We are told if we aren’t relevant, we’re dead. Church, if you want to grow, you’ve got to be relevant. If you want to connect with younger people, you’ve got to be relevant.
The Baptist Standard isn’t a church, but we hear the same thing. If we want to connect with readers, we have to be relevant.
Then we publish op-eds like Anna Shannon’s about Jesus awakening Lazarus, and I wonder if we see the irony. Shannon’s strength is not in her trying to be relevant but in her being authentic. She’s simply telling us her story—a powerful one at that. Some might respond, “Yes! Authenticity—that’s relevant!”
As the church and the Standard, however, in our trying to tell relevant stories, are we paying attention to the subjects of the stories we tell?
Using Shannon’s story as an example: Lazarus wasn’t relevant; he was dead! Jesus didn’t make Lazarus relevant; he made him alive!
Do we care more about being relevant than about being alive?
When we phrase the question that way, of course, we care more about being alive than about being relevant. But we don’t phrase the question that way. We put the em-pha-sis on relevance.
Our church, local association and state convention leadership regularly talk about relevance. Are we relevant to our communities, to our churches, to our state? What do we need to do to be relevant—by which we mean, how do we stay alive?
In other words, we make relevance a necessary condition for staying alive. May I remind us of Lazarus?
I get the spirit of wanting to be relevant. We want to be seen as needed. Oops. I mean, we want to offer what people want, as opposed to offering what nobody wants. If nobody wants what we do, if nobody’s buying or joining, then we’ll dry up and die, and we don’t want to die.
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I get not wanting to die. It’s what makes following Jesus so hard—the whole denying ourselves, taking up our crosses thing. Who thought that was a good idea? Bad marketing, for sure.
And there is a difference between denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and lying on our sick bed trusting Jesus is going to show up and heal us lest we die. I think.
But everyone says we have to be relevant.
Relevant means connected to what’s happening now. That’s the rough dictionary definition, but that’s not quite what we mean.
What we mean is, “Jesus, if you’re relevant to us, you’ll get to Lazarus right now!” Or, “Jesus, if Lazarus is relevant to you, you’ll get to Lazarus right now!”
The self-centered demand, that’s what relevance means to us today.
Jesus’ response? …
… Two days later, Jesus decided it was a good time to start for Bethany.
So, what about relevance?
While Jesus walks to Bethany, let’s think about relevance.
When it seems nobody wants what we offer, we begin to smell the sickness. And we know where this sickness leads. It leads to the stench of death, and that we cannot have.
I wonder what Martha and Mary and the others did to keep death away from Lazarus. I wonder if they were anxious. I wonder if they tried to make themselves relevant to Lazarus.
I wonder how much they fought over what was the right and the wrong thing to do. Because that’s what happens when we emphasize relevance over being alive in Christ. We fight with each other because we’re anxious about dying.
Whatever Martha, Mary and the others did—besides sending word to Jesus—it didn’t seem to matter to the story.
After we send word to Jesus—“Jesus, people aren’t responding to us like they used to! What do we do?”—do we busy ourselves trying to be relevant, or do we wait for Jesus to arrive—even if he’s late—to make us alive again?
By the time Jesus started for Bethany, Lazarus was already dead. Martha and Mary, well, their relevance to Lazarus was narrowly focused by that point, centered on grief. When Jesus showed up, they communicated as much.
“We love you, Jesus, but you’re no good to us now. You’re irrelevant, outside of your friendship. You can’t heal him (or us) now.”
But Jesus didn’t show up to be relevant. Jesus showed up to call Lazarus back to life.
Death is inevitable. Scrambling for relevance hastens it.
Things are changing, aren’t they? My son’s in middle school. iPhones didn’t exist when he was born, and now I can publish the Baptist Standard from one with multiple other apps running at the same time because to stay relevant, I need to be on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—at a minimum—while staying abreast of current news.
Vince Smith says there’s the equivalent of one church a day moving to Collin County and that the diversity of that church is increasing. I remember when diversity in Collin County was a few different kinds of trees still growing in stretches between towns.
How do we stay relevant in the midst of so much change happening so fast?
While I’m not advocating for ir-relevance, I wonder if our anxiety about dying is causing us to expend ourselves in the wrong direction, and so approach even faster what we want so desperately to avoid.
Do we believe Jesus hears our prayers?
If we do, do we trust him to act?
What if, instead of scrambling to be relevant, we stop, see Jesus waiting those two extra days, and follow his lead by waiting for him to get to us? What if we wait for him to call us back to life and send us out to tell about it?
The headline reads: “Go into all the world and be relevant.”
The Bible reads: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).
If we’re going to be the people we call ourselves—Christians—and if we’re going to do what we’re called to do, we need to wait on Jesus. We’re going to need to trust the subject of the gospel we’re called to preach—Jesus Christ—more than we trust in relevance.