Creative Leadership

The Danger of Chasing Relevance

Ask a typical pastor or ministry leader what they want to accomplish with their ministry, programs, or products, and chances are, you’ll hear the words “be relevant.” “Relevance” has become the buzzword today – especially in the Christian media world, and applies to church services, TV and radio programming, books, music, and outreaches of all kinds. In this culture, everyone wants to be relevant. I’ve spent my career helping the Church speak the language of the culture, and being contemporary and relevant is part of that equation. But in that process, I’ve discovered that most people work so hard to be relevant, they spin hopelessly into irrelevance.

How? Most pastors and Christian leaders mistake “relevant” for “trendy.” They hope that if they wear the right clothes, use the right words, get just the right haircut, speak on current topics, or play the right music, they’ll somehow be perceived as relevant.

But relevance isn’t about chasing trends, it’s about standing the test of time.

The French philosopher and culture critic Simone Weil said, “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.” Ultimate relevance is about the principles that last – eternal Truths with a capital “T.”

That’s no excuse to wear tasteless clothes, sport bad haircuts, have a choir with no talent, or use out-of-date techniques. (I’d personally feel I had done my job on the earth if we could rid Christian TV of fireplaces, plants, blue curtains, and tacky furniture). To speak in the living room of the society, you must first get them to let you in the door. In Acts Chapter 17 the Apostle Paul gave us the perfect example of how to engage the culture, and today – especially when it comes to the media – no matter how brilliant your message, it doesn’t matter if no one listens.

But when they do listen, make sure you’re not trying to chase relevance. That’s a hopeless proposition, because what’s “relevant” changes as styles, trends, and seasons change. What was wonderfully relevant last year, might simply get a laugh now. Instead, build your life around what playwright Eugene O’Neill called “the eternal verities.” The things that last, and are eternal.

Pastors, ministry leaders, and conference hosts have followed hot on the trail of motivation, self esteem, prosperity, faith teaching, positive thinking, and more in recent years — all of which have certainly been high on the relevance meter in their time. But while we were trying so hard to be relevant, guess what? A non-believer — Dan Brown — wrote a novel called The Da Vinci Code about the origins of Christianity that millions of people read and millions more watched the movie. Sure the novel was “historical hooey” as movie star Tom Hanks said, but the book’s success revealed millions of people were asking serious questions about the beginnings of the Christian faith, the divinity of Jesus, and the validity of believing in God.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a pastor, or simply a regular believer sharing your faith with a friend or co-worker. If you want to be remembered, and have your message mean as much to someone 100 years from now as it does at this moment, then reach for a higher goal.

Ultimately, to really be relevant, stop trying so hard to be relevant…

Photo by Edward Cisneros on Unsplash

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4 Comments

  1. I just read this morning in Luke 11:42 where Jesus is basically chastising the Pharisees about their lack of being relevant. “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” Many leaders have a tendancy to do one of two things. 1. Focus on Ultimate Terms to the minimization of immediate concerns. 2. Focus on immediate concerns to the neglect of Ultimate Terms. But we need to do both. This post is an excellent reminder that to be relevant we need both the eternal truths and temporal provisions – not hype and bling. Someone needing a job, food, clothes, housing, understanding, and justice when they are wronged never go out of style. The deep issues of a person’s heart and mind are always an issue. How do we overcome the struggles in our lives? The Source of our relevancy as followers of Christ – is Christ. So we must remember that to be relevant is to always be motivated by the love and truth of God to meet the needs of individuals. In the Hierarchy of Needs, it is almost impossible for a person to go on to greater, more impacting heights in life if they don’t have food to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over their head, understanding and justice.

    Allen Paul Weaver III
    author, Transition: Breaking Through the Barriers
    http://www.allenpaulweaveriii.com

  2. Thank you, Phil for that quote: “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.” So vitally true, especially when it comes to preaching the Gospel. So many pastors seem to chase after the current trend in order to be liked, as if they were back in middle school all over again. But, the unfettered Gospel changes lives. The churches that preach the whole Gospel are blessed by God. I just wish our pastors took Weil’s message to heart.

  3. Very interesting analysis. I know you also measure ministry effectiveness by reaching an audience and getting results. So what could we consider “relevant results”?
    it’s very tempted to say that ministry X,Y or Z are being very relevant because they packed an auditorium every weekend, they sell out every music concert, or they make millions of dollar with their last movie. But is this enough?
    If being relevant is achieving eternal results, who can judge if we are being relevant or not?
    Sometimes we can see earthly result of our efforts, but sometimes we can’t. Only God can judge the eternal results of our efforts in sharing the gospel. Only Him can also judge if we are doing our best or just playing safe.
    In regardless of the popularity of our current results, we need to keep doing our best, so the Holy Spirit can continue using us to achieve results that we might see know or just in the eternity.

    1. Great thoughts Pablo. I think when we stop wrestling with those questions we start to lose relevance. It’s a balance that we may never achieve, but the pursuit is critically important.

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