Creative LeadershipCreativityEngaging Culture

The Danger of Chasing Relevance

Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously;
never have Christians been more irrelevant.

— Os Guinness

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 hot 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.

Robyn Waters has written the insightful book, The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next.  It’s become a popular guide for business and marketing directors trying to create the next hot product based on current trends.   I bought the book expecting to find out just how silly and shallow American business has become, but as I read, I realized that the writer was onto something that most pastors and Christian leaders have missed about tracking trends:

“Trends are indicators that point to what’s going on in the hearts and minds of consumers.  And there’s a big difference  between a trend tracker and a Trendmaster.  A trend tracker looks at the signs to help his or her business stay up to the minute.  A Trendmaster, however, uses the trend information to determine where that minute is going.  Trendmasters start out by observing a trend, but then they translate that trend information into a direction that makes sense for their companies and their customers.

It’s not about chasing the latest new thing.  It’s about interpreting what that new thing means to your audience.

Jesus was upset at the religious leaders of His day because they knew how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but they didn’t understand the signs of the times.

I recently spoke at a major media conference with another lecturer who considered himself a “futurist.”  He was a college professor and had written numerous books on the future of entertainment and media.  He spoke for nearly an hour, sharing interesting statistics he had no doubt gathered from industry research and journals.  It was interesting stuff, but nothing the audience couldn’t have found for themselves.  After he spoke, we participated on a panel discussion, and I asked him about his recommendations for communicators in light of the statistics and data he had shared.  His respond surprised me and the audience as well:

“That’s your problem.”

He had billed himself as a “futurist,” but had done little more than compile data on technology from available books and other sources.  But when it came to application – how to apply that data to the issues we face in media today, he was a blank.  Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, he could see the appearance of the sky, but couldn’t interpret the signs of the times.

Being “relevant” is something far bigger and more significant that constantly trying to figure out what’s next.

Robyn Waters goes on to say:

“It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of tracking trends and to forget about the really good things that seem to last forever.  Don’t be so focused on the next big thing that you forget about those things that are always in style.”

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, bad hair, and tacky furniture).  To speak in the living room of the society, you must first get in the door.  In Acts Chapter 17 the Apostle Paul gave us the perfect example of how to engage the culture, and it still resonates today – especially when it comes to the media – no matter how brilliant your message, it doesn’t matter if no one listens.

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  1. Phil,


    I came on this a day late I think but would still like to post a comment.  I must admit that I have struggled with this issue.  You wrote the following:  

    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. 

    I am 6'5" so clothes my size that are "trendy" are hard to find. I try to use words that are understandable.  I have very little hair left.  I do try to speak on current topics as they relate to the Scripture I am preaching.  I don't play music (except a good stereo). The people know I like rock because I have mentioned it but not in a relevance area. Just because it was part of the conversation.  I wonder how I am perceived.  Oh yeah, I am also 55 years old.  But I pastor a church that is almost 4 years old and I am having the time of my life!  They don't care about clothes (just dress casual) or that I have very little hair or listen to rock music.  Every Sunday they want to hear the Word preached with sincerity and vulnerability.  If I can do that, I am relevant.  Am I off base?  

  2. Look at TBN's latest venture into the world of Broadway theatre. (I've said this before)They are about to get a baptism of fire, or a rude awakening, or they'll be laughed out of town, or they'll be totally ignored. But, based on their track record, I honestly (and sadly) cannot imagine them offering anything that even approaches extraordinary, or that garners rave reviews from any theatre critics. What a sad thing, too ~ 'cause, they could surely afford the budget of creating a great musical, or play. But the mentality and perspective necessary to really understand what to do with a trend, are clearly missing. I'm not saying they're dumb, but they just assume that they're already the next big thing, and that "Of, course" everyone will just love it.

    That's a symptom of what you're describing here, Phil. They think, "OK –  the trend is 'Blockbuster Musicals'". "So, let's buy a theatre." (Don't worry about the fact that up until this point they haven't created anything that's worthwhile).  "The public won't be that picky, they'll think we're cooool!!" and then they incorporate the thinking that you've mentioned before, in this blog, about leading blindly. The pastor pep-talk begins, "Come-on brother, get with this vision. If God is for us, then who can be against us?! We don't need a test audience" (And Onward Christian Soldiers plays somewhere softly in the background).

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