The Irrelevance of “Relevant”

Churches go through buzzwords like Major League games go through baseballs. Each new structure or growth idea (complete with Power point slides and a workbook) becomes the standard by which churches measure their stewardship of God’s word and community. When a word fails to produce results, it is batted away like a foul ball and a new word is brought out to play.

Goodbye, "Bring a Friend, Sunday" - Hello "Pack a Pew Campaign."

Goodbye, “Bring a Friend, Sunday” – Hello “Pack a Pew Campaign.”

Think of the many standards the mainstream spiritual institutions have endured in just a few short years.  To maintain and sustain growth, churches were supposed to be:

Inspirational – So we added a bunch of praise choruses before worship and called it “Singspiration.”

Relatable – Casual clothing, lay readers, and community announcements appeared.

Visionary – Soooo many pot-luck lunch break-out groups brainstorming beautiful mission and vision statements that looked really good on the bulletin.

Purpose Driven – “Programs, Get Your Programs Here – 5 small groups for a dollar or a ministry for young adult singles (divorced okay) for ten.”

Emergent – That always sounded like the chest-burster scene from “Alien” to me.

Missional – Hold a bible study in Starbucks and sponsor a Stop Hunger Now shipment. Maybe a community garden, if you know someone in the community who also has a garden.

There was nothing wrong with any of these ideas (although “Emergent” turned out to be more descriptive than functional).

They just didn’t last.  The latest word to step up to the plate for mainline churches and spiritual groups to pitch at is “Relevant.”

How many times have you heard one of these sentences?

  1. The church needs to be relevant.
  2. Millennials (a generation seemingly composed of magic bullets, gyroscopic influence and the Holy Grail) are looking for a church that is relevant to their needs.
  3. A personal faith must be relevant to the community around the person.
  4. Meditate on issues of relevance.

Relevance is the key spiritual leaders and cultural game changers are flocking toward.

Is this lemonade "relevant?"

Is this lemonade relevant?

It sounds intelligent, and it’s made of good intentions. Before we pin “relevance” to the top of our banner – let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that it really doesn’t mean anything.

“Relevant” is a chameleon made of sand. Its meaning changes with every lens, every leader, and every effort we undertake. It creates wildly out of bounds expectations and then disappoints when the perspective shifts the results.

Here’s an example:

In a blistering critique of Taylor Swift’s horrific earworm “Shake it off”, LA Times critic Randall Roberts doesn’t fault the sexism, the all-white-ballerina racism, the “wow-this-is-self-absorbed” dumbness of the lyrics – his primary issue is that in a world where the citizens of Ferguson are fighting injustice, a pop song about shaking off your troubles is not relevant.

“The harshest juxtaposition in “Shake It Off” comes with the song’s takeaway verse: “While you been getting down and out about the liars and the dirty dirty cheats of the world/ You could have been getting down to this sick beat.”

That’s sage advice when your biggest problem is whether to date a millionaire or billionaire. But when lives are at stake and nothing seems more relevant than getting to the Actual Truth, liars and cheats can’t and shouldn’t be shaken off.”

So – Ferguson’s struggle makes Taylor Swift’s pop song irrelevant. Sounds reasonable.

Then the news comes on. If you think racist actions and militarized police are bad, ISIS is beheading innocent people. Captives being murdered as a statement pushes Ferguson off the front page. The death of innocent people as a statement of war is more relevant.

And if tragic deaths of captives is the measure of relevance, then the Ebola related deaths of 12,000 people is the ultimate relevance until 1 person in Dallas dies – that’s more relevant to the US media than the 4 murdered captives, the people of Ferguson and Taylor’s Swift’s twerky video.

Also, there seems to be a violence problem in football.

See what happens when we use “relevant” as the standard? Things are automatically comparable, and get judged outside of the parameters of their natural state of being. Its overwhelming because in our humanity we can’t handle ALL the relevant things at once. It’s better to put things in a value system appropriate to what they are.

  • No one is looking to a pop song for geopolitical reality. Most folks want to dance.
  • Racism and brutality in Ferguson ( and elsewhere) must be challenged and must be stopped.
  • ISIS is an abhorrent threat that cannot be ignored.
  • Ebola is going to require our best knowledge, prayers and action no matter where it is.

It’s all “relevant” – whatever that means in the first place.

A spiritual leader or institution that sets its standard by what any group (even Millennials)  thinks is relevant is destined to get lost in the fray.

You are here.

You are here.

A better standard is something that lasts, something diverse that can span location, situation, time and tide.

Justice is a standard to reach for, and pursue.

Compassion is appropriate and powerful in any situation.

Metta – good energy, thoughts and feelings, inspires life-changing action across all boundaries.

And

Love – loving our neighbors becomes healing our neighbors. Loving our enemies becomes working together to seek justice. Loving with accountability means holding those who take a life responsible for their deeds. Loving your “self”  means finding the “Good-Orderly-Direction” in the way your heart needs most.

This does’t mean a church shouldn’t strive to do things they feel are relevant to their community or mission.  But before you sit down in one more meeting or one more blog post and talk about how your church, group, prayers, work, or relationships need to be “relevant” – take a moment, and make sure you are reaching for something more than just a new word.

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