The word relevant is being used pretty selfishly these days when it comes to the church and its teachings. People have become so individualized with their “faith” that they either stop coming to church altogether, or they shop for the one that best meets their own perceived needs and preferences.
This word relevant may be better suited for a magazine title than the reason we attend a certain church.
The Matter at Hand
The definition of relevant is: “having a bearing on or connection with the matter at hand.” When it comes to church, what is the matter at hand? The matter at hand should be the covenant renewal ceremony of God’s people. The climax of this ceremony is the preached word.
Unfortunately, when the word relevant is used for church, the matter at hand is usually a reference to an individual’s life–is it relevant to me? And so, when we accuse a church of not being relevant, we mean that there are not enough messages about my struggles in work, marriage, sexuality, and finances. We mean that the music is so 19th century. Maybe we want it updated to the 21st century; or maybe we want it more like the 5th century. Either way, the matter at hand is what will get me out of bed on Sunday morning.
Should the church cater to these whims of preference in worship? Is the matter at hand the potential types of people walking through their doors, or is it faithfulness to the Word of God? What shapes our worship service?
In her essay The Dogma is the Drama, Dorothy Sayers confidently asserts:
Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much worse for the pious—others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of being offended at something that is not Christ and nothing like him? We do him singularly little honor by watering down his personality till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ (Letters to a Diminished Church, 20,21)
That is the matter at hand! Do you see–Christ is everything?! He has made it possible for us to gather together—chosen in him, redeemed by him, called, justified, and set apart to become like him! We are “called out” (ekklesia) of the world at the beginning of the week to receive a foretaste of our inheritance. Through the means of grace that God has ordained, he is making us like Christ! A church that is faithful to the true drama of worship not only gets me out of bed, but has me looking forward to next Sunday.
Relevant Bible Study
One workshop I attended at the TGC Women’s Conference was titled “Word-Based Ministry to Women,” given by Nancy Guthrie. She made a point that really stuck with me: expect the Word to do its work. Often in a small group Bible Study, there will be times when someone comes in burdened by the circumstances in their life. We are tempted then to put aside the lesson to minister to this hurting person. Guthrie challenged our own arrogance in setting aside the study of God’s Word, substituting advice and comforting for Word-based ministry. We surely should take a moment to pray for this hurting person. But is their situation more relevant than the Word of God, which is the point of the small group study?
Guthrie went so far as to share a personal example. After she discovered that she was pregnant with her second child affected by a fatal genetic disease, she didn’t even feel like going to her Bible study. But she went. God’s Word spoke directly to her heart. That particular lesson wasn’t about losing a child, but it was exactly what she needed to hear. As God’s Word ministered to her that day, Guthrie was able to tell us years later how thankful she is that her teacher didn’t set aside the lesson to “minister” to her.
Sure there are times for meeting together just for fellowship and meeting one another’s needs. But we should never substitute time that is set aside for Bible study to use our own methods of comfort.
So when we use the word relevant, we need to make sure that we are clear on the matter at hand.