Andrew Byers, in his very fine new book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint, claims “cyncism is a sickness” and defines it as being contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives. Some become cynics today because they think the church is irrelevant, and it takes someone like Andrew Byers to speak into this accusation with wisdom beyond his years. “Honestly,” he asks, “what does a traditional church that doesn’t even have a PowerPoint projector have to offer twenty-somethings with iPhones?”
And it is hard not to be cynical, he observes, when you see church signs that say “To prevent sunburn, use Sonscreen.” Or, “God answers kneemail.” Or to feel a sense of one-upmanship with this church sign: “Not your aunt Gertrude’s church.”
Yes, the church can become totally irrelevant, it can become a ghetto, and it is sickenly wrong when it does become irrelevant. But, Byers, observes that “much of the disappointment may stem as much from a culturally conditioned arrogance as from a sincere commitment to missional, crosscultural living.” Byers’ point is this: the 20something crowd thinks “relevant” is what speaks to and in their culture, and Byers wonders aloud if their culture is not too insulated and specially designed by marketing firms. In other words, he pulls out the deconstruction tool to examine the accusation. And he’s not backing down from the need to be relevant but he wonders if relevance is not at times a mask for self-centeredness.
He critiques the notion that irreverence is a marketing tool. The danger of cultural relevance is potential cultural assimilation.
The gospel calls us to counterculture as much as to relevance.
The Bible does not advocate crowds or cliques, but community. And a biblical community was shaped by a wisdom culture not by a relevance culture.
Byers pastored in a small rural parish mostly older (irrelevant) people, and he says that culture can teach the younger culture three things:
1. Loyalty and devotion. Marriage lasted longer with that culture; commitment to one job and to one church lasts longer with that culture. These people come to church, he observes, when they get nothing out of the Sunday service.
2. Community: Byers says the younger generation wants community but struggles with the patience needed to create genuine community. These people stopped over unannounced.
3. Mortality: sickness and death are real. Known and knowable people die in communities.