Relevance, Customer Needs and Faithfulness

June 29, 2006

Mark, thanks for the though-provoking post ("Assumptions and Pursuits") on relevance and faithfulness (which seems to have generated good discussion in various places on the web), and for your post on why you are a Southern Baptist. I want to follow up on both. But let me make a few brief remarks on the relevance and faithfulness post first.

I was immediately reminded of David Wells’ No Place for Truth when I read your thoughts. Remember how he starts off in the preface to NPFT? "those who are most relevant to this world are those who are judged most irrelevant." This instructs us that faithfulness is always relevant, even if our contemporaries don’t think it is relevant.

But, as you note, all the problems don’t lie with those discounting faithfulness for the sake of relevance. One problem is that we sometimes confuse faithfulness with something in the past that holds great meaning to us, but is not inherent to the faithfulness that the Bible requires for Gospel ministry. Thus, we judge holding fast to that uncommanded thing (or even some less important thing) as faithfulness in our day, and our relevance sinks. The problem in this case is not our desire to be faithful, but our confusion over what faithfulness entails. True faithfulness is never a hindrance to real relevance, only to false relevance.

Of course, there are other dangers as well – particularly thinking that relevance requires us to modify and upgrade God’s prescribed message and methods for the work of the Gospel. One problem with this tendency is that we confuse is and ought, what people want and what people need, the opinions of our contemporaries about what we ought to be doing as Christians and what God tells us in his word that we ought to be doing as Christians. Hence, the seeker approach is always vulnerable to problems entailed in the prevalent consumer mindset of our culture. The customer is always right, being one of them (in terms of Christian evangelistic appropriation of that idea, there are problems with both the subject and predicate, "sinners" do not equal "customers" and they’re certainly not always right, whatever we might learn from them). Then there is another meta-problem as well.

That’s where a famous German grocer can help us. Karl Hans Albrecht (born in 1920 in Essen, Germany) founded a discount supermarket chain and is among the richest men in the world. Albrecht says: "Customer needs have an unsettling way of not staying satisfied for very long." It is the combination of "give them what they want" and "they’ve changed their minds about what they want" that poses the threat of irrelevance to those most doggedly determined to be relevant. Faux relevance is trying to hit a moving target (and generally is trailing the bullseye by about twenty years).