My question is, "To who, how, where, why, and when"?
I ask because most often churches seem to exist to please the pews and perpetuate the institution. OK, that's being cynical and we can all point to exceptions, but you and I also both know that much of what happens inside the church is disconnected from the real world .
If it is true (and I believe it is) that "The Church is the only organisation that exists for the well-being and fraternity of its non-members" (William Temple), then what does relevance mean?
Even churches (like mine) who are sincerely seeking to serve the community, struggle with irregular and poor attendance, wrestle with how to retain seeking visitors, and don't know how to be sustainable without burning out the leadership.
The problem is, are we at all relevant to the people around us? Relevant is defined as "bearing upon or connected with the matter in hand". The matter at hand, of course, is the well-being of people - and being-well means to be connected to God. So a relevant church must be one whose activities connect people to God. Basically its simply the great commission and all that: Jesus' "came to seek and save the lost", and Paul's "I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some."
Relevance! Huh. Easy to say, hard to be.
Some churches try to do this by turning the message into something that plays to peoples desires, like prosperity teaching or liberation theology. Other churches resort to professional music performances with slick and entertaining sound bites of sermons, or else they promote comforting cotton wool ideas like "Love is all you need". In doing so they twist orthodoxy to accommodate sliding morals out of a fear of scaring anyone away. Still other churches get around the difficult issues by never talking about them.
Jesus was not in a game of telling people what they want to hear just so that they would stick around. Jesus was about teaching people what they needed to hear, and if they walked away, then so be it.
So a relevant church is about uncompromisingly bringing Jesus to bear on the matters at hand in the best way possible.
If we want to be relevant, it comes down to how we phrase a key question. Instead of saying "While keeping our beloved conventions and traditions, how we can become relevant?", ask this question: "What do we need to be(come) so we have relevance, and after that we can ask about which of our traditions and conventions could be used to bring added value?" Its a structural reboot that takes the courage of the total sacrifice of all I hold dear in order to follow God's agenda. What have you got to lose?
Because that's what Jesus did. Jesus didn't look at people through the lens of traditions, when he bothered to look at traditions it was through the lens of people's need. And he was especially scathing about the massive accumulation of human devised rules and patterns of behaviour in the religious culture. So lets put aside all those, put aside convention and tradition for a moment - don't arbitrarily throw it away because some of it has great value - but for the sake of discussion put it aside for now. (But don't put aside biblical orthodoxy - on that we will be uncompromising.)
Now: what does it mean to be relevant in our city-focused and relativistic culture? It means beginning by engaging with where people are, and what the people are occupied with. What are the issues on their minds, and the inner fears they won't easily disclose? Ask yourself, "What are the conversations going on in the pubs, the restaurants, the tea rooms and cafeterias, the work place, the living rooms, and even privately in the bedrooms?"
A case in point: This year's Valentine's days saw the release of "50 shades of grey". This was the biggest box-office opener of all movies in recent years. You can bet that on Monday morning this came up in lots of conversations! If you're the Christian at work, how do you (representing Jesus) join that conversation? Well, at least you can draw on the conversation you had about it at church? You did you have a conversation about it at church, didn't you? Hmmm.
What are all the other conversations? Recreational sex. Global economy. ISIS. Climate Change. Tea party idiocy. Middle East unrest. Nuclear proliferation. China's growth. Fear, loneliness, and suicide. Drugs and addictions. LGBT and sexual identities. Alien in-migration (not extraterrestrials). Racism. Gender inequality. Rape. Unemployment. Crime and security. Homelessness. Poverty. Justice. Corruption. Tax evasion. Politics. Sex (again).
What would Jesus say if he joined these conversations (and for sure he'd be there: in the pubs, in the living rooms, on the sports fields)? Since you and I are Jesus to this world, what would you or I say? That's a first step in relevance - bringing Jesus' perspective into the important conversations that people are having, and that means knowing Jesus' perspective.
So if the conversation, and our message in conversation, is the first part of relevance, what's second? To deliver a message, there needs to be a messenger. In Jesus' time he called all sorts of messengers; fisherman (Peter), tax collectors (Matthew), and the intelligentsia (Paul). Each spoke into the community for which they were equipped, and they spoke in Joy, in compassion, and not in condemnation.
So relevance-part-2 is being a messenger who can connect with the culture of those being reached. In my churches culture that means being equipped to be able to transparently interact with:
1. A lifestyle based on technology and media which hold together a virtual world of relationships. Read this and see if you best fit the questioner or respondent.
2. A world view that holds no absolute authority, where self-pleasure is (the?) priority, and happiness an ultimate goal in life.
3. Attitudes of relative morals; "if it feels good, it probably is good, and who are you to tell me otherwise".
4. Relationships based on gratification and an idealistic objectification of pleasure (steered by the media).
5. An upbringing where ambition and acquisition are glorified, despite the costs.
6. Conversations where lifestyles are not to be questioned so long as no-one is perceived to get hurt.
7. etc., etc.
You know (or should know) your communities conversations. And so the real question of church relevance is this: Will you let Jesus take you down a road where many of your beloved conventions are stripped aside, where courage and compassion is needed to bless rather than judge, where we might need to go into the lives of people we'd rather avoid. It means we'll have to find Jesus' response to hard questions, be willing to become the messenger that speaks in a way that will be listened to in the places where its needed on the topics of importance.
Grace. Now that’s relevant.