Relevance has been a favorite topic of conversation in many circles over the last decade. The word is everywhere. We have Relevant Magazines, Relevant Radio (& these guys definitely are), Relevant Churches, Relevant Worship, Relevant Performances (sorry, I had to) Relevant Multimedia, Relevant Para-church Ministries, Relevant Branding, Relevant Blogs, and Relevant Conferences where Christian leaders can learn how they and their ministries can become all things, you guessed it, relevant.
The word has soared to the great heights of Buzzword – reserved for only the most ridiculously over-used terms in Christendom – taking its place alongside former chart-toppers, like seeker, contemporary, community and postmodern. But like most buzzwords, the hype has since fizzled out leaving our poor word to hang out in ambiguity with the other has-beens. Here they are generally assumed to be understood by most, but rarely are. And since they are no longer considered a relevant part of the conversation, they remain misunderstood.
Thus is the case with our friend Relevant. And so I thought I'd bring him back into the conversation today in order to address some of the common misunderstandings about him and to better understand the valuable idea he still represents.
"Relevance is not about being cool. It is about being understood." – Jason Jaggard
Tuesday I spent the day snowboarding at Big Bear with buddy Kurtis. If you've never been to Big Bear, it is a relatively small mountain consisting of 90% snowboarders, 75% fake snow, and 100% terrain park. It is a x-gaming terrain freak's dream. Every run on the mountain has terrain features – even the bunny slope. We're talking table tops, jumps, rails, funboxes, trees, wall rides, bonks, even conversion vans and broncos (the car, not the horse) on which to pull your sickest trick. The venue naturally pulls in a large hipster crowd from all over L.A. and Orange County.
In surveying this melting pot of cool, a converted midwesterner, like myself, can't help but muse on the almost comically obvious reality that I have stepped into a world far from the one I was raised. "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto." As we took another ride up the mountain, Kurtis and I talked about the importance of fashion to L.A. You don't even have to live here to see it. Visit L.A. anytime of the week or weekend and you'll see it. It is everywhere. But here is the interesting thing about L.A. fashion, it is both necessary and relative. There is no one way to dress that is deemed cool or in. There is no one designer, one look, one anything, there are many. There is an understood freedom to express oneself. And because it is relative, no one is really better than the other. However, the one thing that isn't acceptable is to disregard the importance of fashion – in essence, to say with your look that you really don't think fashion matters. To do this is to essentially take a shared value of the culture and say that you do not deem it to be worthy of your time. Like all matters pertaining to relevance, it is a sure way to alienate yourself from the culture in short time.
And so herein lies a valuable truth about relevance to culture: It is not about being cool. It is about being understood. And at least in part, it is about communicating to others that their interests, concerns, struggles and needs are worth your time.
Relevance is about starting on even ground.
Sometimes pastors make the mistake of thinking that being relevant gives them "one up" on everyone else; as if one's ministry could only be cool enough, hip enough, edgy enough, it would almost certainly succeed. This is not the function of relevance. Relevance only affords you the opportunity to start the conversation on even ground. Irrelevance, on the other hand, forces you to start from behind. In ministry and relationships, it can often cause you to lose your voice with people before you even start speaking.
Relevance, therefore, is only Step 1. Failing to engage people in a relevant way may prevent you from ever getting to Step 2. And so it is important. Very important. But again, it is only Step 1. If relevance is all you have to offer, you don't have much.
Relevance is not a tool. It is a worldview.
Please hear me on this, being relevant does not mean repackaging what you are already doing in a trendier way. In
fact, if you want to guarantee failure in engaging with those outside
of the church, keep on doing what you're doing and repackage it to
look like something different. That is not innovation. That is not vision. That is manipulation. And many pastors and churches are really good at manipulation. Relevance is not a tool to get people to do what you want. It is not the missing piece in your life or ministry. It is a worldview. It is a way of approaching life and ministry that puts the desires and needs of those who do not yet know Christ before your own and before those in your church.
It is the latter part of that statement that often makes leading relevant movements so difficult. The desires and perceived needs of church people almost always conflict with the desires and needs of those who do not yet know Christ. And just to spare you some time, the two mix about as well as oil and water. Choosing to pursue relevance may force you to make some difficult decisions. You may have to decide between talking about real and uncomfortable issues or maintaining the status quot. You may have to axe some programs that are loved by your members but that do not serve the mission of your church. You may have to watch friends leave and big tithers take their checks to the church next door. You may have to endure a lot of pain. Ultimately, you will have to choose between which voices you will listen to – the loud, constant and often powerful ones coming from within your church's four walls, or the soft, unspoken, unrepresented voices of those who do not yet know Christ.
Your relevance and irrelevance will be decided by which of these voices you choose to listen to. It is a choice that is made not once, but one that must be made continually. The voices will continue. The powerful voices within your ministry will continue to campaign for their interests, and that might involve also campaigning for your resignation. But that is the price of leading a ministry that strives to do what Jesus called us to. That is the price of relevance. Is it hard? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely.