How Relevant is the Church?

By Paul Koch

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When we peruse the great smorgasbord of American Christianity, we find a seemingly endless supply of options and preferences available to us. The marketplace is flooded with choices competing for our attention, our dedication, and our dollars. Not only are there Baptists, Lutherans and Catholics; there are Methodists, Episcopalians and those who denominate themselves by declaring they are Non-Denominational. There are ultra-fundamental and crazy liberal churches; there are churches that cater to nudists and those that appeal to MMA fighting. It’s a rich bounty out there for those daring to sample the lesser known side dishes on the smorgasbord.

However, I wonder why there are so many options. Why are there so many versions of this thing called the Christian church? Why is there a congregation for just about every segment of our society from the insecure to the proud, and from the perverse to the boring? Now I suppose the answer is easy enough. It is the reality of what St. Paul warned of in his letter to Timothy,

“The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” (2 Tim. 4:3)

But I wonder if the ever increasing amount of options and versions of the church are driven not by passion alone, but by fear. That is, perhaps, what we see on the landscape of Christianity is the outcome of choices made out of the fear of being irrelevant.

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The common notion is that mainline Christianity is dwindling because it is no longer relevant to the lives of those it serves. As the older generations pass away and the coffers grow empty those who remain are awakened to their need to bring in more butts to fill the pews. I believe they have a sneaking suspicion that they are no longer relevant, they no longer have an influential voice in society. They fear their lack of relevancy so they seek out ways to change, to adapt, to be more appealing to the next generation. The fear of congregational death drives churches to do whatever they can to become relevant.

Perhaps we can be relevant by having a preschool or day school. Maybe what we need is to use more contemporary songs and musical styles in our worship, or just stick with the trusty organ but break out the incense and add a processional. We could go on short term mission trips or embrace thematic worship services that speak directly to the issues of our day.

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Now none of these things are wrong; none of them are unfaithful. In fact, if they are employed because a congregation believes that this is the best way to proclaim forgiveness to the poor in spirit, then I’m all for it. But quite often, I think such things happen because they are born from a very different place, from fear. The overarching fear that we have become or might become irrelevant is a subtle and pervasive form of idolatry in the church today.

If we fear, love and trust in God above all things then why should we fear being irrelevant?

Our relevancy lies not in our creativity but in the Gospel that we have been given to hand over to others. Where Law and Gospel are proclaimed and the gifts are given the discussion of relevancy recedes to the background. Now if we were to have discussion on what traditions and practices best enable the proclamation of Christ crucified, why then we would not be arguing out of fear but out of a freeing confidence in Christ. And I think that discussion would be very different and long overdue!

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