23 May 2022

Relevance versus holiness.

Relevance became a pretty big buzzword among young Christians in the late 1990s. I was one of those young Christians back then, so I’d hear it all the time: “If we wanna reach our culture for Jesus, we can’t be one of those old fuddy-duddy Christians who act like we were wrong to progress past the 1950s. We gotta be able to interact with people outside the popular Christian subculture—and not just to critique and condemn them. We gotta be relevant.”

And no, this wasn’t just some clever reasoning we could use on old people whenever we went out and got tattoos. Well, okay, some of us went that route; but most of us honestly did mean it. The cultural conservatism of American Evangelical Christianity was making it impossible for us to share the gospel with our pagan peers.

And by “impossible” I don’t just mean really, really hard. I mean impossible.

Maybe you read my piece, “The limitations of legalists.” Maybe not; I’ll summarize anyway. Back in college I was trying to share Jesus with some pagans, and there was this conservative Evangelical who tried to insert himself into our conversation. To make him go away, I invited the pagans to a pub. Conservative guy’s tradition not only forbade alcohol, but even setting foot in a pub; shunning the appearance of evil y’know. It did the job and got rid of him.

The reason I knew to pull this stunt with him, is because I used to be the very same kind of conservative Evangelical. I would never have set foot in a pub—and not just because I was underage. I would’ve presumed anybody who practiced pub evangelism was probably a rotten Christian. (Even though I was a big fan of C.S. Lewis, and he hung out in pubs all the time—which I justified to myself by saying, “Well he’s British,” and ignoring the fact Britain has a drinking problem. Not to pick on Britain; my own homeland definitely has a drinking problem too. But I digress.)

See, if you don’t live in the Bible Belt, you gotta interact with (gasp!) liberals. Your neighbors and coworkers are often gonna be progressives who don’t bother to read the Moral Majority’s voter guides, and vote for the wrong party. How on earth are you gonna share Jesus with them? Many Bible-Belt Christians have told me they don’t even try anymore, and have abandoned them to the devil. But where I live, we don’t have that luxury… and some of them are so close to God’s kingdom, and all they need are a few nudges in the right direction.

Nudges in the wrong direction.

Unfortunately I sucked at nudging ’em. I was raised in conservative Christian churches, and the Christian Right had successfully convinced me you had to be conservative in order to be Christian. Had to. Every other political view was compromise.

Yeah, I had to grow out of this. What worked for me was actually getting involved in conservative politics. Going to party meetings and conventions, going to campaign speeches, going to fundraisers, going door-to-door to stump for candidates. Meeting the leadership. Seeing how they behaved in the back rooms. Seeing the hypocrisy, mainly.

’Cause at the same time I witnessed all this political stuff, the Holy Spirit was simultaneously working on my spiritual growth. I was trying to follow Jesus better… and trying to be a good party member. And found ’em less and less compatible all the time. Some of those party leaders weren’t Christian in the slightest. They were Mammonist, looked at us Christians with a great deal of contempt… and sucked up to us because they coveted our votes and money. I got to see an awful lot of that up close. And if I weren’t paying any attention to the Spirit, I’d probably dismiss this bad behavior for pragmatic reasons—hey, whatever wins us the White House, Congress, and Supreme Court. But it bugged me. A lot.

At this time I was also trying to share Jesus with non-conservatives, and getting all kinds of nowhere. Yes, some of it came from their bias and prejudices about what we Christians believe. Let’s be fair. But I kept living up to their expectations. I wore obnoxious political T-shirts way too often, so they’d jump to a dozen accurate conclusions before I ever opened my mouth. My own deficiencies in grace and good fruit—no help from my churches, who felt it was way more important that I conform to conservatism than actually be good—meant I made a crappy first impression, and found it really difficult to share Jesus with pagans. Because, of course, they wanted nothing to do with me. I was irrelevant.

There were a number of Christians who pushed “relevance” because, as I already said, they wanted to ditch their conservative lifestyle and do as pagans did. Others were full-on, full-throated progressive: They felt Jesus is way more compatible with progressive politics than conservative politics—and some of ’em eagerly joined the Christian Left. Others weren’t so eager, lest their Christian Right friends consider them apostate—but being “relevant” was their way of smuggling progressive politics into Generation X churches.

But most of us recognized the problem was, and is, politics. Doesn’t matter if they came from the Christian Right or Christian Left: Too many of us make Jesus conform to our politics instead of, correctly, vice-versa. Jesus is above these things, and when we’re proclaiming his kingdom, we gotta get the politics out of it. We’re not conservatives; we’re not progressives; we’re Christian. We have to be all things to all people so that we might save some. 1Co 9.22

Once I quit being conservative—and quit being a jerk (which is a separate thing; I am not saying they’re connected!) —I started paying way more attention to the “relevance” thing.

“But what about holiness?”

A valid complaint about the push towards becoming “relevant Christians,” is how so much of the time, being relevant seems to be way more important than being holy.

Yes, I’m using the correct definition of holiness: Holy means dedicated to God and his service. It doesn’t mean goodness; it means uniqueness. We’re gonna be different when we follow God. In most cases we’re gonna be weird. (Good weird, not creepy weird.)

But if you’re trying to be relevant, many times you’re gonna try your darnedest to avoid being weird. You’re trying to not alienate pagans with odd Christian behavior. Particularly odd conservative Christian behavior, which is gonna especially be off-putting to pagans who fled that stuff when they moved to less conservative parts of the country.

But what if God wants us to practice some of that conservative Christian behavior?

“Yeah!” conservative Christians are gonna echo… but a number of the things they wanna bring up as examples tend to be superficial and stupid. I know this one conservative Christian who will simply not stop complaining about tattoos. She’s pretty sure they’re forbidden in the bible, and on top of that just doesn’t like ’em on anyone, much less Christians. To her mind they’re the worst thing to ever happen to Christianity in the past 30 years. (I’d pick the growing lack of biblical literacy, but that’s me.) I could pick plenty of other examples which are just as dumb… and some of the racist ones will seriously bug you.

I’m talking more about the behaviors which overlap with works of the flesh. Stuff like promiscuity: Every so often I meet a young Christian who’s completely clueless that he’s expected to exhibit self-control in his sex life, and doesn’t. Stuff like intoxication, where they gotta get drunk or stoned every weekend, or talk about this wonderful experience they had with mushrooms. Stuff like envy, where they wanna know why they don’t have as many followers as some influencer, or why they can’t get as many people to attend their services as the megachurch in town.

Sometimes they’re so focused on relating to pagans, they forget we’re called to be apart from them in certain ways. Certain holy ways. We’re not to love what they love, pursue what they pursue, covet what they covet. We can’t. We belong to Jesus!

Most of us understand this. But same as every other selfish human, we lie to ourselves and justify our lapses into worldly behavior. Intoxication is justified because Jesus drank wine; promiscuity is justified because we’re to love our neighbors; envy is justified because we’re “envious for Jesus”; we got excuses for everything. It doesn’t work on Jesus, but he’s not really the one we’re struggling to convince.

Me, I say watch out for that fruit. Holiness is always compatible with good fruit. Relevance can go either way, so let’s not have it go the wrong way.