The Church and the Crisis of Relevance



With Pentecost just a few days in the future, it might be worth pondering the mission/ministry of the church in the present and the future. Pentecost highlights the importance of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit (I write about this in my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for a New Great Awakening).

I approach questions of the church as an interested participant who happens to be a retired pastor. I will have been ordained for thirty-seven years a week from today (June 9, 1985). Though retired for nearly a year (11 months) and receiving my pension, I'm still active in ministry (I spent the past eight months filling in at a Presbyterian church for a pastor on National Guard deployment). I still care about the life and ministry of the church, especially its local variations. I share the concerns of many who ponder the future of the church as it continues to navigate the ongoing waves of COVID. 

A major temptation for the church is to seek to be "relevant." What I mean by this is that relevance can easily become an idol. When this happens the church replaces God. I tend to cringe when I see churches advertise themselves as being "relevant." I do so because quite often relevance (and authenticity) is expressed in cultural terms, such that worship becomes entertainment and ministry a means to an end. 

Why am I bringing this up? Well, it's something that Andrew Root deals with in his book Churches and the Crisis of Decline. A full review is forthcoming, but I was invited to a clergy conversation yesterday that focused on Root's book. We covered a number of topics in the book, with the clergy sharing how the book was speaking to their context. While we didn't focus on the question of relevance, I did bring up what Root had to say about it.

Root has written a number of books about ministry and congregational life in a secular age. He speaks of the "Immanent Frame," that secular context in which we live, a context that is largely closed off to God. You know that God who intervenes from outside the immanent frame. In this book, he draws on the early pastoral Karl Barth to reintroduce transcendence into the conversation. 

So Root writes that "the immanent frame inflicts on the church a predicament of relevance by pushing the church (and transcendence) from the center of life to its fringes." But being moved to the fringes, he says, isn't the crisis. While the immanent frame doesn't "eliminate God from the universe," it devalues mystery, which decenters the church from the social imagination. In other words, the church as the place where God is encountered lacks relevance. [Root, Churches and the Crisis of Decline, pp. 98-99]/ So, we replace God with activity, with busyness, hoping this will make us relevant. Our problem, our crisis, so it seems is a lack of resources. We lack people, time, money, etc. Thus, we lose our relevance, or so we think. But as we ponder these questions, we might ask the question -- where is God? 

Root writes of this crisis of relevance:  

If the church could gain relevance, it could win resources in a world centered on commerce and consumption. But this kind of thinking implicitly concedes that the immanent frame is closed and God cannot personally act in it. This leads congregations to think they must, themselves, become the subject of their own story if they hope to survive. [Churches and the Crisis of Decline, p. 101].

   One of the attractions of Eastern Orthodoxy, especially the idea of participating in the divine energies, is that it invites mystery. It allows God to act, and I wonder if this isn't what people are desiring when it comes to the church. Celebrity pastors may be a draw, at first, but is their God-talk consumption-driven? In place of celebrity, are people really looking to the church for another self-help lecture? Or, are they seeking to encounter God? 

I don't have lots of answers but I think it's important to raise the question of whether we in the church, especially we who are clergy, are ready to let God be God. 


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