they are being called to do is not normal. Wasn’t this the experience of the people of Israel in the Old Testament? Wasn’t this the journey of the disciples with Jesus? Wasn’t this the foundation the early Church was built on?

Might this be the road for us?

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This article originally appeared in Neue Quarterly Vol. 01. You can subscribe to the Quarterly or buy individual copies.

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