What the world means by relevance, however, is not exactly what the word meant originally. Relevance is defined today as being in step with the times or sympathetic to the prevailing winds of thought and belief. Relevance means constantly changing or adjusting to where people are or what direction people are headed. The sacred text of such relevance is written by poll and survey and in pursuit of such relevance the Church must constantly take the temperature of the world around her.
Though we are bombarded by the demand for a relevant Church, what this really means is that Church must abdicate to the whim of the moment and to random thoughts unsecured and unrestrained by concepts of eternal truth. To be sure, we must be cognizant of the world around us and of the particular opportunities afforded us by the times as well as an awareness of doors that have been closed by those same times. Who in Scripture could have foreseen such things as gender confusion or in vitro fertilization or machines that prolong the life of the body. Relevance requires us to be able to address what was never even on the radar of the faithful of old. But how?
That said, it might well help inform us as to the task before us if we spent a moment refreshing our understanding of what the word means and from where it has come to us. Like so many other words, relevance is a term which has moved on and no longer resembles its origins. It might not be an exaggeration to suggest that relevance has come to mean exactly the opposite of its original meaning
From the Latin, relevance is re (again) + levare (to lift). In other words, it means to pick up or lift up something again. And again. And again if necessary. What this means is that something has been lost or dropped along the way and it must be picked up again. Whether it was let go out of indifference or formal rejection is not specified but relevance means to rescue what was lost and restore it to use again. So the Latin root of relevance literally means the direct opposite of how the word is used today. Today relevance means something new, novel, creative, and spontaneous but in the past it meant to restore the old, familiar, ordinary, and regular. It is like using the familiar old spoon your grandmother used to stir up her famous dish instead of throwing the ingredients into a food processor and pressing pulse a few times. Tradition is the focus of relevance -- the gift of the past to the present and the future. Traditional is relevant.
Again and again the Church refuses to abdicate to the moment and holds forth with the voices of the past and the eternal Word of the Lord in a world impatient with what is and in love with what might be. So the Church again and again reminds us of and lifts up for another generation the unchanging truth of God's Word and the holy deposit of the faith once delivered to the saints. The path to relevance is not to live in the past or in the present and certainly not in the future but rather to make sure that the present and future have an anchor in and are securely moored in that which does not change. The Church does not simply repeat the past or its formulations but fashions them freshly for the changing circumstances of the present and gives to the future the wisdom of those who went before. We do not simply rehash or repeat the same weary and tired phrases of old but preach anew and teach with new vigor the once forever faith. When translations are required, it is the Church's duty to render them accurately and faithfully. When new challenges arise, it is the Church's job to respond with the eternal principles of the catholic faith pointedly directed to the moment. When the world is heading one direction, it is the obligation of the Church to restore the true North of the compass of God's Word to a people who will be lost without its clear direction.
Who among us has not dropped our keys or some cash or groceries or important papers. But we do not abandon them. No, if something important has been dropped, we stop to pick it up again. Such things are too valuable to abandon and must be restored over and over and over again, if necessary, to prevent the tyranny of the moment from making the Church lose her way.
Relevance cannot demand that the Church omit or reject or skip over the doctrine once delivered to the saints or the preaching of the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen. Just the opposite, the Church, if she is to be relevant, must pick up what has been lost and find the courage to speak what has been lost to silence. And if folks around us or the world and its values are offended by this, relevance requires us to do nothing less. Freshness comes not from the constant replacement of what is with what might be or could be. Rather, it comes from clinging to the vision and identity rooted in time but timeless in shape and blessing. When the culture is hostile to his or threatens the Church's existence because she was faithful, we cannot afford to abandon such relevance in favor of the more modern ideal. We must endure through the Word that endures forever or we will not endure at all.
If the world rejects such relevance and insists upon new and different, then the Church must be willing to become the martyr for the sake of the changeless Gospel. What good would it do anyone to be relevant to the moment but lost to eternity? What gift can the Church offer the world if she no longer holds to what has always been believed, taught, and confessed? What cost is there too us to be judged irrelevant by those who have no anchor beyond the moment? What cost will we bear for abandoning the world without end truth for a truth that consoles us with lies and comforts us with what is new at the cost of the truth of God which endures forever?