Relevant Idols

The church is meant to be an icon–a picture of what divine love looks like that sparks a vision beyond itself.  The opposite of an icon is an idol.  An idol takes an experience of divine love and tries to codify it, make it concrete and turn it into solid, trustworthy, but lifeless, stone.

There’s a lot of talk in Christian circles about the decline of church in America.  The number of people in the pews are declining and the outlook for many denominations is not good.  In response many ask, how do we make church more relevant?  We think that by updating the language of our prayer books, adding in contemporary music, or adding in familiar communication forms like video we will somehow change the course of our decline.  We think that we need more programs and events to draw people in.  But all too often these efforts at relevance simply result in more fashionable idols rather than creating icons of the Word Made Flesh.

We should not seek to be relevant, we should seek only to be better icons.  Sometimes that may mean adopting new conventions and aesthetics, new ways to move people to look toward God.  But relevance should never be the goal–relevance is simply a byproduct of showing what God’s love looks like here and now.

Don’t worry about being relevant; focus on being an image of God in the world.  That image is relevant, from the beginning to the end.


About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline and a contributor to the book Sacred Acts: How churches are working to protect the Earth’s climate. Ragan’s articles and essays have appeared in a variety of magazines including Triathlete, The Oxford American, and Books & Culture. He works to live the good life with his wife Emily and daughter Lillian.

  • Gary Lynch

    I agree Ragan, I used to always say I wanted our church to be a more visible and viable part of our community, I believe people took that to mean relevant, but I meant it to be Presence; which is the word that I use now; I also say that we are : the local manifestation of the Body of Christ in our a particular place.
    Seeking, working and praying for peace in the place where God has sent us.
    Pastor Gary Lynch

  • Jared Ellis


    I just recently found your blog and I appreciate it, specifically your post and approach on “Dear Rob Bell, The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” I’ve been a long time admirer of Rob Bell’s innovative ways to, with one hand grab people and pull them near the word and with the other drag the weightiness of the Word closer to people. I think gifting like that (not to go overboard here) has to come from a little solitude, some sadness and some loneliness. Much of Bell’s pathway toward communicating the Word has left it’s imprint on me. I also want to thank you for your concern for the church and it’s desperate need for strong preaching as well as your message to Bell that he will find a local congregation. I couldn’t agree more. Thanks.


  • Dave


    Right on. Struggling with this right now. Or, struggling against this. Thanks for the post.


  • Jim Worstell

    Many churches are growing rapidly.
    The Spirit goes where welcome. And the Spirit overwhelms when enthusiastically welcome.
    I don’t think that is where there are a lot of shoulds and woulds and coulds.