If there’s one criticism I consistently hear being leveled at the Church, it’s that we’re irrelevant. Our message — both in our songs and our preaching — simply doesn’t matter to the daily lives of ordinary people. Someone even launched Relevant magazine as a way to combat that mindset, especially among younger folks. (Wait. Does saying “folks” make me sound old and irrelevant?) The quest for relevancy led to the rise of the seeker movement: churches discarded anything “old” to attract “seekers,” those looking for a “relevant” church (hence this is also termed the attractional church model). Hymns, neckties, organs, pulpits, and a host of other things became irrelevant — and were subsequently discarded with little to no further reflection.
The preaching in those attractional churches is designed first and foremost to be, well, attractive. That’s not a bad thing — until you think about it. It puts an emphasis on avoiding negative topics, like sin and hell. It frequently eschews exposition of the biblical text for a more topical approach. That quickly descends into un-anchored motivational speech (to be fair, expository sermons often become mere theology lectures). But, it is said, at least those topics are relevant. They engage issues in the daily lives of ordinary people. Yes, but they just don’t seem to do so by anything more than proof-texting.
At its base, the quest for relevancy changes the nature of church services. Not only its form, which is always subject to change, but its nature. Church becomes a consumer product, entertainment, instead of participatory adoration. Moreover, it shifts the primary place of discipleship from the home to the pulpit. That may not sound like it, but that’s a problem.
I firmly believe all preaching must be evangelistic in nature — and overtly so. Yes, other concerns are addressed, but a sermon must present the gospel in order to be an actual sermon (I expand on this elsewhere). That means it is of limited use for teaching us how to theologically navigate such things as Facebook, the opioid epidemic, or tattoos. These things are best considered in a small group discipleship format. Ideally, that setting is the home, as Christian parents catechize their children and equip them to reflect on their life experiences from a Christian perspective. This is one reason discipleship should begin in the home. Beyond that, small groups based out of a church are good resources, as are larger-group teaching times.
This is my ideal, but ideals often crumble when they collide with the real world. Let’s admit very few parents engage in home discipleship, and with the rise of the Nones from Millennials and Gen Z (those who list religious affiliation as “none”), it’s fairly probable the average age of conversion will increase as those not raised in Christian homes come to faith as adults. Younger people who begin to attend church for the first time will need — and indeed want — clear moral teachings, biblical principles they can apply to life. In short, they want the “relevant,” and the local congregation becomes a surrogate parent to teach them the things they never got at home.
On the one hand, it’s tragic the church is now forced to play the role of home-based disciple-maker. These truths were to be passed down to our children and our children’s children. They were not. The people should have been taught at home how to think theologically. They were not. That we now, as a Church, must alter our worship to provide basic moral education signifies the failure of the family unit and our experiment in abandoning our Sunday school classes and small groups.
On the other hand, Cyprian of Carthage once said, “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his Mother.” The local congregation is a place for fellowship, for nourishment, and for worship. It provides nurture in many forms. That’s why she is our mother. If other mothers fail at the task of discipleship, then she will step in as a surrogate mother of sorts, adopting the orphan and instructing him/her in the paths of righteousness. That is the only way she can see her children saved.
Part of that instruction, however, is a simple truth, a basic axiom: the Christian faith is always relevant. Scripture, whether chapter and verse or underlying principles, will always apply to any situation. The realm of public theology is designed to create pathways, bridges between “real life” and the pertinent texts/traditions. We would do well to promote the discipline and help act as the surrogate parent for so many who come to our doors without knowing anything in advance.
Just not at the expense of true worship, of adoration, of praise of the One we came to learn about. God is not a thought experiment; He is a Divinity with whom one relates. May we evangelize and teach. May we baptize and catechize.
May we parent.