Irrelevant Relevance


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?

Church ruinsThe 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.

8 thoughts on “Irrelevant Relevance

  1. SPOT ON! As a male with mental illness who has a hard time finding work I couldn’t agree with you more. I left the faith after the way church people treated me (for having the aforementioned conditions). I think dealing with these issues requires people to live counter-culturally and most people are too worn out focusing on themselves to do much for anybody else. And it *is* a zero-sum game. Your personal happiness will suffer if you actually start making sacrifices for other people. I believe C.S. Lewis said something like that in God on the Dock, that the people who lived for themselves would be the happiest.

  2. linda

    Hi Mr. Edelen,
    I think what is missing in the ‘relevant’ church today is God. Once sin is ‘taken care of’ so to speak, and a believer is communing with God and is ‘abiding in the vine’ we find that God is most often the deliverer and the provider. Because we are looking to him, because we are pleasing to him, because we belong to him and God knows what we need.
    What does a person do in dire circumstances? They call upon God. How can they call on God and have faith when they’ve always looked at providing for themselves? this is a strange concept. Elijah was provided for by the ravens. In our world today this would be totally unacceptable. We think of provision in terms of the ‘houseboat, the trailer, the second car, the yearly vacation, etc. etc. I think in a general sense there is enough money to provide for the elderly parents, the normal types of medical expenses. Maybe not the kids’ education. We just can’t live ‘high on the hog’. Most people think in terms of designer clothes and not downsizing, paying off debt, living modestly and honestly.

    In addition, the teaching of the ministry of the saints in the church is ministry to the world. To unbelievers. What I see alot in scripture in the NT is ministry to the saints of God. The churches emphasize something different today. Believers will allow other saints to be destitute in the church unless the leadership has a program in place to ‘occasionally help out’ an unfortunate believer. Do we owe other believers a living? No. But can we help alot more than we are? I think so. Believers are forced to go to the world for help and churches are not leading by example of how God is the provider. Churches are parasites. They take and rarely give. In our day saints are not even being ministered to regarding much of anything, except how to bring more people into the ‘great machine’ so to speak.

    For what? That’s the question of today. The churhc is irrelevant and nonfunctioning in the manner that it should be in our day.

  3. Anthony Rose

    Remember that the church is us, you and me.
    Christ in us by faith.
    Prayer is the key, and obeying the leading of the Spirit.
    It is our lack of the oil of the Spirit, grown dry on lack of prayer, that leaves us powerless and ineffective.
    And we don’t pray because we are caught up in the cares and pleasures of this world, the worries about finances and the interesting things on the internet.
    We need to take time out to offer a sacrifice of ourselves to God.

    • Anthony Rose,

      Prayer is not going to take my garbage cans to the curb on trash day. I still must do that. The same is true for a lot of other mundane tasks in life that form the basis of daily living. As Christians, we simply cannot ignore the mundane. The Scriptures say that those who do not work should not eat. For this reason we must work. And if we must work, then there must be a way in which a Christian does so that brings the most glory to God.

      When we become hyper-spiritual, we make light of the physical world in which we must participate. That hyper-spirituality was known as Gnosticism, and it was condemned as heresy.

      This is not to discount prayer. We simply do not pray enough in the American Church and therefore we have not. But doing better at prayer cannot come at the cost of ignoring the mundane aspects of life to which we must all attend. And if we must all attend to them, then there is a best way to do so.

  4. I get your frustration. I doubt if churches could cope with real relevance, if they’d know how to go about it when asked to do so. It’d be like asking a Noble prize winner to change a lightbulb. Christianity often talks nice but can’t get its hands dirty when really needed, when relevant. Now is that inherent to religion or something it can overcome?

    • Rafdevis,

      I think it is something that can be overcome. The problem is that I don’t believe it can be overcome unless we radically address the entire way in which we live today, top to bottom and in all areas of culture and society. I think the Church of the Apostles’ day did that; we are not. I think our situation today is more complex. I also think it is not impossible; we have simply let too much junk distract us from dealing with the issue, so it goes left unaddressed and unfixed.

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