Sunday, August 15, 2010

What is Truly "Relevant" Anyway?

by Tracey Bianchi

Church attendance in the US is on a downslope. Researchers like George Barna point out that while growth happens, in most cases a booming new church on the corner means a congregation down the street is closing up shop. Leaders wonder what it will take to flip this trend, with many tossing around solutions that include words like relevant.

Webster defines relevant as “having significance to the matter at hand.” I know, still vague. For some this significance means adjusting music, wardrobe, sermon style or church location. When I lived in Colorado significance meant mid-week worship so outdoor enthusiasts could disappear into the backcountry for a whole weekend.

For others significance means candles or liturgy, homeless shelters or social justice. Or perhaps, videos, hair gel and Rob Bell glasses. But ultimately, each community must discover for itself what God has deemed relevant to the matters he has placed in its hands. I find my proverbial feathers ruffled when I hear leaders prescribe overarching fixes for the church universal; leaders who wax eloquent about how exactly we all should rise from our slumber.

Here’s the list I typically hear: stay fashionably detached, rally around flashy justice issues, wear vintage t-shirts highlighting those issues, hang out in local coffee shops, lament the church every chance you get and always vote in a particular direction.

Now I don’t have a problem with any of these issues. I support global micro-enterprise, advocate for those in need and drink plenty of local coffee. I even sport my own t-shirt or two on occasion and believe justice is a mandate from God, not an option.

What I am adamantly against is the prevailing ethos that says a thoughtful and relevant leader must be about these pursuits, especially since Jesus does not strike me as overly trendy. And while he prescribed universal fixes for our world (justice, love, mercy), the manner in which he carried these out varied depending on his context.

Back to Webster. To be relevant is to have significance to the matter at hand. Frankly, not every matter is as sexy to the world as the list above. When we pastor and lead the elderly, relevance may look different. The “matters at hand” are aging with grace and leaving a legacy. Relevance when my grandmother passed was sitting at her bedside listening to Benny Goodman. When the matter at hand is holding a dying infant or comforting a family who lost a child, no one really cares how you voted or if your coffee is Fair Trade Certified; they want to know that you will listen.

Relevance is a shifting notion that ebbs and flows with our lives and the people we walk alongside. No longer does it make sense to offer sweeping prescriptions for what makes a church relevant. Rather than chase the trends of national leaders perhaps we should simply engage with the matters at hand—the lives God places before us each day. And if we relish these lives, obsessing over their well-being rather than a trend, we may just find ourselves utterly and indescribably relevant indeed.

Tracey Bianchi is a freelance writer, Women’s Pastor and speaker. Her book “Green Mama: The Guilt-Free Guide to Helping You and Your Kids Save the Planet” (Zondervan) is available on Amazon.


  1. Excellent. I look forward to sharing Tracey's thoughts in dialogue with friends.

  2. I commend you on your bravery to say there is a possible freedom from production. As the tally board to the side of the worship transforms from plastic numbers slid to LCD screens, Galatians 6:2 and beyond became a hired pastor of miscellaneous. The church community forgets their powerful purpose, doing life together and out loud.

    The simple experience of sharing a cheap diner coffee over saline stained scratchy napkins with a dear one who is desperate for her voweled union to continue another 20 years. To window shop with a niece who almost lost a "besty" to suicide has more relevant than standing among the black cords and concert lighting, 2 hours invested in aesthetics. To speak aloud a mur mur of a waning and much longed for connection takes bravery.

    I commend the courage to state the whispers of the community who walked in the church, noticed the disconnect, and returned to the natural ways of the community. Yell the battle cry of love, dear Colonel.

  3. Nice, Tracey. It is so hard to put it all together. I think Jesus' admonition to love as He loved will lead us to the relevant and significant approach--wherever and whatever and whomever.

  4. "Rather than chase the trends of national leaders perhaps we should simply engage with the matters at hand—the lives God places before us each day. And if we relish these lives, obsessing over their well-being rather than a trend, we may just find ourselves utterly and indescribably relevant indeed." Love that Tracey. I want that obsession! That is the church in rare form.

  5. Excellent thoughts, Tracey. Chewing on them...

  6. Thanks for well put thoughts. Going to share them with others...some may bristle and some may resonate.

  7. great piece Tracey- We can't lose simple compassion and connection in the pursuit of relevance.

    Sometimes I get tied up in pursuing relevance instead of being passionate about people... when I'm passionate about people.. relevance is.. irrelevant:)

  8. Well said Tracey S! When we become passionate about relevance rather than people, we become irrelevant. Thanks for sharing that thought! Such a tightrope of sorts, to be relevant is important but when we seek relevance for the sake of saying we are relevant than we miss the whole point. How to find the balance eh? Thanks for commenting!