Beyond Cynicism 5

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.

“Maybe Aunt Gertrude is not so out of touch.”

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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • rjs

    Oh this post hits so close to home. Biblical community and a wisdom culture not a relevance culture. Cross generational and cross cultural.

    These people come, even when they get nothing out of the service, because church is a community – not a Sunday service. Going elsewhere is tantamount to divorce, it destroys the community, the family.

    The last line says it all – known and knowable people move through life and die in communities; Christ-centered, gospel driven communities. Not “relevant” Sunday morning shows.

    An elderly gentleman in our church died last week, quiet, unassuming, unimportant, irrelevant – but cared for and cared about. Not the way a nurse cares for a patient, but the way a friend cares for a friend, a brother cares for a brother.

  • Diane

    Agree with this.

  • Susan N.

    This is the best post in the “Beyond Cynicism” series yet. “Cultural relevance” — I never really fully understood the meaning of that term. But, I think you are right to suggest that often, in real life and the way that people treat each other, it ends up looking more like irreverence or assimilation. What makes me most cynical about a youth-oriented church culture is that I am extremely suspicious that all the catering is about numbers and $$$ (after all, the older set won’t be around for long), and, Americans have long been obsessed and chased after the “fountain of youth”. Why should the Church be this way? Seemingly caught up in denial of our earthly mortality and impending (sooner or later) death… Very odd.

  • T

    On this point, I think we fail to recognize the power and “relevance” of true Christ-like mission and character. Several folks in our church just went to Willow Creek leadership conference. The kind of accomplished leaders of big churches and organizations that one would expect were there, but so was this woman named “Mamma Maggie” (http://www.willowcreek.com/events/leadership/speaker_mama_maggie_gobran.asp) who is often compared to Mother Theresa.

    My friends reported that her message contained no big fluctuations of tone or volume, and that she seemed to feel genuinely unworthy of the attention she was given. BUT there was no question who spoke with the most power to the group. Her life of selfless service to the poorest in Egypt seemed highly relevant to everyone there.

    My point is, to agree with the author, the most powerful form of “relevance” (even for 20 somethings, based on the number that are drawn to our inner-city mission/church from a local college) may be more cross-shaped than we realize. I say this too, though, about the idea that older communities will/can be “relevant” to younger people: yes, they can be powerfully so, if their community life is genuinely marked by sacrifice for the others, within and beyond the community. Jesus said when he was lifted up [on the cross] he would draw all men to himself. I’m thinking the same is true of his Church. We lose our most powerful form of relevance when and to the extent we give up that core. I’m afraid that the very typical older church that does often have high degree of (inward) loyalty, community and mortality won’t be relevant to many if it isn’t sacrificing itself for others in obviously Christlike ways.

  • Amos Paul

    “Irreverance is a marketing tool,” really strikes home for me. Even in my home church the leadership makes so many off hand remarks about how “We’re not like other churches,” etc. I think the gimmick made sense for a moment or two. But we really need to replace these sorts of instinct with a desire to love and respect all brothers and sisters in Christ.

  • John Lieb

    Great post, Scott. Wisdom is a hard won virtue and one that is rare but not altogether absent among the younger generation of believers. Perhaps more of us more “mature” types will demonstrate our hard won wisdom (and patience) and invest in friendship and mentoring relationships with this generation. I know I am grateful the generation that went before me did.

  • Adam

    As a 20-something I am often left with a sense that the older generation is not offering a wisdom culture. I often get the sense that I’m being offered a fear culture and if I want wisdom I need to look elsewhere.

    My life compared to my parent’s life is so much more complicated. I often feel that my parent’s generation was the generation that was too insulated.

  • rjs

    Adam,

    Far too often the older generation is not offering a wisdom culture – and we need to be discerning.

    But generalizations about insulated generations are kind of naive. There was war and draft and complexity and fear and conflict and failure and cynicism … The current generation of 20-somethings does not have it easy, but neither did the earlier generations. It was different in some ways, the same in others.

  • Amos Paul

    Wisdom should be recognizable cross-generationally, and not just by the young, old, or middle-aged. How else can we be certain what we’ve found is really wisdom?

  • John Lieb

    Adam, I would say that your observation “the older generation is not offering a wisdom culture” is probably generally accurate but, clearly, it varies greatly from situation to situation. My generation (BBoomers) haven’t been known, generally, for their embrace of tradition-laden community. We’ve been a generation of individualists.

    What do you mean that “I’m being offered a fear culture”?

  • Steve Sherwood

    I think “relevance” is suffering from a somewhat unfair backlash. Yes, the church should avoid being merely a mirror of the culture it is in, and irreverence, as stated here is not helpful. That said, we aren’t going to church with services in Latin or all reading our Greek and Hebrew texts. If Jesus was “incarnational” he had a culture. Tastes in food, music, humor and ways of dressing, talking, carrying himself that were appropriate and useful to the time. If the church is Christ’s body today, should we be different?

    Yes, in the early waves of both “seeker friendly” starbuckschurches and the emerging/emergent movement, “relevance” may have been deified a bit, but it now seems to be a contemptible term to many, and I think that is equally unfortunate.


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