Why a Church’s Quest for Relevancy is Irrelevant

Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California, U.S.A. (Soon to be renamed “Christ Cathedral”.) Photo by Arnold C.

I want to actually highlight an article at The American Scholar by Jim Hinch, which is a far better (and insightful) read than my post and if you don’t have much time, rather read that article than my post. The article is about the Crystal Cathedral, a well-known church in American evangelical churches, and its ceasing to be a church.

As per Wikipedia:

The Crystal Cathedral is a church building in Garden Grove, Orange County, California, in the United States. The reflective glass building, designed by American architect Philip Johnson, was completed in 1981 and seats 2,736 people. The church is known for one of the largest musical instruments in the world, the Hazel Wright Memorial organ.

The Crystal Cathedral is now owned by the Catholic Church as Robert H. Schuller‘s ministry went bankrupt and had to sell the building last year. Amongst Christian evangelical circles, that’s all old news, but the article has inspired me to highlight something that I think is worth talking about when it comes to Church: the quest for relevancy is irrelevant.

What do I mean by that and why do I say that? It’s simple. Note how Schuller was brilliant at assessing his surrounding culture at a specific time and place, became really good at speaking to that culture, but was then was unable to speak into (or out of) any other culture, rendering his entire style (and perhaps even message) irrelevant merely decades later. The quest to be relevant had no sustainability. Yet, when you get involved in church leadership, it seems as if – many times – relevancy to culture is everything.

Here’s my opinion on this subject: it’s not. Being relevant has never been the goal of God and you certainly don’t find it in the Bible. That’s not because the good news of Jesus Christ is irrelevant, it’s just that it’s timeless, yet modern evangelicalism has, in so many ways, traded timelessness for relevancy to culture, and that relevancy is always short-lived because cultures and people change. It’s one of the many reasons why so many churches just become outdated, boring, and, well, old.

About fifteen years ago, I remember many people who hailed people like Schuller as a hero highlighting how traditional Christian denominations had become so stale, boring and irrelevant (usually stated under spiritual language like, ‘There is no life of God there.’ No, maybe you just don’t like the music.) Guess what? Those who criticised traditional churches are now the old, boring, irrelevant leaders and churches. And also, interestingly enough, the denominations carry on while Schuller’s church didn’t even last 50 years.  (I’m not taking a dig at Schuller, I’m simply being frank.)

The good news (Gospel) of Jesus Christ is timeless because it’s made up of a timeless message, timeless practice and a timeless person. While you might want to highlight certain aspects of these – particularly the message and the person – and present them in creative ways, there’s a big difference between what is art and what is this relentless quest for relevancy. The former often speaks to people’s souls and minds in a powerful way (and can continue to speak over generations) while the latter usually speaks only to pop culture. Well, they don’t call pop culture bubblegum culture for nothing – when people are done chewing all the taste out of it, they spit it out. If your church wants to appeal to what’s popular now, the only way to keep doing that is usually to have a lot of money. And at some stage, you’ll find the money dies out, like Schuller found.

Let’s not forget timeless practice – loving the poor, the marginalised, the outcasts and the hated is something that will always be relevant. I don’t care about your culture, loving these people is going to impress far more people in any culture than cool smoke machines and flashing lights, or perfectly practiced liturgies, or amazing preaches. Spending 10 hours to preach to impress might have some fruit, but spending ten hours loving someone unloveable… it may be more difficult, but it will bear far more fruit. The practices of prayer and working on your character to become more loving to others will also always be relevant. So, what’s more important – cool music or solid character? It’s obvious. Yet where do so many evangelical churches spend their money, time and effort?

Obviously, there’s a lot to say about celebrity culture and the Prosperity Gospel and those sorts of things, in light of Schuller, but both of those developments in the church are about the quest to be relevant. It’s not the quest of the Church, folks, and if you want to build something sustainable that will outlast your lifespan, I say: build on timeless Truth.

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