“Religion is redundant and irrelevant,” declared famed atheist Richard Dawkins in a debate three years ago.
Dawkins’ opinion is shared by many others today, some of whom make up Intellectual Takeout’s Facebook audience. 😉 In an effort to combat the spread of this attitude, in addition to increased secularization and an aging membership, America’s Christian churches have tried very hard to make themselves relevant.
And it’s been painful. From ugly church buildings to guitar worship services to lame social gatherings, churches’ efforts to be relevant have seemingly produced the opposite result—akin to the effect that a dad produces on his children when he tries to act “cool.” A religion that seeks to be relevant usually reveals just how irrelevant it’s become.
Here are two reasons why Christian churches in America—if they’re interested in surviving—might be well-served to ditch the effort to be “relevant”:
1) “Relevant” is a fickle concept.
As philosopher Josef Pieper points out in In Search of the Sacred, what’s supposedly relevant to a society is constantly shifting and undergoing alteration. Sometimes it refers to what people want, which can be unnecessary or shallow. Sometimes it refers to what people need, which can at the same time be unappealing to them.
Interestingly, what’s often considered “relevant” by society is usually what is in fact fringe. The most “relevant” are the “trendsetters”, those who by definition are ahead of the curve in what is considered fashionable and desirable. Staying “relevant” in this sense of the term requires speed and flexibility. The problem is that most churches are further behind the curve than other societal institutions and business, and slower to reverse course. Their efforts to be relevant are thus usually stunted and doomed to failure.
2) In religion, people are seeking something “other.”
There was a highly-read Washington Post piece last year titled “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” In it, the author criticized the abortive efforts of churches to try to be hip, and pointed to statistics that show most young people prefer churches that are “classic” in appearance.
Despite the proliferation of mundane church buildings and services in recent decades, it seems that the desire for a clear distinction between the “sacred” and the “profane” still courses through most people’s blood. Etymologically, the term sacred means something that is “set apart” for the purposes of worship. Profane, on the other hand, is from the Latin for “in front of the temple,” and was used to designate the activities and aesthetics that were more properly kept outside of a sacred space.
As some of you may have noticed, Hollywood still appreciates this distinction. You’ll notice that when they portray the Catholic Church in movies, they’ll often show priests speaking in Latin and hearing confessions according to the old style—which still happens today, though it’s rare. Why does Hollywood resort to these earlier customs? Because they’re more mysterious and thus aesthetically appealing to audiences; because they typify the sacred rather than the profane.
Paradoxically, the means by which the Christian church grew in the first centuries was by being “irrelevant.” As sociologist Rodney Stark argues, Christianity spread in large part by caring for and ministering to those whom society had discarded—the poor, the widows, the orphans. Others claim a role for the witness of martyrs, those who preferred to die for their faith rather than bend to the demands of the secular world and its leaders. As the ancient saying goes, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Many churches today are still searching for a magic formula or program that will make them appear more relevant in the eyes of society. But perhaps it is by becoming more irrelevant in the eyes of the world that religion today has a shot at being relevant.