If you’d consider yourself culturally literate in the world of current American Christendom, then you’re more than aware of our infatuation with relevance these days. You’d understand why churches are increasingly meeting in peculiar places like abandoned warehouses, theaters, and schools. It would seem very natural that church leaders are hosting outreach events in pubs and bars where the main theme is to discuss the particular nuances of obscure theologies. You’d sing along to the chorus of (Christian) voices denouncing religion with utmost vehemence.
To be lucidly clear, I am definitely in support of Christianity having a purpose, having a place where it touches down and the rubber meets the road. If the sermons we preach and the waywe do church is being ignored by the very crowd we’re supposedly talking to, then something’s wrong. But why do I think there is joy in irrelevance? Great question. There’s two main tributaries that flow into the ocean of relevance, and let’s look at those first.
We’re too busy.
The Center for Disease Control currently classifies insufficient sleep as a public health epidemic, and its effects are poor concentration, poor memory, and poor job performance. We’re too busy to even sleep these days! The effect of overworking is that every moment has to count and everything that isn’t 100% efficient is thrown away. This was the trend over college for me, as I look back in retrospect. I kept adding more and more things to my schedule until finally by my senior year, virtually every 1-hour block in my schedule from 8 am – midnight was filled with something. When it came to leisure and social activity, Facebook was about as far as I got because social situations required too much time and energy.
When the brain is constantly on overdrive, then it eventually shifts into a gear where the goal is to simply complete tasks. I was taking classes, but I didn’t care about what I was learning, I was just trying to finish my assignments in as little time as possible so that I could sleep at least a little bit. When we’re in a state of perpetual stress, there’s no joy in the process of doing something–only in its completion.
We’ve become oriented away from God.
The buzzword of the day in pastoral circles right now is “moralistic-therapeutic-deism” which is a descriptor of what most people functionally believe in when we call ourselves Christians. In a nutshell it means that God’s role in our lives is to heal us and fix our problems (therapeutic), while our role is to be good (moralistic). Other than that, God is distant and shouldn’t meddle (deism).
This shifts the center of gravity of Christianity away from God and towards ourselves. It’s about me, ultimately, and my life journey and God is basically a big buddy in the sky who steps in and gives me a boost occasionally in a life that I can pretty much do by myself. Classically this used to be called “selfishness” but now it’s just called “normal.” It’s a timeless case of Romans 1, where we start worshiping something that God has created rather than God himself. Sanctification is a good thing that God created, but it was never meant to be ultimate. Morality was only meant to be a path with which to love God, not the destination.
These two streams pour into a muddy whirlpool that is well-intentioned and yet, I would argue, misses the point. Relevance means that our sermons have become shorter and shorter to the point where they’re almost tweetable so that people can get on to the next thing in their day. Long sermons put people to sleep, so we cut out all of the fluff and jump straight to the application point. On the one hand, this is great because pastors and theologians are famously long-winded and could use some trimming down. But on the other hand, we end up devaluing the preaching of God’s word and foster an anti-intellectual atmosphere wherein loving God with all of your mind is stigmatized subordinated to “heart knowledge.”
We’re too busy to enjoy the sheer bliss of learning about God for learning’s sake, and we’re so focused on fixing ourselves that if a single sentence isn’t applicational then it’s time to check out. When I first came to college, I was overwhelmed with the wonder of taking an introductory Chemistry class. I’d taken it before in high school, and it didn’t apply at all to my major, but it was just so interesting! I was awed by the intricacy and complexity of this universe that God had created, but by the time I got to my very last classes that I took in college, I didn’t give a hoot about what I was learning or how it related to the many and varied spheres of life–I just wanted to get it over with.
Now let me end with two affirmations: 1) I don’t want to come off as overly critical and negative about the whole relevance movement, and 2) our current debacle is vast and complex, and the way to solve it isn’t to remove our emphasis on relevance. All that I suggest is that we as individuals and as a corporate body of Christ begin to find joy in things that are not immediately relevant or applicable to us.
The benefits of embracing irrelevance I immediately see are twofold:
- We would no longer need to divide along lines of age. College students and senior citizens can both listen to and interact with a sermon on divorce not because it’s immediately practical but because it’s worth having a developed, scripturally-informed perspective on it. In addition, both the college student and the senior citizen could enrich and sharpen their opinions by hearing those of the other.
- We could again place our joy in the glorification of God rather than in our own moralism and therapy. We could sing with the psalmist, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (73:26). The crux of Christianity would no longer reside in “doing good” or “being good,” but in the exquisite beauty of a God who loves not out of need, but out of abundance.