Over at World Magazine, Anthony Bradley has generated some brouhaha over his piece “The ‘New Legalism.’” Up-to-date Cerulean Sanctum readers will note Bradley’s article reads like a rehash of my recent “Kids, Systems, and Success (A Response to Brant Hansen’s ‘Your Kids Don’t Need Your Stupid Success Track’)” and its follow-up, “Radical for Jesus: What Does That Look Like in America?”
The Bradley article is good and got trackbacked extensively. As always, read the whole thing. I do think, though, that he puts too fine a point on it by centering the angst he notes in the lives of young people alone. As I’ve noted elsewhere, my peers are laboring under that burden of relevance as much as anyone, and perhaps more. We’re the ones who are trying to be faithful to the mission of God…while we try to get back into the workforce after being pink slipped for being “old,” caring for increasingly decrepit parents kept alive by modern medicine, dealing with our own health failings, and still raising children.
Bradley mentions the self-pummeling meted out by our adoption of the words missional and radical. I want to add a third: relevant.
Google relevant church sometime. The pages stretch on forever.
As for the guts of the three links above, all of it comes down to relevance. In light of this, I don’t believe that Bradley’s diagnosis is right. Young people are not leaving the Church because they are being challenged too strongly to live a radical life. They’re leaving because the challenge is posed by a Church willing to challenge but unable to help achieve the goal. And in those cases where a local church is NOT challenging people, it’s also NOT providing answers to the most pressing challenges of life.
For all our talk of relevance, the fact remains: Our churches are not helping us meet the relevant challenges of the times.
And people are NOT going to hang around to hear messages about a watered-down salvation that can save mostly from a problem that doesn’t seem to be the most pressing problem they face. Or the third most-pressing problem. Or even the tenth.
Yes, Jesus Christ came to save sinners from their sin. Sin still matters. It’s the problem that must be dealt with before any other problem gets addressed.
But for all our talk of relevance, what is the solution from most churches for dealing with life once one has dealt with the problem of sin?
Your spouse lost a job in a corporate downsizing and has been out of work for eight months. Your bank account has taken a major hit, and you’re starting to eat into your kids’ college funds. Your teenage daughter was diagnosed with full-blown depression, and the meds she’s on do weird things to her personality, which make you wonder which is worse, the cure or the disease. Your mother is in an extended care home and has maxed out her benefits. You don’t know how you’ll pay for her care, and you sit there on Sunday morning wondering what will happen when you have to bring her to live with you in the midst of all the rest of this.
Meanwhile, they found a heart murmur in you that may require a valve replacement and you don’t have the insurance coverage because it was on your now-unemployed spouse’s policy. The prices at the grocery store keep going up. The cost of repairing the car you depend on keeps going up. The cost of repairing you keeps going up. You may have to change your own job just to keep up and also look into a master’s program because everyone wants a master’s degree, and that costs so much in dollars and time and…
And the preacher is telling you you must be radical or else you’ll be the lukewarm person spat out of the Lord’s mouth.
In the midst of all that, what does relevant mean? I don’t think the contemporary Church in the West has any idea.
If we want to know why people are looking elsewhere, the answer is simple. For all their talk of relevance, our churches are not addressing the struggles of most people today. And if people can’t find answers to life’s issues in Church, they will find someplace else that will give them answers, even if those “answers” are lies.
In the wake of the death of Pastor Rick Warren’s son due to suicide brought on by mental illness, Christians talked about mental illness for a few weeks. While that’s better than nothing, I’d like to see what the lasting fruit of that discussion will be on a practical level within our churches.
Because THAT is relevant.
But I’m not holding my breath.
You see, I’ve been waiting for a decade for someone in the Church with some level of clout to speak out on the employment issues facing us in America. Because if you want relevance there is nothing more relevant than talking like adults about the one issue that makes or breaks more people in this country on a day to day basis. And yet for how dominating the issue of work is in the lives of average Americans, I have yet to see or hear anything from a national-level Christian leader talking about our work lives and the sheer amount of time we devote to that one aspect of daily living.
My great fear for the Church in America is an increasing drift into total and complete disconnection from daily reality. Yet that is what I’m seeing.
Most of the relevance I hear about is irrelevant. It has little to do with real people and real lives.
Hey, massively relevant hipster church, you want to help couples with their sex lives? Great. Help dad find a better job. That’ll do more for mom and dad’s sex life than anything else. Far more then sexy readings of Song of Solomon.
You want to keep teenagers? Get them deep with Jesus and stop trying to outduel the world on trendiness. And start addressing the mental illness rampant in young people today.
You want dad to come to your men’s event? Find a practical way for him to deal with the longterm care of his aging parents.
And no. No one said any of this will be easy.
There will be people who say all this is outside the bounds of what the Church is supposed to be about. I contend that unless the Church stops being an ostrich with its head in the sand on issues like these, all the talk of relevance will stay talk and functionally remain irrelevant.