One topic that I spend a lot of time thinking about in the church is that of “Relevance” vs. “Reverence.” The difference between these two terms says a lot about why different churches do what they do and why there are differences between them.
We hear a lot about being “relevant” in the church today. It’s not surprising – the common complaint about liturgical churches that we hear today is that it’s not “relevant” for the new generation. It’s a claim that is worth thinking through. What does it mean to be “relevant?”
Nobody would argue that the world is pretty messed up right now. It seems that Christianity is more and more out of favor – and out of touch – every day. Sometimes it seems like among Christians there is a sense of panic setting in. What are we going to do? How should we respond?
Today we hear people saying things like, “We need to re-envision the church.” Or “we need to reinvent the church.” And in a small part, I agree! But I would add a bit more by saying, “We need to re-envision our expectations of the church.” Or maybe, “We need to rediscover the church. Rather than invent something new, we would do better to rediscover the church that Jesus Himself gave us. The church that He gave turned the world upside down. But today, it’s more like the world is trying to turn the church upside down.
The increasing desire today is to make church relevant to the culture. The hope is sincere: we DO want people to hear the Gospel. We should think about if we are doing things that make us inaccessible to other people. But we should never sell out our identity for the sake of relevance. Surprisingly, relevance at the cost of reverence is a recipe for a dying church! Some of the most “relevant” and progressive churches in America are also some of the fastest declining churches. Oh, a new pastor or new energetic push might increase numbers in the short term, but soon the fad grows long in the tooth, and people go looking for excitement somewhere else; maybe at a football game or a rock concert.
At all cost, the church must still be the church of Jesus, not the church of the culture. The pastor is not the entertainer. The pastor’s call to serve is not to share their personal or political views. Pastors are called to teach the Scriptures, proclaim the Gospel, and administer the Sacraments. It is possible to try so hard to be relevant that a church is no longer even Biblical, let alone reverent.
The Book of Concord says in the Smalcald Articles that “Thank God, today a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” And yet, we like to make this more difficult.
Maybe the problem is not that we are tempted to be too relevant. Maybe the problem is that we have misunderstood what “relevance” even is. A church is “relevant” if it is honoring Christ above all. A church is relevant if it is teaching the pure Gospel of Jesus and faithfully administering the Sacraments of Jesus. Relevance is forgiving sins of the repentant, rejoicing in pure gospel doctrine. Relevance is joyfully uniting in the gifts that God has given to His people of all time and place. A church is relevant if a Christian ancestor might not be alarmed that we have traded reverence towards the God who saved us for relevance to a culture that won’t care about us anyway.
I thank God that we live in a time and place where reverent, truly relevant worship is still a protected right. And I thank God for you, my faithful, reverent brothers and sisters in Christ, who put up with me serving as your pastor in this faithful, confessional, reverent AND relevant Lutheran congregation.