How our quest to be relevant can backfire

Looking across our current cultural landscape, I’m recognizing more and more the insatiable desire that drives much of our human actions and attitudes – it’s the longing and need to have relevance in the world we live in. In other words, we all want to be in-sync or connected with society, our friends, our families, our businesses in a way where we have meaningful influence.

As created beings, humans are designed to live in relationship with others, so it’s natural for us to act in this mutually beneficial way. But is there a point in which our drive to be relevant overshadows our personal convictions or core values? Can we strive so hard to be accepting and accepted – to be relevant – that we can stray from the very things that define our value?

In striving for relevance, can we in fact become irrelevant?

A quick search online defines relevancy as “the quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate to what is being done or considered”. As a person interested in words and their meanings, I figured that the root meaning of the word relevant was correlated to real or relational. But, in fact, it is neither. Instead, it comes from the Latin word relevare, meaning, “to lessen, lighten, or be helpful”.

That makes a lot of sense when you think about it. The best way to have influence or make an impact is to act in ways that are helpful or enlightening. For evidence to be relevant in a trial it must help illuminate the truth. So to be relevant, the primary goal should be to enlighten with the goal to lift up truth. There is actually a biblical term for this called edification…it’s the intentional act of lifting another up through words, actions or deed. So, being relevant means being an edifier of others. Sounds like a great idea, right? To be relevant, I should support, encourage, and align myself with others so I can have positive influence in their lives. But, like most things in life, it’s not quite that straightforward.

Here’s the rub, sometimes the best way to lift others up is to lovingly but purposefully stand against the direction they are going.  A great example can be found in parenting our kids. There are times, especially in the teenage years, when we must choose to purposely forego being popular with our kids by taking a stand against their choices and judgment. Our motivation is not to make them miserable, deny them happiness, or stubbornly dig in our heels …at least it shouldn’t be. Instead, a good parent is willing to risk not being “liked” by their kids to sacrificially demonstrate a greater truth that ultimately leads to growth. Parents that fail to do so may find themselves in the long run being irrelevant in shaping their kids in a positive way. In their desire to be accepted they lose the moral authority necessary to lovingly discipline.

Does the same principle hold true in the society at large? Is it appropriate at times to risk popularity, perhaps even cultural backlash, to take an unpopular stand? Can we go too far in trying so hard to fit in with the current direction of popular culture, trying to say and do the right thing, striving to to be relevant that we lose our way?  Speaking as a follower of Jesus, isn’t this specifically what the “church” is called to do? To take a stand for truth in a “warped and crooked generation”? Interestingly, where I live, there’s actually a church called Relevant Church. Their stated mission is to “strive to teach people how to follow Jesus in ways they can actually apply to their lives today. In short, we make faith practical”. That’s a great mission statement and one I trust they wholly embrace. But unless they seek biblical discernment in making a clear distinction between practical versus principled they risk becoming an irrelevant church.

How about individually as a believer? Many have no doubt heard the warning that we should “be in the world, but not of the world”. The bible is replete with direction to take a stand for truth and even warnings about letting the world become overly influential in our gospel message (I listed several references below). Romans 12:2 challenges us to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will”.

Literally, that passage implores us to not allow our thinking to be shaped by the world, instead know and follow God’s truth (his word) and His will and be daily transformed into His image. Only then can we be equipped to offer something truly relevant – the truth of the gospel message from a platform of humility and grace.

The times we live in are perilous, and the decisions we make and the positions that we take have tremendous implications. As a business, a church, or an individual, now more than ever it is crucial that we think long and hard about the concept of relevance. Sometimes being a light in a dark world means taking a stand that may be unpopular in the present but bears fruit in the eternal.  Knowing how to act and where to take a stand is not easy, and there are no black and white answers. I encourage you to consider this reflection from Psalm 1:

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or set foot on the path of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the Law of the LORD, and on His law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, yielding its fruit in season, whose leaf does not wither, and who prospers in all he does.”

Tim Raglin, July 14, 2020

Other references: 1 John 2:15-17; 2 Cor 6:14-18; John 15:19; James 4:4

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