Want to Be Relevant? Quit Trying So Hard

Last week I finished a seven-week class on the history of Lutheranism for the members of the congregation I serve.  Admittedly, in seven weeks, we didn’t go into a lot of detail. Rather, we tried to establish the long narrative arc, the view from 20,000 feet.

To be honest, I’m not sure what possessed me. In people’s busy lives, who would come? I was certainly under no illusion that people would be knocking down the doors to learn about stuff that happened centuries ago. On the first night, I got there early, was setting things up, and kept wondering, what was I thinking? Who will come to this? Why would anyone be interested? I am, but so what?

Yet, over the course of teaching the class at three different times, over 50 people have attended. Astonishing. That’s way, way beyond what I expected.

Why’d they come? I’m not sure, except that it’s part of their story, and a part that most of them don’t know very much about. Most know the rudimentaries of Martin Luther; maybe Western Civ. classes do a decent job of situating the Protestant Reformation as a significant movement in European history. Most of us in the Lutheran tradition still observe Reformation Sunday; if nothing else, we know the 95 Theses and the castle door in Wittenberg and A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.  For most folks it doesn’t go very far beyond that. But they’re interested.

What most surprised me most was how engaged people were in the whats and whys and hows. Far more often than I expected, our treatment of highlights from the dustbin of church history led to fascinating conversations about life in the world and in the church today. One class used a conversation about the emerging church structure in the transition to Orthodoxy in the early 17th century to launch into a conversation about social media and the church. Don’t ask me how we got there. But of all the conversations about social media and the church — and I’ve had quite a few of them — this was one of the most interesting and stimulating.

I would never have thought about this class as an attempt to make the church relevant in contemporary culture. In fact, my gut told me I was going in the opposite direction. Yet  my impression is that people found it wonderfully and surprisingly relevant. Why? I’m still trying to figure that out.

I have some hunches. I’m wondering if relevance is one of those things that remains elusive as long as we are seeking it. That relevance is the by-product of something else, not a a goal that can be sought for its own sake. My son reminded me that relevance is related to meaning and we can’t impose meaning for people. They will find it on their own. We can provide context and information and a good setting for conversation. But meaning — that’s something each of us will find.

Furthermore, I’m going to try this out for a while:  relevance and meaning will come when leaders and congregations are interesting and interested,  engaged and engaging, and just plain foster a spirit of curiosity about this pretty danged awesome world God has placed us in. I don’t think every pastor ought to teach a class on the history of Lutheranism. If you’re not interested in it, don’t do it. But I am. I suspect that curiosity and my firm belief that our history does have something to say to our life together right now probably showed through. On the other hand, I’m not that interested in the intersection of religion and science. maybe you are. And if so, that interest and curiosity would, if I’m on target here, translate to a very relevant class for your parish.

Here’s what I’m suggesting as a working hypothesis: when the church accepts that gifts are given and assumes that they are to be used for the sake of God’s big thing in the world and takes action, then what we do will be relevant.

4 thoughts on “Want to Be Relevant? Quit Trying So Hard

  1. Frank A Mallek

    I am with you in prayer and gratitude as the Holy Spirit led me to your reflections. I am a teacher for, now, 43 years in the Archdiocese of Chicago. My students and I will pray for your ministry and I ask your prayer, James. May God be with you

  2. Harvey Honig

    As faith communities and as individuals, we do need to understand our stories – another word for histories – not to be defined and encapsulated by them, but to know where we came from and what has shaped us. Then we have the choice to continue to live out the stories unconsciously, or choose where we want the story to go, how we want it to expand. It is part of our conscious evolution.


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