The Cult of Relevance and the Management of Need

by

Irony, ironically, is a profoundly biblical theme that does not figure strongly in the thinking of most Christians. Yet no other religion rivals the Christian faith in providing such a foundation for a strong view of irony. Because human unbelief is essentially a matter of the “truth held in unrighteousness,” Christians can always count on the fact that the “truth will come out” regardless of unbelief, that the consequences of human action will always be other than we intended, and that reality will always have the last laugh. Irony, in short, is not merely a subject for writers or cultural commentators; it is a key part of the Christian understanding of life.

It takes a developed sense of irony to appreciate the present position of Protestant evangelicalism in America. This is significant for our discussion because evangelicalism is the source and chief exponent of the church-growth movement. These ironies are stated briefly, without comment.

First, Protestants today need the most protesting and reforming. Second, evangelicals and fundamentalists have become the most worldly tradition. Third, conservatives are becoming the most progressive. Fourth, Christians, in many cases, are the prime agents of their own secularization. Fifth, through its uncritical engagement with modernity, the church is becoming its own most effective grave digger.

For the church-growth movement, what matters are the breeding grounds in which such ironies and unintended consequences multiply. Two are paramount. The first and more traditional one is the church-growth movement’s uncritical espousal of the ideal of “relevance” and its companion church-growth slogans: “seeker-friendly,” “audience-driven,” and “full-service churches.”

Relevance is a prerequisite for communication. Without it, there is no communication, only a one-sided sending of messages addressed to no one, nowhere. But having said that, it must also be said that relevance is a more complex, troublesome, and seductive matter than its advocates acknowledge.

For a start, relevance has a false allure that masks both its in-built transience and its catch-22 demand. Dean Inge captured the transience in his celebrated line, “He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.” But it was Simone Weil who highlighted the catch-22: “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.”

Modernity makes this problem worse. Compounded by accelerating change, which itself is compounded by the fashion-driven dictates of consumerism, relevance becomes overheated and vaporizes into trendiness. It thus becomes a source of superficiality, anxiety, and burnout. (“Hell,” it has been said, “will be full of newspapers with a fresh edition every thirty seconds, so that no one will ever feel caught up.”)

The second, and more modern breeding ground for irony is the church-growth movement’s uncritical elevation of modern notions of “need.” The mega-churches’ entire law, as one proponent puts it, is summed up in their two great commandments: “Find a need and meet it, find a hurt and heal it.”

At first sight, a ministry based on meeting needs is surely unobjectionable. After all, its ultimate sanction is the saying of Jesus: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32).

Yet people who use the need-meeting approach overlook certain things. First, this approach has no matching emphasis on truth, and leaves the church carelessly vulnerable to intellectual dismissal. (The heirs of Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud attack the church by charging that “the fundamental dogmas of Christianity are fulfilled wishes of the heart”—which is, in fact, a fair description of much modern evangelical believing.)

Second, meeting needs does not always satisfy needs; it often stokes further ones and raises the pressure of eventual disillusionment. As Immanuel Kant said to a Russian historian Karamzin, “Give a man everything he desires and yet at this very moment he will feel that everything is not everything.”

Third, and even more importantly, modernity has expanded and corrupted the very notion of need by creating a “need on command” society. Needs, consumerism, and professionalism are the three pillars of our modern service society. To be need-less is to be less than human. As Tony Walters points out, modern consumer society is built on a grand reversal of the Beatles’ song, “All You Love Is Need.”

A generation ago, one analyst writes, “Problems existed only in mathematics or chess; solutions were saline or legal, and need was mainly a verb. The expressions ‘I have a problem’ or ‘I have a need’ both sounded silly.” Today, however, need—used as a noun—has become socially respectable, and even fashionable. “To be ignorant or unconvinced of one’s own needs,” says Ivan Illich, “has become the unforgivable antisocial act.” And unlike natural resources, such as land, needs have no natural limits. There is no end to the needs that can be manufactured and distributed.

Strikingly, the new status of need has simultaneously elevated a new generation of experts—because of their authority to describe and prescribe—and debase true wants. Need, subject to consumer fashion, becomes shallow, plastic, and manipulable. Needs induced by advertising slogans become commodities that are purchased on command through expert prescription. Yet here is the irony: Endlessly engineered and marketed, an obsession with need results in consumer indifference to specific, genuine, real needs. People skilled in learning to need the needs that the professional elites identify become deaf to their own true needs—their needs as God, not the world, defines them.

In short, the exaggerated half-truth about the church’s “needing to meet needs” once again breeds unintended consequences. Just as church-growth’s modern passion for “relevance” will become its road to irrelevance, so its modern passion for “felt needs” will turn the church into an echo chamber of fashionable needs that drown out the one voice that addresses real human need below all felt needs.

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