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Beyond ‘cool’: Being Relevant

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Everyone seems to be talking about being “relevant” these days, as you already know since you’re visiting this website. Relevance has become the new measure by which we judge everything Christian—music, churches, authors, etc. “Are they relevant?” we ask. I personally feel some dissatisfaction with this word. It seems our generation has defined relevance in terms of cultural relevance, which, for entertainment junkies like us, amounts to pop cultural relevance.

No one would ever say it this way, but the message I’m getting is that relevance is a matter of being up on the latest entertainment trends and being able to discuss them intelligently. On these terms, being a relevant Christian seems to amount to being able to express some aspect of your faith in a way that is in keeping with the best of the latest entertainment trends. So, being relevant means—being cool? Are you starting to see the problem?

Every generation has its cultural idols and blind spots. Our parents’ generation was heavily political, and Christians of our parents’ generation were convinced that if the Church was going to remain relevant to the culture, it needed to acquire political power. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and other organizations were attempts by that generation of Christians to be “relevant” and “influential.”

Today, we laugh and perhaps even weep at the folly of an overly political agenda for Christianity. We have seen the effects of Christianity becoming another special interest group, just a wing of the Republican Party. We wonder how Christians could’ve gotten so off-track. We wonder because, frankly, ours is not a politically minded generation, and so we do not have the same blind spot our parents had. Ours is an entertainment-minded generation, which leads us down a different, but still very off-track, road.

If we dress the Gospel in the clothing of the latest pop culture trends in the name of “relevance,” we run the risk of making the same mistake of our parents’ generation and of countless other generations before us—of allowing the world to set the agenda and push us into its mold. We will not have a politicized Gospel, as the previous generation created, but we may have an en-culturated Gospel. Instead of being political elites, mocking those who are out of touch with politics or who disagree with our brand of it, we may become cultural elites, with the same arrogance and the same narrow mindset.

The Gospel isn’t about politics. America will not be saved by the election of a Republican president and a Republican Congress (as we are seeing right now). But the Gospel isn’t about the latest entertainment trends either, and America will not be saved just because Sixpence and P.O.D. are hitting the top of the charts.

Christians of the last generation seemed to want the world to look at them and say, “Look how politically influential they are. We’d better respect them.” I’m afraid too many in our generation want the world to look at Christians and say, “Look how cool they are. They’re not that different than we are. Maybe we should like them and listen to them.” Yet Christians in the early Church didn’t strive for either of these things. The world looked at them and said, “Look how they love one another. They’re so different from the rest of us. How could this dead man named Jesus give them such hope?” Now, there’s real relevance.

Some of you will no doubt be thinking, “But music and movies and art are the language of our generation. It’s what our generation understands. We have to speak in that way.” Perhaps. Yet how different is that from saying, “But politics is the only language this culture understands. If we want to be heard, we need a political voice”? Jesus has given us a language to speak, a language that matches the Gospel better than either entertainment or politics—love.

In the last generation, while some were busy building a Moral Majority, others were in the streets loving the dropouts and deadbeats. These longhaired people-lovers were known simply as “Jesus People,” and some of them may have made good music, but that’s not what made them powerful in reaching a lost generation.

So, who wants to be relevant? Well, I do. I want to speak the truth of God in a way that my generation will understand. But I don’t think we’ll do that by capturing the White House or the music charts. I think we’ll only do that by loving one another and the world around us radically and sacrificially—just like Jesus.

[Jason Van Bemmel is a seminary student and freelance writer who works for New Covenant Christian School in Bel Air, Md.]

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