Nothing is truly ordinary

Being Relevant (part 1): Recognizing Our Irrelevancy

relevance

Ladies and gentlemen please
Would you bring your attention to me?
For a feast for your eyes to see
An explosion of catastrophe

Like nothing you’ve ever seen before
Watch closely as I open this door
Your jaws will be on the floor
After this you’ll be begging for more

Welcome to the show
Please come inside

Ladies and Gentlemen, Saliva (band)

My career in relevancy started by playing a Creed song in a church service.

While that statement alone may sound irrelevant today, in a decade where we mock bands like Creed and Nickelback, in 1998 Creed was amazing.  At least, we all thought so.  So we played a Creed song in a service.  And we did it well.  All the notes came together.   You could feel the distortion of the Drop-D electric guitars in your bones.  Even the lead singer could emulate Scott Stapp perfectly (his gritty voice, mind you, not his ability to get drunk onstage).

And the band got a lot of applause for the song.

But we didn’t perform it for the applause.  We performed it because the lyrics were “relevant” to the topic at hand.  The song engaged people in a way that our less-popular worship songs ever could.  We performed it because it was what THEY – our unchurched guests –  listened to in their cars.  The song was already a part of the soundtrack of their lives.  By playing it, we put the song in a context of teaching and Scripture.  We leveraged a cultural element for the Kingdom of God.

And that’s how it began.  At least for me and  my ministry path.

Intentional programming.  Relevancy in worship.  Creative videos.  Edgy songs.  The concept had already been around for a few years, but for me it became a calling.

I lived it and breathed it in for the next 15 years of my ministry.  More than a worship leader, I was a designer of creative services.  I would spend hours trying to craft how all the elements would come together.  Though determining all the specific elements could be difficult, the process at its core was simple:  Work with the pastor and take a sermon topic (and related Scripture), then identify creative music, video, or out-of-the-box elements to help drive the message home.  What video could make a crowd laugh?  What song would have them singing along (and was NOT a worship song)?  What could we do to grab the attention of a guest long enough to pique their interest, so that they might hear the gospel (whereas they might tune it out in a less “provocative” environment)?  Our “creed” was to do “anything short of sin to reach people for the Kingdom of God.”

As part of creative teams, we did some awesome things.  We created a Halloween “live drama” where invisible demons tried to tempt a family to sin, and it was hilarious (it was supposed to be).  We tattooed a person live onstage during a sermon.  We went to Talladega to shoot a NASCAR driving experience.  We had an iPad band play “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”  We did an entire series of country music songs.  We played metal.  We did all kinds of creative things that were effective for many people in doing exactly what we wanted – in GRABBING their attention.  Each week was a carefully crafted “flow” of creative elements and worship songs all designed to do ONE THING:  To point people to the Gospel.

And the Gospel was preached.  Decisions for Christ were made.  Sure, we had our critics.  They would sometimes throw rocks at us from down the road, saying things like “They don’t preach the Bible” or “Tattoos are wrong.”  Sometimes they’d throw rocks at us from within the building itself, saying, “He [the pastor] just went TOO far today.”  But we did not mind our critics, because people were coming to Christ, and that was the whole reason we did it.

Therefore, we deemed ourselves RELEVANT to our culture.

***

Ladies and gentlemen good evening
You’ve seen that seeing is believing
Your ears and your eyes will be bleeding
Please check to see if you’re still breathing

Hold tight cause the show is not over
If you will please move in closer
You’re about to be bowled over
By the wonders you’re about to behold here

Welcome to the show
Please come inside

         – Ladies and Gentlemen, Saliva (band)

About three years ago, one of the questions I began to ask myself was, “What is relevance?”  At first, it was just a still, small voice that I ignored.  As long as I saw people coming to Christ, it’s easy to ignore pesky questions like that.  But it grew louder.  “What is relevance?”

Then recently, I realized something profound:  We define relevance according to the way we measure it.  We are relevant IF we are growing in numbers.  We are relevant IF we see an increase in tithing and giving.  We are relevant IF we have something measurable to show for it.  Naturally, this strive for relevance has been responsible for the ever-increasing business/pastor-as-CEO mindset so common in our churches today.  Our relevance – our uniqueness, our badge of edgy-ness, our “vibe” – is what we market.  People are our product.  If our year-end report doesn’t show huge leaps in these areas, we “tweak” our relevance.  Maybe we need to add more rap music.  Maybe we need to do video announcements.  Maybe we need to get more lights.  OOOH…maybe even lasers!

When you read about mega-churches growing into the tens of thousands, it’s very hard not to get caught up in this kind of hype.  In fact, you can get so caught up in it, you can even begin to think that your crowd of 200, 400, or even 2000 reflects poorly on just how relevant you are.  So you strive to be more.  Bigger.  Better.  Huge.  Buzzwords like “excellence” dominate planning meetings.  You get caught in a cycle of constantly trying to one-up yourself.

The problem is that our desire to be relevant does not merely leverage our culture’s “consumer” mindset; it FEEDS it.  We give the people exactly what they want.  And since they’re consumers, they always want more.  They want bigger and better.  Like they wait for the next generation of an iPhone or the next big gaming console, consumers are watching and waiting for you to reveal your next big thing.  How are you going to WOW them?  And if you don’t “wow” them enough, they’ll move on to another place that will give them what they want.  It’s a trap that traps contemporary and traditional leaders alike.  They either market their traditional or their contemporary agendas, hoping to grab the consumers that will migrate towards them.

What scares me the most about all this is:  What kind of churches have we been creating?  What kind of followers are we attracting?  Recently, I read somewhere that the church in America has grown 3,000 miles wide and 1/2 inch deep.  I’ve heard that more than once.  But the point is this:  As long as we feed the consumer mindset, we risk growing a crowd of followers who are so busy “consuming” their church experience, that they approach their walk with God with a “what’s in it for ME” mindset, rather than how they can serve others.  Worse, they may not only fail to see the need to serve others on a personal level, but might not ever learn HOW, because we’re not taking the time to teach them – OR model it for them.

This scares me because as exciting as our “relevant” pursuits can be, we may not be relevant at all.  Consider the words of Isaiah:

Who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony?

When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look.
Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen,
for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.

Learn to do good.
Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows.

– Isaiah 1:12, 15, 17

Also consider the words of the writer of Hebrews:

You are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen.  You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word.   You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food.  For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right.   (Hebrews 5:11-13).

Is it possible, in all our pursuits to be relevant, that we aren’t relevant in the most important ways?  Sure, it’s a good thing to speak the language of our culture.  I say none of this to undermine the incredible things that have happened in our pursuit to be relevant.  I cannot and will not deny the impact of churches who have sought to attract people in their surrounding cultures by adapting to their language – their music, their interests, and the things that speak to them.  I have seen it work at its best.  I’ve seen people walk into church and be blown away by the experience – how they were welcomed, how the music sounded like “their” music, how the message spoke to them.  Like I said, I’ve seen people come to Christ who might not have found the path so easy in an environment that did not attempt to speak their language.  If anyone GETS it, I do.  And I cannot ignore the need to continue to speak the language or our culture as we move ahead.

However, I also cannot ignore that there’s more to being relevant than knowing the language of the culture.  You have to ENGAGE the culture as well.

I believe that as all churches move forward in a culture that is increasingly indifferent (or even hostile) to church, our greatest relevance will not be our language, but how we treat those in our culture around us.  This is not a new idea.  It is an ancient idea.  It was the challenge of the Israelites to be a “blessing to the nations.”  It was the challenge the prophets like Isaiah issued to Jerusalem when they ignored the oppressed.  It is the challenge Jesus made to his disciples to go and make more disciples.

As we move forward, true relevance will not merely be about finding the right worship style or building the most comfortable facility.  True relevance will be measured in how effective your church is in loving and serving their community.

Think about it:  How would you WANT to be seen as relevant?  Because you once played Creed in a church service and it “wowed” the crowd?  Or because you went outside the doors of your church to serve people in ways that they needed?  Which is truly the most relevant?

Relevance is so much more than lining your church up with current trends and events.  It’s loving people where they need to be loved.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.  (John 13:34-35)

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Categorised in: The Church, The Journey

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