One of the most challenging things we face in life, is maintaining a healthy separation between what we need and what we want. For example, our innate need for affirmation and affection can often devolve into the reckless wanting found in a string of meaningless sexual encounters and addictions to pornography. Or our basic need for food, clothing, and shelter can metastasize into the wanting typical of greed and the self-involved avarice of consumerism. And our primal need to belong can get swept up in our wanting to fit in with cultural expectations until we negotiate away our principles and values – where individual conviction gives way to groupthink . . . the type of groupthink that ironically gets labeled “being relevant”.
Begging the question – “Being relevant to what?” At this point “being relevant” can be understood as either being relative to something in flux, or as being germane to something constant. And how we define “being relevant” can help give us insight on how best to distinguish need from want – because what we want at any given moment is a moving target, but what we actually need remains unchanged . . . even if we haven’t completely identified what we actually need.
Back when I was a youth minister, I would try to enlist adult volunteers, many of which assumed that they were unqualified because they didn’t imagine themselves as being relevant enough to high school culture. They erroneously thought that being up to date on the current jargon, fashion, and music would be required to bridge the gap of relevance – but that would have only made them relative to youth culture. But what was actually needed, was a willingness to love and listen to these teenagers as individuals, giving each of them the dignity of their significance – so that the group identity could be built on what was truly germane to the needs of these transitional years.
Today, so many folks talk about the need for the Church to be relevant – and I couldn’t agree more . . . but again, there’s a need to define terms. Any juxtaposing of traditional with contemporary can only seek to measure relevance by indexing how relative to current cultural ethos our practices it can be. Which is inextricably predicated on the assumption, that the ever-shifting mores and values of a culture perpetually trying to figure out what it wants most, will be the best path for discovering what the culture actually needs . . . and the mission of the Church isn’t to offer the world what it wants, but to lovingly help it discover what it needs.
This isn’t to suggest in the least that traditionalism is somehow sacrosanct — because what has become traditional can quite often fail in its ability to address the real experienced needs of its practitioners. When church practices become disconnected from the meaning they once represented, they either need to be recognized as germane to our faith and reconnected to their original purpose, or they need to be abandoned altogether as only having been relative to a bygone day. But what is immutably central to Christianity is Christ and his ever-pursuing love and grace, ever-seeking to find us in our deepest need — in this regard His Church is always relevant . . . because he is always relevant.
. . . and our need for God’s guidance is always relevant.