The Potential Irrelevance of Being Relevant

These folks aren’t self-consciously religious, though they may consider themselves “spiritual.” They blame the Protestant Christianity of their parents for much of what’s worst in the world. But if they’ve cast off their parents’ theological and ecclesial commitments, they have inherited a robust confidence in their own “essential moral rightness”. In fact, without the work of Christ or the fellowship of the church to fall back on, their sense of moral enlightenment becomes all the more crucial. It’s how they know their lives are justified; it’s how they know they belong among those who “get it.” — Matt McCullough on Joseph Bottum. An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and Spirit of America. Colorado Springs, CO.[1]

We live in a culture of shifting values, but some of the values, once shifted, have become somewhat stable. One of the values that we now embrace as an American and Western Culture is the value of being “relevant”, or “up-to-date” or “in-the-know”. While there has always been some appeal to this in society at large, with the advent of social media sites, cell phones and broad access television and media programs, it has become a perceived necessity. And with that value, of being “relevant” and “in-the-know” comes a social demand.

The mainline denominations have felt the demand. Numerous mega-churches feel and appeal to this demand. Our clothing caters to the demand, our church services and membership documents all tailor to this demand. What is the demand? The demand is that we conform to the culture that surrounds us, instead of influencing that culture for Christ. Many churches may have cast off the notion that a church is a kind of “corporation” or “business” that is selling a “product” to “consumers” – at least, many churches may have cast off this notion with their choice of language. But have we really cast off the notion, or have we just embraced new assumptions, new language and new looks to cover over the fact that we still think of ourselves as Jesus’ personal marketing agents in a big globalized corporate-run world?

Anyone who has watched “The Devil Wears Prada” may have a sinking suspicion that, even as we try to hold onto the value of what is inside, we have, as a nation and a culture, become obsessed with only external appearance. For instance, as a culture we affirm through our legal decisions that it is okay to disagree or even dislike someone just as long as you take no external or public actions to demonstrate that feeling. It is fine for you to believe what you believe inside your own home, or inside your own skin, but it is not okay for you to be open about it. If your beliefs in any way appear to infringe upon or affect another human being in a way that they do not desire, then those beliefs must be immediately silenced. This differs greatly from the founding ideas of our culture that said that any belief system that wrought material or physical violence to someone could not be permitted in the society – however one was certainly allowed to publically express through debate, through writing, through conversation and through social institutional guidelines, beliefs.

In our desperate attempt to remain relevant, to remain un-offensive and to be hip, we are quickly also becoming a society of mass-hypocrisy. We openly endorse that what you believe in your heart should stay there, and that your lips should profess things that may or may not actually be true. In other words, we, as a society, are condoning the destruction of personal integrity and all in the name of uplifting it!

While I am certainly not suggesting that we should take to the streets and offer all our opinions in an uncontrolled manner (also not wise and certainly damaging and hurtful) I am suggesting that our attempts as a society to become relevant will not only result in our irrelevance as a society but also in infidelity in all aspects of our relationships. It grows more and more difficult to know what another person truly thinks in a society that socially censures belief and consequently it grows more and more difficult to even know what we ourselves believe.

Let us obey the Proverb which reads: Do not be wise in your own eyes. Fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.

 As Christians, we are called to speak the truth in love. This verse expresses a tension between two realities that must ever remain tied together. While the culture marginalizes what ‘love’ means by abrogating truth’s involvement in it, we must be careful not to so uphold what we believe to be true that we lose all sense of love. Perhaps we could do better to remember Polonius’ advice to his son – “To thine own self be true, then thou canst be false to anyman.”

Let us as Christians turn again to the Scriptures to find again, in the heart of the Gospel, that grace and truth can live together in harmony – indeed, must live together in harmony – if we ever hope to possibly be relevant. We must look to Christ for our relevance, and not to our clothing.


[1] Matt McCullough is pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee and the author of The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming). Also: Excerpt from “An Anxious Age”, Aug. 6th, 2014 on www.thegospelcoalition/article/an-anxious-age

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