Thoughts on the idolatry of relevance

Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously;
never have Christians been more irrelevant.

—Os Guinness

It’s an important belief of those who believe in and make use of contemporary worship forms that the church must be aware of the world in its public worship; from this belief, they argue that worship must be “contemporary” and “relevant.”  Unfortunately, these two words misfocus our discussions of worship.  If we aim to be contemporary, we end by elevating the new above all else merely because it’s new; our interaction with the world around us grows shallow and unanchored, for we can offer little more than a Jesus-colored version of the existing culture.  While this may well make people comfortable with us, it doesn’t give them any sense of the difference between worshiping in the presence of God and being one of the folks in the culture at large.  Similarly, if our goal is to be relevant in our worship (which includes the sermon), then we will focus on what people want to hear and feel and meeting those desires rather than on reaching to their central need, which is for God.

This is not to say that the church shouldn’t be aware of the world, or try to understand the world, as if somehow striving to be irrelevant would be better; clearly, that isn’t the case.  Rather, the problem is the assumption that “relevance” means being relevant to the world on its own terms, and that if our worship is to connect with the world, it must do so on the world’s terms.  This is essentially an assumption that in the relationship between the church and the world, the world is the senior partner, and that we must defer to the culture around us as the arbiter of what works and why.  This tends to produce a plastic, results-oriented view of worship, in which worship is to be judged by numbers and approval ratings—by outward signs, rather than by inward realities—and thus in which we understand our worship primarily in technical terms, as a human act which is primarily designed to meet measurable goals.

This would be well enough, if worship were in fact a human act about human realities, for then the details of our worship would be negotiable with the various voices of our culture.  This view of worship rests on the assumption that worship is something which we initiate for our own purposes, which may include but are not limited to the desire to please God, and thus is something which we have both right and reason to manipulate as we please in order to achieve our own purposes.

The problem is, this assumption is false.

Worship isn’t something we initiate, it’s something to which God calls us out from our own purposes and activities, and which exists wholly apart from them; in the words of the Baptist pastor the Rev. Dr. Bruce Milne, “worship doesn’t begin with us at all, it begins with God.”  Properly speaking, it also ends with God, and is about him at every point in between.  That’s why, in the classical Christian understanding, worship always begins with Scripture, “because God takes the initiative and we respond.”

As already noted, this doesn’t mean that the church should conduct its worship in ignorance of the world, or without taking the world and its conditions into account; rather, it’s the reason why we need to be aware of the world, and the proper frame for that awareness.  As the Catholic priest Fr. M. Francis Mannion, president of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, put it in a remarkable article in First Things, “The Church is—or should be—never more intensely aware of the city than when at worship.  In liturgy, the Church is opened out to the world, and the world in all its dimensions is drawn into the act of worship.”  Indeed, Fr. Mannion goes further, arguing that “The task of the liturgy is to symbolize and sacramentalize the liturgy of the heavenly city in the midst of the earthly city. . . .  The public worship of the Christian community gathers up the liturgy of the human city, [and] gives expression to the religious yearnings of the human city.”

This is a viewpoint rooted in the ancient image of the two cities, the city of God and the city of this world, and the idea that the church is called to unite the two, bringing the heavenly city to earth and lifting the earthly city up to heaven.  It’s on the basis of this understanding that the late Yale professor Fr. Aidan Kavanagh wrote, “What the liturgical assembly of Christian orthodoxy does is the world.  Where the liturgical assembly does this is the public forum of the world’s radical business . . .  When the liturgical assembly does this is the moment of the world’s rebirth—the eighth day of creation, the first day of the last and newest age.”  This is an astonishing vision for the worship of the church; rather than casting the task of the worship planner and worship leader as tinkering up a version of Christian truth which those outside the church will find familiar and comfortable so that they can come in and be at ease, this sees that task as something far greater and far more challenging.

The church is to be aware of the world in its worship, not to seek to match its style or to attempt to be relevant to the world on its own terms, but in order to offer its true relevance:  to show and tell the world those things with which it is not comfortable, because it has forgotten them.  Rather than being a public echo of the world’s familiar business, we’re called to be “the public forum of the world’s radical business,” the place where the world is called back to the root of every matter, the source of every existence, to confront the God who made it; our worship, insofar as it meets needs, should be meeting needs which the culture does not see.  Insofar as it’s about us at all, which is only secondarily, it should be building us up as the people of God to go out to serve him in the human city as agents of the city of God, and not for any other purpose.

The reason for this is that just as our worship is not primarily of or about ourselves, neither is it primarily of or about our present time; rather, in our worship we act by faith as theological time-travelers, bringing the eschatological future of Jesus’ return into the present age.  In our worship, we stand before God in “the moment of the world’s rebirth—the eighth day of creation, the first day of the last and newest age,” participating in that moment in faith even as we continue to live in creation’s unfinished seventh day; our worship is the point at which that future and our present collide, in which the heavenly city is enacted in the midst of the earthly city.

To be “relevant” as the world understands relevance is to collapse that, to seek to worship only in the present time; it is thus to fail to worship in the sure and certain hope of the world’s rebirth, the time when Christ will return and the Alpha and Omega will make all things new at last.  That’s why “relevant” churches tend to be all about this-worldly concerns like your paycheck, your sex life, and your golf game, seeking to help you do better what you’re already doing—they’ve lost the vision for anything greater, because they’re only worshiping in this world.

The church is called to be active in this world, yes, but in a very real sense, we’re called to worship in the next.  As someone has said, we’re supposed to worship with bifocal vision, seeing both the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ—simultaneously.  It’s only if we seek to do this that we’ll have the vision we need to have as the worshiping people of God; and at the same time, it’s only if we seek to do this, rather than to give the world a vision which it’s already prepared to accept, that we’ll be able to show it what it really needs to see.

Posted in Church and ministry, Quotes, Worship.


  1. Rob,
    I love your line about being “theological time-travelers, bringing the eschatological future of Jesus’ return into the present age.”

    As much as I agree with all you’ve said, though – how does it work out in practice? I haven’t personally experienced any churches shallow enough to simply try to appeal to the world’s interests in worship style or sermon topics. But there are still issues in terms of music styles, sermon topics, etc.

    The church we currently attend does try to “speak the language” of modern unchurched people – such as by avoiding (or at least clearly defining) “religious” words such as redeem, elder, repent (“do a U-turn toward God”), and using a music styles familiar to most people (our worship leader writes a lot of his own songs, which tend to blend jazz, blues, rock, country, and I don’t know what else).

    I do miss the liturgical elements of Presbyterian worship, though. Once in a while we read a prayer together, and occasionally we recite a short Scripture passage as a group. But there is no prayer of confession (with rare exceptions), no call to worship (unless you count the worship leader’s very informal words of welcome), almost never a benediction. (I have to admit I don’t greatly miss ten-minute pastoral prayers, though.)

  2. While I do think that chopping down the liturgy is unhelpful, and that we have to be extremely careful replacing biblical language with our own (I consider both unwise, though I understand the impulse), I don’t believe either is really the concern; nor for that matter is music style as such.

    What matters is content, and why we do what we do with form. You can use songs written in the last three years and creative forms in the service of radical worship (for lack of a better phrase at the moment); you can use the most ancient liturgy and the most popular hymns of the 1940s and never worship God at all.

    Churches that seek radical worship rather than relevant worship might look and sound (stylistically) very different; but the content of what is said and sung will have certain things in common: to steal a phrase from Jared, it will be “cross-centered, grace-laden, Christ-focused, Gospel-driven,” aimed at drawing us into a posture of worship before and submission to the Triune God, concerned with what he desires of and for us, not what we desire from him.

    I haven’t personally experienced any churches shallow enough to simply try to appeal to the world’s interests in worship style or sermon topics.

    Then you’ve been fortunate to have good pastors (no surprise). Sadly, I’d have to say that I have.

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