A word we hear frequently these days is relevance, or the related 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, easily understood, and, above all, modern.
This is the most problematic aspect of the modern meaning of the word. Relevance today means being in agreement, or in step, with modern times; with the thinking, leanings, customs, and mores of people here and now.
And not only are our ideas, teachings, and views expected to be relevant, so are our institutions, such as the Church. We often hear the demand that the Church should be relevant; that her teachings, structure, methods, and views should be up-to-date and should speak to the issues modern people deem important.
With proper distinctions, relevance does have its place. It is important for the Church to speak to issues that are of current concern. An extended sermon on a text from Leviticus detailing how to slaughter animals properly during the Temple sacrifice might well be critiqued as irrelevant to the average Christian today. In addition, we moderns face many issues that were unknown to the ancients, such as the morality of in vitro fertilization.
Therefore, the Church must make some adjustments with respect to culture and era, and it is reasonable for people to expect that.
However, as with many concepts that are in themselves good and proper, the demands for relevance are often taken too far. What many today want when they demand that the Church be relevant is that she reflect the culture around her, that she be more of a thermometer recording the temperature rather than a thermostat seeking to set it. For many, relevance means that the Church should reflect the views of her members rather than those 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 basic teachings and practices.
As a result, there is a lot of tension around the words relevant and relevance. It is necessary to distinguish authentic concerns for relevance from inauthentic ones.
Part of the problem in determining the proper degree of relevance is that the word itself has lost much of its original meaning. In a certain sense, many use the word to mean the opposite of its original sense.
The Latin etymology is re (again) + levare (to lift). Hence, the literal meaning is “to lift up something again.” And because re can describe a repetitive action, the word can also mean “to lift up something again and again.”
The original connotation of the word is that something has been dropped or cast aside, and then someone picks it up again. It is as though something that has fallen away or fallen into disuse is then picked up and presented anew or freshly. It could even theoretically be applied to something that was cast aside as old-fashioned or out-of-date and then taken up again or presented anew.
In a way, then, from its Latin roots, relevant means rather the opposite of its current usage. Something relevant was brought back from the dustbin, not something brand new and popular!
This examination of the Latin roots suggests a possible way forward in recapturing the word relevant and using it with proper balance.
The re in the word demands that the Church ever lift up her unchanging truths, especially when they have been carelessly cast aside. However, this does not simply mean rehashing ideas in the same way. The idea or truth is still valid, but the way we express it may need adapting; it may need re-presenting. Obviously, as the Church encounters new languages, translations need to be made. As cultures change or new situations and circumstances arise, some of the analogies and images used to express unchanging truths may need adjustment. The Latin roots capture the notion that although things sometimes do fall away or are dropped, they need to be picked up again and often re-presented, that is, presented in new and fresh ways.
In addition, the levare in the Latin root shows that if something significant has been dropped, it is important to pick it up again. Certain things cannot be allowed to drop or fall away; they must be picked up again and again.
Therefore, despite demands that the Church let some of her teachings drop or that we make them go away, the notion of relevance from its Latin roots says just the opposite. To be relevant we must re+ levare; we must insist on picking them up again and again, presenting them freshly. Even if the culture is 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.
In this sense we can respond to a world that demands we be relevant, “Amen!” We must pick up again and again the perennial truths that God has given us, but at times we must also accept the challenge to present them freshly and in a manner that is understandable, even infectious, to our listeners.
This song says, “Everything old is new again. … Don’t throw the past away, you might need it some rainy day.”