The Search for Relevance

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There is so much talk amongst the church today about being relevant. How can we make our services friendly to those who are searching? How can we get our teenagers interested in God’s Word? How can we keep our churches from shrinking?

These are good questions, but many people use these questions to fuel their efforts to be relevant. Relevance may sound practical, but is that a true picture of our Savior, or the pretty picture of Jesus we want others to see.

As I was dusting off some of my old books at my parents’ house, I came across one of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen. Along with a group of student leaders in college, I read his book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. Nouwen’s writing has often challenged me as a reader to think about my faith more critically, yet more simply at the same time. He wrote this particular book after saying goodbye to his prestigious teaching job at an Ivy League university in order to work as a priest among a group of handicapped individuals at a community in Canada. Much of this book consists of Nouwen reflecting on what his new vocation taught him. Coming from an academic background to a group of people who couldn’t necessarily read, let alone cared about how many books he had written, brought Nouwen to a very personal discussion of relevance.

Instead of striving after relevance in his new context, Nouwen begins by categorizing relevance as a possible temptation for all Christians in leadership. I believe he wrote this book in the late 80’s, perhaps before relevant became a buzzword in the church, but his insight may speak deeply to this trend and our intentions as the church. He cites relevance as the same temptation Jesus was faced with in Matthew 4 when the devil tells Him to turn stones into bread. Of course Jesus could do this, but his response was,

“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4

Jesus would have helped to feed a lot of people if he turned all of the stones into bread. He would have been very relevant because, after all, what is more relevant than our daily need for food… but that is not the point. Jesus came to shift our gaze back to the Father and to restore our relationship with Him. Earthly needs and desires come and go, but our need to be made right with our Creator is met in Jesus for eternity. How do we live this way?

In the race for money, security, and survival of the fittest, bread can seem like a pretty important part of providing for a family and sustaining life, but we have a need that is deeper than the food we are able to put on the table.

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It is good that our churches are seeking to reach out to new people and grow the kingdom of God, but Jesus reminds us by His example to revisit our intentions. Henri Nowen suggests we trade the desire to be relevant for more time spent in contemplative prayer. Instead of trying to meet needs around us in our own strength, what would it look like to realign our priorities with the one who knows our needs better than we know ourselves? Nouwen proclaims the truth behind our ministry on earth,

“The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.”

Now, this is basic Gospel talk here, we don’t have to do anything, it was graciously done for us and now we are ministers in response. So, why am I striving, why are you striving, what do we have to prove? God is the reason behind all the needs we are able to meet and our strength behind all the needs we have no idea how to meet.

May we restore our God to His rightful place and serve as humble sons and daughters carrying out His mission. It’s not about what we didn’t accomplish last year, or how many New Year’s resolutions we stick to this year, it’s about Him.

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“The same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is bearing fruit everywhere by changing lives, just as it changed your lives from the day you first heard and understood the truth about God’s wonderful grace.” Colossians 1:6

Let us give thanks for His Good News and amazing grace.