3.15.2009

What is Relevant


Being an elder of a 140+ year old congregation that inhabits a 100+ year old building, we spend a lot of leadership time and effort on issues related to maintenance and upkeep of physical plant. To be sure, there are days I wonder what it would be like to not have to worry about such things, and thus have mindspace and money freed up for ministry.

But there are other days I see our physical structure as a great resource for us and our community: we play host to a school and two ethnic congregations, as well as countless special events put on by us and others. And we get to be part of an initiative with Partners for Sacred Places, which is helping us make the most of this treasured facility. Our property is an apt analogy for the Church - capital "C" - in general: it may be old and require extra care that we sometimes wish we didn't have to worry about, but we still have a purpose to fulfill in this generation.

Ah, but that is today's challenge: this article wonders aloud if the evangelical church is dying a slow albeit accelerating death, this article sings the praises of congregations that break from the traditional look and feel of church, and this article reminds us of how much of a bad word "Jesus Christ" has become.

Last year, I tried to capture our modern cynicism with Christianity and with religion in general in this post. And of course, you probably saw the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, in which the proportion of Americans who say that have no religion has almost doubled in two decades, to 15 percent.

Both the cynics and the churched are increasingly asking, "Is the church even relevant today?" The cynics say "no," and have plenty of ammunition from which to draw such a conclusion. The churched say "yes," and try desperately to infuse their church life with rock music and Twitter and piercings.

I wonder if this is the right question in the first place. God does not seem to care if He is relevant or not; He is who He is. Jesus, God in the flesh, did not seem to care about His popularity, especially not when it conflicted with His purpose.

Does this mean we Christians go about our business, and to hell (literally) with others? Certainly not. Does this mean we automatically dismiss any new-fangled, seeker-friendly, translated-for-this-generation idea? Not necessarily.

The Bible is clear that this life and the next is about God. This may seem like an obvious statement until you ask yourself: is my religion about how I can use God to serve my purposes? Is the Bible simply a pick-and-choose book that I turn to when I need a certain kind of help or support? In my prayers, do I use the word "I" and "my" and "me" a lot?

Or have I subsumed my agenda for His, my purposes for His, my will for His? Do I actively fight against the world wanting to bend me towards its ways, even and especially in the spiritual realm (seeking power and popularity through my good deeds and church roles, for example)? Am I intentionally "dying to self," "mortifying the flesh," "waging war against sin"? (See how violently and actively we must live if we want to live according to the Bible?)

Paradoxically, this is the greediest way to true satisfaction. Want to save your life? - lose it. Want to be exalted? - humble yourself. Want to be full? - empty yourself.

And, paradoxically, in saying no to the relevance of asking the question, "are we relevant," we become profoundly and irresistibly attractive to this world and this generation. We have become so cynical towards authority (governments fail us, corporations are greedy) and especially towards religion (narrow-minded, out-of-date, controlling, out for money just like anyone else), and yet still long for a profound experience with divinity and glory. That we have encased ourselves in a layer of jadedness only means that we are longing all the more for true authenticity and community and healing and wholeness. We find ourselves helpless to do anything about our hidden addictions, about our community's brokenness, about the great need around the world - and yet it is only through the individually and corporately transformative message of the gospel that we can have the truly audacious hope.

For all of life's problems and for all of the ways we aren't even asking the right questions or pointing in the right direction, God has the answers. And, profoundly, He has chosen a broken and tattered and wounded and wobbly church through which to manifest those answers.

Fellow Christians, we are that church. Let's get busy being God's hands and feet, eyes and ears, heart and mind. Let's give God room to refine away ways of ours that contrary to His ways. Let's behold greatness and glory, righteousness and truth, and emerge radiating such things to a world that longs for them.

No matter how much cynicism and weariness and despair have been accumulated in our own hearts and in our generation, God is still in the business of salvation and transformation, healing and wholeness. He still mends when all seems broken, still shines with unmistakable brilliance, still uses a motley and imperfect crew to accomplish pure and perfect ends. I cannot think of a more rewarding or relevant cause to commit to.
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