Battling for relevance

April 15, 2006 at 10:58 pm Leave a comment

Since our church services are very small and informal, we tend to incorporate a fair amount of audience participation in our study time. Accordingly, when the topic a few weeks ago was the concept of being “lights” in our communities, the discussion leader asked a couple of the kids for practical examples of how they could be a light in their neighborhood.

With a little prodding, Cindy, who is 9, piped up with an answer. “Tell them about Jesus” was her offering, which came out as half statement, half question. All the adults present immediately praised her for giving an excellent answer.

And she did have the right answer. Sort of.

The problem is that Cindy’s answer is unrealistic. She can’t just go back to her friends and “tell them about Jesus.”

Even if she had the nerve to try it, which I don’t think she does, walking up to her non-Christian friends and giving them an elevator-speech gospel message would probably not be a wise move anyway. And because Cindy knows her own answer is impractical, she won’t bother attempting to put it into practice.

In other words, our church has just created a hypocrite. Beautiful.

::

I encounter this hypocrite-generating problem regularly with the kids in our church. As the sole teacher for our youth group (which is comprised of a meager seven kids), my job consists of setting kids’ moral compasses and teaching them a Christian worldview.

In such a situation, it is very easy to get caught up in preaching. I sometimes find myself merely hitting my kids up the side of the head with all the things they are “supposed” to do.

Don’t lie, for example. Pray. Respect your parents, and listen to them. Pass up the temporary pleasures that pop culture offers in favor of the better spiritual rewards.

I believe in what I’m teaching, but I’m afraid I often sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher: “Wha-wa-waa-wah-wa-wa-waa.” Great words, maybe, but empty words. I tell these kids what they’re supposed to do, but it just doesn’t jive with real life.

I mean, lying seems to work, praying seems not to work, so which is Steven going to choose when it comes time to explain to his coach why he missed football practice?

The kids might recognize on some cognitive level that I’m right—that they should do what I’m telling them—but my maxims are outrageously impractical.

In other words, I’m setting these kids up to see the Bible as irrelevant. Unless I learn how to help them perceive the Bible as gravely immediate to their lives, they will either learn to speak out of both sides of their mouths (as their parents do), or they will realize their own inconsistency and let themselves out the back door of the church.

I don’t think I’m the only one facing this difficulty. American Christianity in general suffers from a lack of cultural relevance. When it comes to premarital sex, to telling white lies, to cheating on our income tax, to damning the driver who just cut us off, the gospel somehow doesn’t seem germane.

I have no easy answers about how to solve the problem, but I am becoming increasingly aware that there are certain things I can’t not do.

If I don’t want to lose the culture wars—if I don’t want to lose Cindy and Steven—I will have to refuse to accept clichés as answers. I will have to quit merely preaching and learn to explain the reason why. And I will have to discipline myself to bring up the hard questions before someone concludes that Christianity cannot answer them.

Relevance is a battle, I’m learning, and it’s sure not an easy one. But if the gospel isn’t immediately relevant, it’s not a gospel worth having.

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Profile

profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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