How churches can be relevant

October 5th, 2015

In the past month, I’ve had several conversations with other church leaders about relevance and being relevant as a church. The thing that struck me was that we all talked mostly about the things we can do to be relevant.

Some mentioned having edgy liturgy (I don’t really know what that meant.) A few suggested hiring young worship leaders who look, act, and smell like hipsters. Others talked about making their worship more relevant with newer songs, fog machines and light shows.

A few brought up relevant ministries and programs their churches do.

In the middle of one of the conversations, something occurred to me: Why are we talking only to each other? We need to find a way to engage those whom we’re trying to reach in a conversation.

Some of us have been part of a church for such a long time, we forget what it’s like to not be part of a church; we forget what it was like before we became Christians, which means we also tend to forget how to communicate with those who don’t share the same beliefs we do. I realized that a big mistake I make is trying to figure out what is relevant for us that would also be relevant for those who don't attend our church.

What happens sometimes is that we come off as disingenuous or trying too hard to be “cool.”

When I was in high school, we had a youth pastor who just tried too hard to connect with us. He’d show up wearing leather bomber jacket (in tropical weather), revving his Ford Mustang, then popping his trunk to show us his speakers blasting Tupac. Yeah, I guess it was kind of cool that he was blasting Tupac in a church parking lot, but it was clear to us that all he knew about Tupac was that he wasn’t Biggie. It was so obvious to us that he was trying to act like us that we didn’t want much to do with him.

Don’t even get me started on the 90s lingo he (mis)used.

(I realized I entered a different stage in my life when a former student said to me, “Hey, uh, you’re too old to be using that phrase. Just. Stop. Please.”)

Truthfully, we hardly gave the youth pastor a chance to connect with us anyway. We were already angsty teenagers who couldn’t decide if Nirvana or Tupac spoke on our behalf. (We coped by wearing baggy pants with flannel shirts.) And we felt he was pretending to be like us so so we would help him keep his job, especially since I was the pastor’s kid.

We would’ve probably connected with him more had he just been real and met us where we were without pretending to be “down” with all the things we were “down” with.

Back to my recent conversations, in trying to figure out what would be relevant to the unchurched folks in our communities, we all sort of implied that we only need to get those folks into our buildings so they can meet us where we are, or at the least, meet us halfway.

Perhaps that’s the biggest mistake we make. It’s not about ministries or programs; it’s not about the look of your staff; it’s not about how much your building looks like a church (or a coffee shop); it’s not about the coffee or the beer; it’s not about the music or style; and it’s definitely not about light shows and fog machines.

It’s really about meeting people where they are; engaging them in their current storyline and chapter of life; joining them in the conversations they are having.

Sadly, most of our churches seem to want to to require the unchurched to join us in the middle of the conversation that we are having; to come be part of the journey we’re already on.

If I remember correctly, the Great Commission doesn’t begin with, “Stay where you are with arms wide open and wait for people to come to you.”

The best way to be relevant is meeting people where they already are and inviting ourselves to be part of their journey, joining in their conversations and getting to know them.

Once we start doing that, we create opportunities to let them know that not only has God been with them their entire lives, but God continues to go with them, and has a purpose and plan for them.

Being relevant is less about what we can do or offer as a church and more about genuinely connecting with the people around us.

Joseph Yoo is pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara, California. He is the author of Practical Prayer and Encountering Grace. He blogs at

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