Rob Bell was only pointing out what so many think is obvious in remarks that have caused Christians of all stripes to hurry to their ramparts. He offered his opinion on the Church’s “inevitable” about face on homosexuality. Then he said something about the Church getting more irrelevant if it keeps quoting letters written 2,000 years ago. Lots could be said (and has been said) in response. The thing that got me thinking the most, however, isn’t what he says about homosexuality or the Bible; it’s the word relevance.
At first we may be tempted to say the Church doesn’t have to be relevant to culture; it only needs to be relevant to God. We may ask, “Was Jesus of Nazareth really relevant to Rome during his lifetime?” or “Are modern Christians in minority populations in the Middle East and Asia relevant in their own politics and culture?” Perhaps Christians in the Americas are unique in that we have been relevant in our societies for much of our history.
But then we must think better and harder than that.
Whenever we ask, “Does the Church need to be relevant?” the answer must be an unequivocal “Yes!”
Look at Paul. This is how far he went to be relevant:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Look at Christian scholars, activists, servants, who do not run away from the broken world, but toward it.
Look at the very magazine where this issue was raised for so many. Its name is RELEVANT, and it has become one of the most popular — and relevant — pages among young evangelicals not because it bows down to the world, but because it bows to Christ from within the world.
The real question we need to ask isn’t, “Does the Church need to be relevant?” It’s this: “Does the Church need to agree with the culture to be relevant?”
The answer there is more pertinent, and the answer is clearly “No!”
Relevance must be a goal of the Christian, but that does not mean the goal is to go with the flow. Christians don’t need to — in fact, should not — fit in with culture. That’s not how we stay relevant.
We stay relevant by living truth and speaking truth to power. We stay relevant by offering grace and forgiveness, love and hope.
If we follow Bell’s logic, it seems Jesus should have started worshiping Athena and Zeus and Caesar in order to stay relevant. That’s what the Romans were doing. It seems today’s Christian minorities in Mesopotamia and the rest of Asia should resort to nationalism and legalism to stay relevant. That’s what culture would have them (and us) do.
But no. We stay relevant not by conforming, but by reforming.
We stay relevant not by agreeing with wrong ideas, but by bringing a gospel perspective to the table. We stay relevant by not being in a bubble, but by having unbelieving friends, going where they go, talking about what they talk about, but doing it as Jesus would. He sat down with the world and dined, but he prayed before he broke bread and he did not condone sin even as he ate with sinners.
We stay relevant by going to the bar, but not getting drunk. Going to our jobs, but not becoming greedy or lazy. Going to public schools, but growing in our faith. Hanging out with the least of these, but not becoming hopeless or bitter. Hanging out with the popular crowd, but not becoming judges or resentful.
We stay relevant not by being of the world, but by being in the world. By engaging the culture, shaping it, letting the Kingdom take it, not running from it. We stay relevant not by making light of sin, but by bringing sin to Light.
So Rob Bell was right that the Church needs to stay relevant. But he was wrong that we need to snuff the wick of our ancient Light to do it.
For the world may not recognize the Light, but the Light is always relevant.