by Lenny Esposito
Relevance. It's the buzzword of the day, especially for churches looking to capture and retain young people today. Many church leaders have a justified concern that they are losing the next generation, especially given studies like the one conducted by Lifeway, showing 70 percent of young adults ages 23-30 stopped attending church regularly for at least a year between ages 18-22.1 Christianity Today, in commenting on how to keep youth committed to church, offers the advice of "Disciple, disciple, disciple. If your student ministry is a four-year holding tank with pizza, don't expect young adults to stick around. If, however, they see biblical teaching as relevant and see the church as essential to their decisions, they stay."2
I agree that movie nights and pizza parties won't hold our kids; these provide no distinguishable difference from the social lives of most college dorms. But what does it mean to be "relevant?" Here are a few things relevance is not:
- Relevance is not being hip. Some think that relevance is wrapped up in the style of worship that's played on Sunday morning or how fashionable the youth pastor appears. But that isn't relevance, it's faddishness. If a church is trying to be relevant by importing Ray Bans, beards, and baristas, it won't work. College campuses will always be more cutting-edge than the church, and will change more quickly.
- Relevance is not using the newest media. While a great web site, sermon video integration, and similar technologies can help the church communicate its message more effectively, it doesn't make that message relevant to its audience. These are methods of communication, but what's being said is more important that the medium used to say it. Advertising has tried to use every conceivable method of communication invented, but in a house of all boys, the sale of pink dresses has no relevance to me whatsoever.
- Relevance is not offering "how-to" clinics on crafts, workshops on budgets, or cooking classes. I have no problem with churches reaching out to their congregations in offering such instruction. This can many times be a good service to provide to a community that could not otherwise afford to enroll in a community college course or something along those lines. But relying on such activities on their own does not offer relevance in the lives of others.
Relevance Means Making a Difference Where it Counts
So, what is it to be relevant, especially to young people today? The concept of relevance is much deeper than clinics, communications, or pop-culture. Relevance means making a real difference where it counts. The early church was relevant because they dealt with the difficulties that real people faced. While the Greek writer Celsus criticized Christianity as being the religion of "only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children, of whom the teachers of the divine word wish to make converts,"3 it is precisely these individuals, the disenfranchised, that Christianity helped the most through its teaching that all persons bear the image of God…
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