The Relevance of Being Irrelevant

Tullian Tchividjian

Many church leaders have been telling us for a long time that the church’s cultural significance ultimately depends on its ability to keep up either with changing structures and environments (innovative technology, for instance) or with the latest intellectual fad (such as postmodernism).

Recently I was flipping through a couple of well-known Christian magazines. I counted six full-page advertisements for upcoming conferences designed to help churches adapt in order to meet modern needs—“new ways for new days.” Some emphasized improved techniques, programs, methods, and advertising strategies. Others stressed our need to “emerge” from preoccupation with traditional truth claims and theology and to focus instead on what’s most important—relationships, caring for the poor, and social justice issues—forgetting that robust theological confession (belief) and Christlike practical compassion (behavior) are always meant to go hand in hand. To believe otherwise is like arguing that the wing on the right side of an airplane is more important than the wing on the left. Without both working together, the plane isn’t going anywhere.

But here’s what struck me: all this comes at precisely the time when our culture is growing weary of slick production and whatever’s new and is growing hungry for authentic presence and historical rootedness. Younger generations don’t want trendy engagement from the church; in fact, they’re suspicious of it. Instead they want truthful engagement with historical and theological solidity that enables meaningful interaction with transcendent reality. They want desperately to invest their life in something worth dying for, not some here-today-gone-tomorrow fad.

It’s both sad and ironic that this shift is now putting the church in the wrong place at the right time. Just when our culture is yearning for something different, many churches are developing creative ways to be the same. Just as many in our culture are beginning to search back in time, many churches are pronouncing the irrelevance of the past. Just as people are starting to seek after truth, many churches are turning away from it. As a result, these churches are losing their distinct identity as a people set apart to reach the world.

I have good news for all of us who are becoming weary of this pressure from church leaders to fit in with the world: we don’t have to. The relevance of the church doesn’t depend on its ability to identify the latest cultural trends and imitate them. “The ultimate factor in the church’s engagement with society,” Os Guinness says, “is the church’s engagement with God,” not the church’s engagement with the latest intellectual or corporate fashion. Contrary to what we’ve been hearing, our greatest need as twenty-first-century churches is not structural but spiritual. We need to remember that God has established his church as an alternative society, not to compete with or copy this world, but to offer a refreshing alternative to it.

When we forget this, we inadvertently communicate to our culture that we have nothing unique to offer, nothing deeply spiritual or profoundly transforming. Tragically, this leaves many in our world looking elsewhere for the difference they crave.

Ironically, the more we Christians pursue worldly relevance, the more we’ll render ourselves irrelevant to the world around us. There’s an irrelevance to pursuing relevance, just as there’s a relevance to practicing irrelevance. To be truly relevant, you have to say things that are unfashionably eternal, not trendy. It’s the timeless things that are most relevant to most people, and we dare not forget this fact in our pursuit of relevance.

In an article about younger generations returning to tradition, Lauren Winner notes that young people today “are not so much wary of institutions as they are wary of institutions that don’t do what they’re supposed to do.” What Christians are “supposed to do” is remind our culture that the things of this world aren’t all there is and that human beings aren’t left to the resources of this world to satisfy our otherworldly longings. Christians alone can provide our culture with that longed-for transcendent difference, because only the Christian gospel offers a true spirituality, an otherworldliness grounded in reality and history. Only the Christian story fuses past, present, and future with meaning from above and beyond. That’s what we have to offer and proclaim.

We Christians have been entrusted with an eternal, transcendent truth that can transform our weary culture and open others’ eyes to a world beyond their own: the story of a simple Jew who made a difference because he was different.

William Graham Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) is a Florida native, the new pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, and a grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. A graduate of Columbia International University (philosophy) and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Tullian is the author of The Kingdom of God: A Primer on the Christian Life (Banner of Truth), Do I Know God? Finding Certainty in Life’s Most Important Relationship (Multnomah) and Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different (Multnomah, April 2009).

Originally published December 29, 2008.

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