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The Curse Of 'Relevance'

By David Wise.


Hedgehog is really terribly tired by - and for a long time distinctly bored by - the incessant call for 'relevance'. He seems to have spent his entire ministry hearing it.

The trouble is that those who issue the clarion cries seem not to have thought at any depth about what they are saying. They want everything to be readily understandable and easily accessible. As a result we have a proliferation of uninspired Bible translations, bland liturgies and repetitive hymns/songs, none of which is calculated to inspire anyone or change any life.

It's not that I'm against relevance, for goodness sake. How could I be when I serve an ever present Christ who speaks to every place and every age?

Nor is it that I don't want to fill my church building with young people - or at least younger than the average age of my present congregation.

But the truth is that man does not live by bread alone. Or to put it another way: we do not meet the deepest needs of people by thinking that the need for relevance is met when we dish up, in worship, what we (perhaps arrogantly and pompously) think they can understand. If that is our aim then what we give them will be thin and unsatisfying indeed.

Human beings operate at far deeper levels than that. It is to the shadowy recesses of the human spirit, the deep waters of the emotions that we should direct our efforts for relevance. And that means music, prayers, preaching, reflection, colour and symbols which may fire the imagination, which in turn, one hopes, may open the doors to mystery and wonder. And we need to be doing that in ways which do not reduce God and the meaning of life, death and eternity to the trivial and the banal.

As a young hedgehog I went on a County Youth Music Weekend. I knew little about music. On the Saturday afternoon our tutor produced an old wind-up gramophone and some 12inch 78s. From the latter he chose one, wound up the machine, placed the record on the turntable, lifted the sound head and dropped the needle (gently) on to the record. There came forth the sound of the Dies Irae from Verdi's Requiem. My life changed in that moment. I still don't know a crotchet from a minim or an allegro from an andante, but I do know that music moves me, does things deep within me which I can't explain. Some poetry does the same, not because I understand it, but because it reaches the parts that other, surface stuff doesn't reach.

This is what most of the apostles of relevance seem to ignore. Symbols, colour, sound, movement, words, music, smells all affect human beings at more than the intellectual or understanding level. We need our lives to be enriched by far more than what we can understand. We cannot live rich lives without mystery and imagination. Worship, then, and how we 'do church in general, must seek to involve and inspire those; to be so devised that those things are prompted and set free.

One of the troubles with Protestantism is that there is too much preaching in general and there is too much preaching in particular which sounds as if it has all the answers without too much difficulty. But if we can make God and His ways sound that easily accessible, then what kind of God are we proclaiming?

And too much of our worship is composed of bland and prosaic material. Certainly Anglicans and Methodists each lived for years with the exceedingly commonplace, and while current liturgies show improvements they are no match for former glories.

I suspect that part of the problem is that we became frightened of emotion. We didn't want people to 'feel', because that threatened dignity and good order. And under the growing influence of secularism we lost confidence and felt we had to explain ourselves in order to communicate. But it seems to this Hedgehog that we would serve people better if we professed fewer answers and sought to enable them to experience something of the God who passes our understanding - the God whose cloud of majesty fills the temple, causing us to fall down in worship before him..

Hedgehog is a pseudonym for anyone who has something they'd like to sound off about. If you'd like to be Hedgehog in a future edition, see the contact details on the back cover of this journal.

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You are reading The Curse Of 'Relevance' by David Wise, part of Issue 31 of Ministry Today, published in June 2004.

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