One of the recurring words of modern times is the word “relevance” and it’s related form “relevant.” There is great insistence today that whatever is said, taught, or presented should be relevant. Often what this means is that it should be applicable, reasonable, understandable, easily grasped etc.
But there is also a more problematic temporal dimension often added to the concept, so that in this sense, relevance has to do with being in agreement with, or in step with modern times, with the thinking leanings, customs and mores of people today, here and now.
And not only are our ideas, teachings, and views expected to be relevant, so are our institutions, such as the Church. Widespread and often are the demands that the Church should be relevant; that her teachings, structure, methods and views should be up-to-date, and also speak to current issues in peoples lives.
With proper distinctions, relevance does have its place and is important. It is important for the Church to speak to issues which currently engage or beset people. An extended sermon on a Levitical text that explains how animals should be properly slaughtered during the Temple sacrifice might be properly critiqued as being largely irrelevant to the average Christian today. On the other hand, we moderns often face issues unknown to the ancients, such as the morality of in vitro fertilization etc.
Therefore there are necessary adjustments regarding culture and time that the church must make, and people legitimately demand.
However, as with many concepts that are in themselves good and proper, the demands for relevance are often taken too far, and become too strident. What many today mean when they demand at the Church be relevant is at the Church merely reflect the culture around her, that she be more of a thermometer recording the temperature, rather than a thermostat seeking to set the temperature. For many, relevance means that the Church should reflect the views of her members, rather than the views of her founder and Head, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and whose Word endures forever. Relevance to many also means that the Church should cast aside a large number of her most basic teachings and practices.
Thus there is a lot of tension around the words relevant and relevance. It is necessary to discern authentic concerns for relevance, and at the same time screen out inauthentic demands regarding it.
Part of the problem in determining the proper degree of relevance is that the word itself is often misunderstood and misused today. In a certain sense, many use the word to mean exactly the opposite of what it originally meant from its Latin roots.
The Latin etymology of relevant and relevance is re (= again) + levare (= to lift). Hence, the word means, most literally, “to lift up something once again.” And since “re” can mean a repetitive action, it can also mean “to lift up something again and again.”
The impression of the word is that something has either been dropped or somehow cast aside, and that someone reaches down and picks it up again. It is as though something which was dropped, or had fallen away, or fallen into disuse, is then picked up and presented anew, presented freshly. You could even theoretically apply it to something that was cast aside as “old-fashioned,” or out of date, that is taken up again, that is presented anew.
Thus, in a way, relevance, in its Latin roots actually mean something rather opposite of what people often mean today. Rather than referring to something that ought to be dropped as old fashioned or displeasing, it speaks of something that should be picked up!
Now all of this examination of the Latin roots suggests a possible way forward in capturing the word “relevant” and using it today with proper balance.
On the one hand the “re” in the word demands that while the Church must ever lift up our unchanging truths, we cannot simply rehash ideas in the same way. The idea or truth is still valid, but the way we express it may need adapting, may need RE-presenting. Obviously as the Church encounters new languages, translations need to be made. As cultures change, or situations and circumstances alter, some of the analogies and images used to express undying truth may need adjustment. So the Latin word captures the notion, that things sometimes do fall away or drop, and they need to be picked up again, and freshly RE-presented, that is, presented in new and fresh ways.
On the other hand the “levare” of Latin root also shows that if something significant has been dropped, it is important to pick it up again. For certain things cannot be allowed to drop or fall away, they must be picked up again and again.
And thus, despite demands that we let some of our teachings drop or that we make them go away, “relevance” and “relevant” in their Latin roots say just the opposite. To be “relevant” we must re+levare, we must insist on picking them up again and again, presenting them newly and freshly, but still lift them up. Even if the culture is dubious and hostile, we must continue to present, to re-present, to lift up again and again the truths that God has given us, which can never die.
And in this sense, to a world that demands we be relevant, we can say amen! We must pick up again and again the perennial truths which God is given us, but we must also accept the challenge to present them freshly and with the seal in a manner that is understandable, even infectious to our listeners.