Why do so many people think faith is irrelevant today? I am absolutely haunted by that question. I hear them on TV or read them in articles saying that religion is pointless, even dangerous, and that they don’t need a church to tell them how to live a good life.
Well, actually, to be honest, they don’t say that faith is irrelevant they say that church is irrelevant, and by that they mean organized religion. And so you hear repeated ad nauseam the greatest cop out of the 21st century – “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious.” I’m sure there are people out there who truly believe that and can actually have an ever-deepening spiritual life without the benefit of a faith community. But I think that type of individual is very rare.
The truth is, I think, that “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious” is code for “I haven’t really given it much thought but I know that church isn’t for me.” That’s the idea I want to get at. If there’s such a hunger and thirst for spirituality in the world today, why aren’t churches bursting at the seams? Why do “they” think “we” are irrelevant – when we ourselves know that faith and church are absolutely “ear relevant”?
To be irrelevant is to be inconsequential, unimportant. But we know that faith is the opposite of that – faith is Ear Relevant – utterly consequential, supremely important. The Latin root of the word relevant means to relieve, to raise up. So, is the Christian faith as we understand and practice it of no essential consequence in your life or does it somehow raise you up?
Recent census data has shown us that there is one group that has exponentially grown in the Canadian religious landscape. Can you guess what group they are? “No religion.” Almost 1 out of every 6 Canadians flat out say what we are about is irrelevant.
Why is that? I think there are two main reasons. The first is that the organized church that they are rejecting is the one they might remember from their youth, or have seen on TV, or bored them to tears the last time they ventured into a church. In their mind church is stereotypically dry, dull, dogmatic, slow, strict, lifeless, intellectually facile, emotionally void, judgemental, hypocritical, homophobic, and hopelessly out of touch with the real world, and that we believe in an old man in the clouds who will swoop down and help us if we only pray hard enough.
Now you might think that list is unfair. Perhaps the church you attend is nothing like that. That may be true– my church, religion, and faith, are none of those things from my list. But I suspect you have an experience of church in your past (maybe even your recent past) which is exactly like that list – which brings me to the second reason why I think “they” think we’re irrelevant. They don’t know about us. We’re a secret. They don’t realize that many churches have profoundly changed over the years and are emerging as something entirely opposite to the unfortunate stereotype that we’re saddled with. It’s not that church was all wrong before – truth is truth, God is God, Jesus’ Way is Jesus’ Way – but we’re seeing it all with a renewed vision, experiencing it with a new sense of purpose, hearing it with a new set of ears.
People are on a profound spiritual quest, but they aren’t generally turning to churches to feed their hunger and thirst. Instead, they’re turning to Oprah and reading Eckhart Tolle, or dabbling in any number of world religions or new age spiritual experiences. My sister, who has only darkened the door of a church maybe 2 or 3 times in the last 35 years, loved Tolle’s book. She popped into my church to check us out a while ago. Do you know what her reaction was? “This was really uplifting,” she said. “It was nothing like what church was when we were kids.” In her mind, in her memory, church was irrelevant.
So, how do we break down that barrier? What would it mean to be relevant? What would that look like? Does being relevant mean being hip? Should I be getting a few tattoos and a couple more piercings, or bring in electric guitars and smoke machines, or maybe do my sermon as a hip-hop rap?
[drum sounds with mouth]
“Well I’m larry d and they call me rev
I don’t rap about hell or even heav-en
I’m all about J-dawg bein’ the Way
And how we gotta go deeper every day –Word!”
No? It isn’t about style, it’s about substance. Style is secondary. Trying to be stylistically relevant can be fun, but it’s not the answer. I think being relevant about matters of substance will go light years further.
I think our church is different today, is relevant today, because the shift in theological thinking that has been emerging over the last few decades has now taken root and is starting to really sprout and grow. Authors like Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, Diana Butler-Bass, Rick Warren, Jack Spong, Bart Ehrman, Bill Hybels, and Brennan Manning utterly changed the game for me and opened the door to faith being relevant again. (Yes, that’s an eclectic list of authors from a variety of theological worlds – that’s the point.)
When I read authors like these I can see something renewed, something transformed, something relevant start to really take shape. That’s where we are today. Instead of worrying so much about a system of belief, we’re focussing on a Way of Life – the Way of Jesus. “If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.” [Mk 4:23]
Let them hear! But they can’t hear if we don’t speak. And we can’t earn the right to speak until we take the time to listen, to them, and more importantly to God. But make no mistake, what we’re talking about here is incredibly relevant, it’s nothing less than light for a shadowed world.
And (Jesus says) to (us), “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. If (anyone) has ears to hear, let (them) hear.” [Mk 4:21-23]
Why do I think my faith is relevant – ear relevant even?
- my faith warms my heart – it’s emotionally engaging and passionately expressive and makes me feel abundantly alive and filled with peace and gratitude
- my faith stirs my soul – it fires me up and penetrates to the very deepest parts of my being, my self, my consciousness, and makes me feel in tune with something beyond my ability to describe
- my faith challenges my mind – it’s intellectually stimulating and engaging and drives me to think historically, theologically, systematically, creatively, critically, metaphorically, poetically
- my faith draws me into community – it’s socially satisfying and deeply connective as it calls me out of my navel-gazing cocoon and into the company of fellow journeyers who worship, work, study, play, hang out with me, and hold me accountable to my convictions
- my faith moves me to action – it teaches me compassion and caring and selflessness and demands that I follow up my high ideals with tangible activity that seeks to make a difference in the world by giving of myself and my resources
I believe that kind of faith can break down the barriers of the stereotypes that surround us. Living it out is a great first step, but until we speak it “they” won’t know what our actions mean. May God bless us in our journey, embolden us to place our light on the lamp stand of our society, and grow in us a truly Ear Relevant Faith.