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Can the Church Still Be Relevant?

Whether it’s a student in a classroom, a parishioner in a pew, or a judge on American Idol, everyone seems to be asking the question: “How is this relevant?” Granted, the word itself may be trendy, and the labels “relevant” and “irrelevant” may be a passing fad, but the need to be relevant will never go out of style. Being relevant, however, isn’t about being on the cutting edge, or cool, or entertaining; being relevant is about telling a story or communicating a message that has real-life importance. And in this age of information, where we are confronted by an ever-increasing stream of data, the need to be relevant has never been, well, more relevant.

In recent years, the issue of relevance has been a hot topic in the Church, with clergy and parishioners questioning whether certain long-standing doctrinal positions and points of theology are still relevant. In response, some branches of the Church have altered a few of their positions, others have more vigorously defended all of their beliefs, while still others have obtained Twitter accounts.

The issue of whether or not the Church is still relevant, however, is not primarily determined by doctrine or the effective use of technology; the Church’s relevance is primarily determined by its ability to communicate its beliefs in a way that connects with the current culture. In other words, for the Church to be relevant, it doesn’t need to change or defend its theology, the Church just needs to explain its theology in a way that connects with people and the world in which they live. If the Church wants to continue being relevant, then the Church needs to contextualize the Christian faith, taking into account that in the 21st century:

  1. Our perception of the world has changed;
  2. Our perception of humanity has changed; and
  3. Our perception of God has changed.

Our Perception of the World Has Changed

Over the course of human history our understanding of the material world and how it came into existence has evolved. The current atomic theory—that atoms serve as the fundamental building blocks of nature—is a relatively new worldview and it significantly impacts our understanding of the Christian faith.

Take for example the sacrament of Communion. When a priest or pastor holds up the elements, pronouncing that this is the body and blood of Christ, what is he saying? 21st century people who ask this question want to know what is in his hands, atomically. The answer “We just believe it in faith” avoids the question and referencing a pre-Modern creed or theological statement isn’t helpful because it’s not written from an atomic perspective. The point here is not that the Church needs to offer a bio-chemical statement about what happens to the elements in Communion; the point here is that the Church needs to address 21st century questions in 21st century terms if it wants to stay relevant.

Our Perception of Humanity Has Changed

In recent years our view of humanity has also gone through significant change. We now have a genetic perspective on life, meaning that we see every person as a unique human being, each having his/her own distinct DNA. The implications of this new perspective are far-reaching. Just consider the impact it has on our understanding of human nature. An essential Christian doctrine has been the belief that every human being has a sinful nature that we inherited from the first man—Adam. From a genetic perspective, what does it mean that we have a sinful nature? Where do we look to find the sin that’s within us? And how is sin passed from one generation to the next? Again, I’m not suggesting that the historic Christian faith needs to be altered; what I’m saying is that the faith needs to be contextualized if it’s going to stay relevant.

Our Perception of God Has Changed

For most of human history an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, and virtually every other catastrophic event has been viewed as a supernatural act of God. Today we call these “acts of God” natural disasters. Our ability to rationally explain natural events also diminishes the number of “miracles” we see, because once we can explain an event, we no longer attribute it to God. As a result, we don’t see the hand of God at work around us the way people once did, and the more we progress, the less we will see God and acknowledge our need for God.

Where Do We Go From Here?

So where do we go from here? Given all that’s changed and will continue to change, is it possible for the Church to stay relevant? I think so, but not by trying to be on the cutting edge, or cool, or entertaining. You see, the Church always has the potential to be relevant because regardless of how much we progress as a civilization, we are still imperfect creatures, living in a hostile world, and sometimes God is the only relevant answer.

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