What Price Relevance?

The church is always in crisis.  If you don’t believe it, just read any preacher from one of her Golden Ages.  All of them, from Augustine to John Kennedy, thought they were living in ‘cloudy and dark days’.

The 21st century is no exception.  True or not, the perception is that the church is in deep, deep trouble.  On this at least, believers and non-believers are agreed.  For the one, it’s time for a ‘ho-ro gheallaidh’; for the other, for lamentation, and with the lamentation comes panic: a panic which is equally pronounced among Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists and Presbyterians.  We have put ourselves in a dilemma.

It’s quite simple.  We either keep our identity, and become irrelevant; or we become relevant, and lose our identity.

But relevant to what?  To modern culture, of course.  The problem with this is that there is no one modern culture.  There are myriads of them.  There are the great ethnic cultures of Africa, Asia and England; there is rural culture; and there is urban culture.  Then, within urban culture itself there are the differing cultures of the city-centre, inner-city housing estates, and suburbia.  Besides, this urban culture spills over into rural areas, as more and more professionals choose to live in country villages and commute daily to their city jobs.  They have no interest in rural life as such, but by sheer force of numbers (and an incorrigible belief in their right to rule) they swamp the rural culture and render it powerless.

The signs are that it is to this urban professional culture that the church seeks to be relevant.  Very often, these professionals are completely unaware of having a culture.  Like fish in water, they swim in it, but give it not a thought.  It’s others who have a culture, with all the limitations that implies.  Yet, aware of it or not, they most definitely have a culture: one marked by academic achievement, professionalism and consumerism; and oddly enough it is within this culture that the church is currently most successful.  Walk into any Presbyterian church and this is what you’ll find.  The minister himself belongs to this culture, and so do nearly all of those around him.  They run the church, and they run it as they run local authorities, health boards and businesses.

There is nothing peculiarly Scottish or Presbyterian about this.  Anglican church-planters such as Joe Hasler complain loudly that ‘The Church of England plc’ has no idea how working-class culture works.  Bishops and their advisers know no culture except the professional, and spin even their innovations out of their own heads, with no regard for the situation on the ground.  They assume that working-class people would like the informality of ‘house churches’, whereas for the most part they like their religion ritualised, prefer the traditional hymns they learned in Sunday School to unfamiliar modern songs, and would prefer not to hear in church the same music as they hear at a pop-concert.  And the Church also forgets (according to Hasler) that working-class culture has its own way of ‘doing community’.  Women play a far greater role than they do in suburbia, the street is not only a thoroughfare but a meeting-place, and gossip plays a major role in setting and maintaining values.

It’s easy to parachute outsiders into such a community: ministers, assistants, youth workers, administrators, musicians, who all know better than the locals and who come complete with spread-sheets, targets, reviews, line-managers and the other paraphernalia of professional management.  But how will working-class people ever take ownership of such a church, as they did in the days when dockers and shoemakers and fishermen not only provided the leadership and the pastoral care, but also did the minutes and kept the accounts?   Do churches have to become so mono-cultural that only professionals can fit in?

But the problem is not simply that there are so many different cultures that we cannot be relevant to them all.  The deeper problem is that there is not, and never has been, any culture which is naturally sympathetic to Christianity.  Urban professionals may be the dominant culture in the church, but most of their class are more likely to be ‘football casuals’ than church members.  It’s hardly surprising, after all.  How can you expect people to believe that a Jewish criminal executed for treason and blasphemy 2000 years ago is still alive and is the world’s Saviour?  If relevance is to be our criterion, we’ll have to change our message; and with our message, our identity.

Political parties can face the same challenge, which is why Tony Blair invented New Labour.  Do we need New Christianity?  The church is certainly tempted.  But just how radical will the change have to be to make us relevant?  Adaptation will always be a part of evangelism.  What suited the past will not always suit the present; what is Scottish may not be vitally Christian; and what makes for the church’s convenience may not always promote the gospel.

But even to adapt, we have to have a theological framework.  Otherwise, we can never identify priorities.  If we base our preaching on sociological research, and simply ask, ‘What will bring people in?’ there will be little Christianity left.  Creation will have to go, and the virgin birth, and the empty tomb and all those stories about miracles.  Above all, the cross will have to go, because it’s repulsive and ridiculous; and so, too, will all that talk of self-denial, completely out of place in an age which expects us to ‘be all we can be.’

Of course, we can still be aspiring social workers, and we can do ping-pong, and we can march against capitalism.  But what’s that got to do with being a church?

As for my own church, the question is whether, for the sake of relevance, it must give up its Calvinist identity and allow itself to be assimilated into Evangelicalism.  There, on the face of things, breadth and tolerance prevail, and theology doesn’t matter.  Behind the face, however, is a determined army of Baptists, Pentecostals and Dispensationalists, who wouldn’t give up one of their cherished beliefs for anything in the world.

I am happy to learn from them, but my culture is as valid as theirs, and I see no reason why its voice should be silenced.


This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on Friday 14 December 2012.