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Relevance is a Crock!

I have to confess I haven’t read much of Eugene Peterson over the years. That’s soon to change. I just purchased his book, “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology” (Eerdmans, 2005) and plan on digging into it as soon as possible. But my reason for bringing up his name is an interview that he gave for Christianity Today magazine that was published in their March 2005 issue.

The title of the article in which the interview is found is “Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons: Eugene Peterson talks about lies and illusions that destroy the church.” I hope you will read it. If you don’t subscribe to CT, you can find it on their website at www.christianitytoday.com. Click on the CTMag icon and type Eugene Peterson into the search box. At the moment it’s about the tenth item in the list that appears.

In this interview he effectively debunks a lot of myths about what “spirituality” (a word he doesn’t even like) really is. He also de-mystifies the Christian life with some straight talk about the meaning of “intimacy” and having a “personal relationship with God.” He takes aim at much of the spiritual elitism in the church today and also addresses how the people of God should relate to the broader culture.

There are two things he said that I want to share with you. The first is in response to this comment by the person conducting the interview: “But many Christians would look at this church and say it’s dead, merely an institutional expression of the faith.” Peterson responds:

“What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except in the church. There’s sin in the local bank. There’s sin in the grocery stores. I really don’t understand this nave criticism of the institution. I really don’t get it.

Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows and grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death.

So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.

In my writing, I hope to recover a sense of the reality of congregation – what it is. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. Why are we always idealizing what the Holy Spirit doesn’t idealize? There’s no idealization of the church in the Bible – none. We’ve got two thousand years of history now. Why are we so dumb?”

Peterson is then asked to address the desire many churches have to be “relevant” in today’s world, which often means “tailoring the gospel to the culture” or reconfiguring traditional forms and biblical language so that postmodern folk won’t regard the church as irrelevant. I love his response:

“I think relevance is a crock[!]. I don’t think people care a whole lot about what kind of music you have or how you shape the service. They want a place where God is taken seriously, where they’re taken seriously, where there is no manipulation of their emotions or their consumer needs. Why did we get captured by this advertising, publicity mindset? I think it’s destroying our church.”

It’s refreshing to hear someone speak honestly about such matters. Even if you disagree with him, he’s certainly a challenge! I encourage you to read the article, or better still, his new book. I’m planning on doing the latter and hope to have it reviewed soon. Blessings to all!