My friend Matthew Krabill has gotten me thinking about what it means for the church to be relevant in contemporary culture. He defines the relevant church as “1. a distinctive community of faith that is passionate for Jesus as well as culture 2. a community of believers that has significance in present day culture.” Speaking to young adults he says “We cannot be fully relevant or fully the church if people our age do not help shape who we are called to be, and how we are to live-out our faith. I fear that we have reached a point where the words ‘distinctive community’ or ‘culturally significant’ no longer apply to the church. We (young adults) need to help change this.” Matthew is wise enough to recognize that his generation is not the first to ask such questions of the church. There are some of us baby-boomers (I turned 53 this week) who have struggled with similar questions, but I am thankful for young adults like Matthew raising the questions anew.

His reflections got me thinking, is it relevance I want from the church? Not exactly. My generation took making the church relevant very seriously. Relevance-seeking brought us contemporary worship services, user-friendly full-service churches, mega-churches that looked like mega-malls, and the homogeneous unit principle of evangelism and church growth. Ministry became a form of management. Pastoral leaders like John Maxwell took business guru Peter Drucker as the model for ministry. Evangelism became a form of marketing . Jesus became the key to self-actualization, the one who would meet all your needs and fulfill all your dreams. However, in the end nothing really changed. As Ron Sider has documented in Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Christians are not distinctive either in their character or behavior. If anything the church has become more wedded to the status quo than before. So in my view relevance didn’t exactly get us where we needed to be.

So then I wonder maybe its faithfulness we need. That sounds good, but what exactly does it mean? Faithful to what? To our understanding of the Bible? To our faith tradition? To some vision of an idyllic Christian past that never existed?

No, what I think we need are churches that engage the core issues of the culture while remaining distinct. We need churches that understand and are involved with the culture, so they can call the culture to account. We need churches comprised of what Hauerwaus and Willimon call “resident aliens.” We need folk who are truly involved in the struggles of culture and society, while at the same living out the values of the Reign of God here and now.

Nancey Murphy, author of Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism, talks about the need for the “social embodiment” of faith. Social embodiment involves understanding both the sociocultural environment of the Scriptures and contemporary culture, and seeing where they correspond. We need to examine how Jesus and his followers acted and spoke to the issues of their day and to ask how can their engagement with their culture inform how we speak and act in relationship to our culture today? Social embodiment involves finding the correspondence and connections between then and now, and incarnating the first century response in 21st century terms.

For example, not long ago I had a conversation with a 19-year-old woman about how the church we attend could be more responsive to the needs of people her age. She talked about her friends, some who had been messed up on drugs, others from dysfunctional family situations, and still others who had identified themselves as gay or lesbian. She said her friends felt alienated and rejected by the church. This young woman wanted the church to be a place where her friends could ask their questions, voice their concerns, and be heard. Later I thought about how Jesus dealt with the outcasts of his day: the lepers and the poor. Is there a correspondence between Jesus’ response to outcasts and our response to these alienated young folks today? I think so.

I am thankful for people like this 19-year-old woman and Matthew Krabill for challenging me to keep making Jesus real in concrete and specific ways. However we won’t make that happen as individuals. I am convinced it can only happen in communities that share a common faith while embracing a diversity in age, gender, race, theology and perspective. It can only happen in communities that in embody their faith in the first century carpenter thorugh 21st century words, deeds, and attitudes.