Every pastor and church leader is reminded of one unfortunate truth. That is that young people are leaving the church or not coming to worship. We are having a difficult time, regardless of the denomination, in reaching the current young adult generation.
There have been suggestions, answers, and attempts to solve this problem. Each come with their proclamations that this is the way that God has ordained, that it will bring young people in, and will change the direction of the entire church. While these attempts have all been different, there has been some commonality. For the most part, the attempts to reach young adults have focused on the idea of relevancy.
The search for relevance in the church has been true to the word’s definition of seeking “social applicability.” In reaching young adults, the church has sought for ways to make the message of Christ applicable to their needs and to make worship entertaining and enjoyable. The church has sought to become more politically aligned with young adults, regardless if they are conservative or liberal. It has attempted to create worship spaces that are more comfortable, such as doing away with pews and adding more comfortable seating. As well, it has tried to use things young adults are interested in and tried to make them Christian in nature.
While these ideas, and others, were developed with the purest intentions, none of these gets to the heart of what it means for the church to be relevant. These ideas are contextual in nature, which means that these ideas seek to engage the larger culture, but they are not relevant. True relevancy is much deeper than marketing schemes, outreach strategies, and worship space design. It is about a vision that guides our ministries and the mission of the church. True relevancy is about a deep engagement with the Triune God that seeks to cultivate practices that produce a worshipful way of life.
It is only when we are seeking a deep relationship with God that we can be relevant. The message of the Good News of Jesus Christ is relevant to the needs, issues, and concerns of a broken world. It is the church’s mission to share this message with the world.
True relevancy, then, is about truth. In our postmodern world, we have a difficult time with a statement that is based on a certain set of beliefs being true. The Christian faith is based on a certain set of doctrines, which we hold to be true, such as the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. In reaching younger generations, we have shied away from our historical roots and our doctrines to make the church more acceptable. This is the wrong approach. When we take time to teach the depths of our doctrines, and why we believe these statements, we see that these truth statements say much to us today, about how Christ is at work today, and about the mission and life of the church. As pastors, if we desire to be truly relevant then we must be willing to teach what we believe and why we believe what we do.
True relevancy is also about relationships. The church that is truly relevant, or vital, is the one that is encouraging its members to be in small groups. These formation groups foster relationships and create opportunities for accountability. We are not Christians in isolation, but in community. We need the support of others, and the church must be a place that promotes relationships. As we become a culture more defined by social media, I believe the church’s advocacy of small groups will be one of its most defining cross-cultural messages. That is because with small groups we are reminded of our need of community, our need for relationships, and our common bond with one another.
True relevancy is about a life led. We cannot proclaim to be “relevant,” if we are not willing to be followed by Christ. Leaders must be disciples as they seek to disciple communities in faith. How we live our lives matters. Our actions is the greatest indicator of what truly guides and motivates our lives. The church that desires to be truly relevant is the one that doesn’t just preach the Word, but also lives it out. It must be a both/and. We need both the verbal proclamation of the Word, and the Word lived out in community in the shared experiences with others.
My deepest desire is for the church to be truly relevant. That is our hope. It will only come when we are true to our faith in Jesus Christ and not when we are seeking to be like the world for the sake of numbers.