Last night I was talking with a friend about music. He shared a story that he had remembered reading about some violin virtuoso. This guy had traveled the world playing music with countless musicians, performed numerous times at Carnegie hall, and had established himself as somewhat of a deity in the musical world.

This particular musician thought that he would conduct a social experiment of sorts, and take his talent to the streets. He bought some ratty clothes, neglected to shave for a few days, and did his best to fit the stereotype of a homeless Los Angeles street performer. What he found surprised him. As he played magnification concertos of composers past, no one stopped to hear him. A man who had many times helped fill the most prestigious concert halls in the world with habitués who gladly paid $200 a ticket, was ignored by those who passed by him as he played under a bridge.

That conversation got my brain heading down a train of thought that I doubt I will be able to fully develop here and now, but this is what crossed my mind:

Why is it that semblance and environment play such a critical role in our observations, interactions, and decisions?

The aptitude and talent of this violin player had already been verified by the musical community he existed in. His skill was confirmed, his mastery substantiated. Why then in one setting is he praised for his gift, and in another completely overlooked? Are we that consumed by the packaging and presentation that we fail to distinguish, beauty from unsightliness, capacity from ignorance, truth from parody?

Pen and Teller did a fascinating segment on their show once regarding the inconsistencies in bottled water industry. They presented facts and figures and unveiled some pretty serious misrepresentations. One particularly fascinating piece of this episode was a prank of sorts that they pulled on some unsuspecting customers at a fancy local restaurant.

What they did was fabricate an entire line of bottled water, complete with phony labels with images of serene landscapes and cool glacier tops. They then create their own water menu with elaborate descriptions of each selection below it, some costing as much as seven dollars per bottle. The waiter would present the menu to the trusting patron, and after a decision was made, we would then fill that bottle up with a garden house behind the restaurant. Every bottle received stunning and unique reviews, but each was filled with the same rubber hose out back.

This is what sometimes frightens me about churches. I often wonder if we’ve become so adept at presenting ourselves exactly how we know people will want us to appear in order to appeal to their interests most fully. The word that seems to show up in these discussion most frequently is “relevant”, but I wonder if perhaps sometimes we’ve given relevance a far higher place in our doctrinal practices than we ought to.

To be clear, please don’t think that I am equating God to an old garden hose, or that all churches are ripping off their constituency, but is it possible that maybe some are in fact doing just that? I wonder if in many of our gatherings we are truly more concerned with the presentation than the content. We study and analyze the best and most efficient ways to distribute and promote, we carefully administrate our calendars and programs, and even plan our services down to the minute. But I have this unshakable feeling that there is a possibility that God looking for more than simply churches that practice good business structures.

Because really, when we allow the exoteric to call the shots in how we live ministerially, I think we miss the point all together. As Shaine Claiborne has suggested “We are to be relevant nonconformist, developing counterculture habits and norms, and living them in the midst of an insane world.” But far too often I feel as though we are nipping at the heels of what society has already deemed relevant, worthy, and significant and doing our best to duplicate that. It is disingenuous of us to do so because Christ, the one whom we model our lives after, seemed to do the exact opposite.

His audience would have caught the imperial language He often used, and understood the significance of the stance he was taking. He was calling His people to be set apart, in a most peculiar way. And He wasn’t calling them to an organization, a cause, or a movement. He was calling them to Himself. He was calling them to The Way.

Scripture is filled with commandments for how we should “be children of light”, and one of the recurring themes is that of a witness. I love the simplicity of 1 John 1:

“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us…” -1 John 1:3

Pretty straightforward, isn’t it? It carries with it the vibe of “Look, we’re simply telling you what we’ve seen, what we’ve experienced, what we know to be true in our lives in the hopes that you will come to know this incredible grace and restoration as well.” There’s no pitch, no gimmick, no clever tag line. Witnesses don’t need them, because if what they say is really true, they aren’t necessary.

This can certainly apply to individuals as well. Sometimes we can become so consumed with presenting ourselves as we want to be observed, that we can forget that we’re masquerading at all. We buy into it, hook line and sinker. Our infatuation with asserting our own value often has a way of diluting how Christ is seen in our lives. It’s difficult to live sacrificially when we feel as though we always have something to prove. I think Elbert Hubbard put it wonderfully:

“Many a man’s reputation would not know his character if they met on the street.”
– Elbert Hubbard

Now certainly I am not against promotion or community exposure. I absolutely believe that churches need to meet people exactly where they are at and disciple them in love and truth. In my opinion, relevance is not the problem -it’s the worship of relevance that is. Because a lot people will pay $200 to see a musician if they’re told that it’s worth it, or $7 for a bottle of water if they are convinced of its caliber. People around the world have made a lucrative business out of persuading people, and the church can easily adopt that ideology. But I believe that when the fire of God falls on a congregation in a powerful way, there won’t be much need for fliers and Facebook events.

The same is in reverse as well. So often the places we expect God to be are nowhere near where He actually is. In 2 Samuel King David, in all his majestic glory, decided that he would build God an equally majestic dwelling place. But God rebuked David sternly:

Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. (2 Samuel 7:5-6)

Instead of living in what symbolized the centralized political power of that time, God decides to camp. God is always close the people of suffering and pain, as He pitches a tent among His people.

So is it possible in our age of multi-screen amphitheaters, stadium seating, strobe lights and fog machines, we have forgotten how to dwell, to see the hidden beauty of God’s hand at work among the oppressed?

In June 2009 I spent some time by myself living on the streets of Philadelphia (a topic I may share more about in the future), and nearing the end of my short stay there, as I thought of the incredible people I interacted with, and the indescribable pain of their hidden struggle, I wrote this in my journal:

“Some art is kept behind brick walls and locked doors, but other art is exhaling out in the sun so that the whole world can breathe”

My prayer is that I never get so consumed by relevance and appeal that I lose sight of the cross. That the desire for powerful programming, insightful teaching, and efficient execution will never overpower my deep longing to bear witness to a world groping in the dark.

May we live with radical authenticity. May we look in peculiar, ugly, and messy places and find our Savior about His work, restoring and redeeming in the way only He can.

May we truly live.

One Response to “Relevance”
  1. I was planning on writing something about this topic in my blog as well. The idea of relevancy, I agree, has become a sort of disease within the Church. A lot of the thinking I have been doing on this subject has come form attending a secular university and reading books written from the standpoint of pluralists.

    The basic philosophy behind the cries for relevance are frequently based on a belief that religion is culturally derived. Perhaps the dress and decorations, the pomp and circumstance, of our gatherings is necessarily derived from some aspect of the current culture. But many people will call the moral teachings and the metaphysical propositions outdated. This identifies that these people do not believe in an unchanging God; the only kind of God worth believing in.

    Take God out the equation and what do we get? We get people who are concerned for aesthetics and not for substance as you point out. The profane is elevated to the divine; the divine is relegated to the trash heap.

    In word, they are Christians.

    In heart, they are atheists.

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