About 10 years ago, I was part of starting an experimental, hip, alternative worship service under the umbrella the then-budding emerging-church movement.  Relevance was our mantra.  “How can we make the church more relevant for ‘native post-moderns’”? we asked as we consumed designer beverages at our planning meetings.

Though the experience of starting that worship was a good one, I do have to confess that 10 years on I’m skeptical about the very notion of relevance. I’ve learned that a desire for relevance – especially in the church world – has too much to do with performance, about keeping up with (or mimicking)  the culture and ultimately about making worship a commodity to feed a client base.  It is too often a last-ditch attempt for congregations or denominations to fight with futility against their own imminent death, by simply injecting a little ‘relevance’ into their worship.  Heck, maybe the youth will even show up!

And that might even work – at least for a while.  

However, I believe that relevance as a tool for renewal is ultimately a weak foundation.  Sure, one can patch up the holes and market things better, but the same dis-ease that led to decline is usually there and the ‘renewal’ is usually short-lived.  Sometimes being relevant merely delays an inevitable, perhaps even necessary death.

Relying on relevance places the emphasis on our own human hipness, tech-savvy, attractiveness or cultural know-how – rather than leaning and resting on the ancient wonder of the Triune God at work among and within us.

Fr. Henri Nouwen said this:

The first temptation with which the devil accosted Jesus was that of turning stones into loaves of bread. This is the temptation to be relevant, to do something that is needed and can be appreciated by people—to make productivity the basis of our ministry. (see the whole article here).

I have to agree with Nouwen.  The act of striving to be relevant is anti-gospel.  It is building on a foundation which is more akin to the modern religion of consumerism than the radical anti-consumer nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ – which calls us to a deep surrender of our selves.

All of this, however, doesn’t mean that we have to be frumpy.

I would actually posit that the opposite of relevance isn’t irrelevance, but is resonance.  Resonance is no more a biblical term than relevance.  However, I do think that the entire arc of scripture speaks of a God whose actions, be they difficult or comforting (at various points), resonate deeply with all of the created order.

As part in Christ’s Church, we too are called to this resonance.  Christ’s teachings, His life, His cosmic significance were not anti-populist – they certainly resonated with the crowd and with all creation.  At times that resonance led to adoration.  At other times it was a grating, challenging resonance – and got Him in big trouble.  But what He did and said resonated deeply, even when it wasn’t relevant to the dominant culture(s) around Him.

The difference between ‘relevance’ and ‘resonance’ may be subtle, but within the distinction there lies a serious question about motivation and how one frames their approach to life, community, creativity and worship.  It is the difference between clinging to the idols of self-importance versus deep surrender and trust in the God who created and sustains all things.