How is the good news of Jesus relevant for 21st century North Americans? More importantly, can the gospel offer anything to a society like ours?
If so, how would we know? Who can tell the church if it is relevant?
Ask any adolescent about fashion, and you will get absolute answers about what is important and what isn’t. As a grown-up approaching thirty, I have no chance at fashion relevance – at least in the eyes of thirteen year-old critics. Adolescents are driven in many areas of decision-making by peer pressure and a vague sense of anonymous judgment. They experience enormous emotional switches – sometimes nearly instantaneous – according to their feelings of security in a social situation. They will turn on each other in the blink of an eye when the social context changes. A mean-spirited bigmouth may attract a fan base, but the moment she is bested (or at least shut up) by a rival, the children will re-measure and gossip about their former hero.
Ask a thirteen year old what a relevant gospel would look like, and he’ll likely rattle off all range of qualifications, omitting what he actually needs. The gospel would be relevant if clothed like the latest superstar, or if the gospel were cool, whatever that means at the moment. But while adolescents may think they know what they want, they don’t have the perspective to know what they need.
Kids are so vicious to each other because they are scared and insecure. What they think they want is a cool gospel; what they actually need is a message of shalom, of well-being and peace and security. They want to belong, and they think peer acceptance will give them security. The gospel offers nothing remotely akin to coolness, but it does offer shalom.
Many Christians in North America are obsessed with the church’s relevance to society, which they measure either by some kind of intangible “with-it-ness” - pop culture or other pulse of the airwaves, or by political impact. The trouble again, is that being a highly perishable commodity, cool is also shallow and shame-driven. And political might is over as soon as it is achieved. A gospel whose relevance is measured by its coolness is so impotent as to be meaningless to those who need it.
Shame is a hidden but potent emotion in the West. We rarely use the word shame, because that would be square. Stodgy, frumpy, red-necked, bible-bashing, low-class, or Southern are all adjectives of shame when applied to Christians in North America. Millions of young Christians are desperate to distinguish themselves from such as these. The ultimate validation of their relevance would be acclaim from the culture, acclaim for their non-stodginess.
While we can rightfully be ashamed of a simpleminded, racist, or stodgy gospel, we need to stand for the good news, and if the good news comes into conflict with the Cool, we need to be ready to break allegiance with the Cool.
Then there are the policy-wonks, who measure the gospel’s relevance in political terms: who won, who can win, how the agenda is created, how society can be engineered etc. In this view, Pentecostals were irrelevant until recently because they voted in low numbers. Episcopalians on the other hand, who turn out in high numbers, and tend to participate in the political process, are considered far more relevant to American Christianity than mere numbers would suggest.
But all this gets us nowhere, and the never-ending pursuit of relevance for the gospel can never be won, as long as we don’t know where we’re going or what relevant will look like when we get there. But there is hope, because Jesus gave a brief and clear definition for us.
Luke 4 tells of Jesus’ sermonette in his hometown. He’d been teaching throughout the countryside, and his homecoming was a bit of an event. He was the man of the moment, relevant in that sense of the word. But showing up on the Sabbath at the synagogue, he read from the prophet Isaiah, and applied the message to himself:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Here we have the measure of relevance we’re looking for. The gospel is for the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed. Jesus was sent to bring them good news, release, recovery of sight and freedom. These are the things Jesus himself felt were relevant. Importantly, he did not announce the restoration of Israel, or the end of Roman subjugation. He went straight for the lowest people in society, certainly an uncool and irrelevant bunch.
In his book A Theology as Big as the City, Ray Bakke points out that the gospel is good news, not good advice. If the gospel is the most talked-about trend on the airwaves, but it isn’t good news for the poor, it is an irrelevant gospel. If Christians dominate politics and the pop-charts, but the blind remain blind, the gospel is meaningless.
More importantly, if the arbiters of relevance in our society think that such things as release for the captives and God’s favor are tangential, they themselves are irrelevant. If the anonymous judges of stodginess are bored by the gospel’s focus on the poor, who will we try to impress? The anonymous judges?
More people in this world live in dire poverty than the global total number of cool people, or movers and shakers. More people are blind – in every sense of the term – than will ever be concerned about such trite matters as relevance. And the sooner we North American Christians can get over our fears of appearance, and embrace the message Jesus announced that day in Nazareth, the sooner we will have the honor of being relevant to Jesus himself, in his mission to announce the coming of God’s reign.