Relevant, the magazine devoted to “God, Life, and Progressive Culture,” is a new voice of American evangelicalism — one that targets college students and young professionals who are turned off by their parents’ brand of stodgy conservatism. “Sight, sound, experience — that’s what my generation is about,” says Cameron Strang, Relevant‘s 28-year-old founder. A quick glance at the Relevant Web presence will give you some sense of what Strang means exactly. Its recent list of “The Top Ten Most Profound Films,” for example, includes such gems as Braveheart, Forrest Gump, and The Count of Monte Cristo. The comments are even more revealing [my italics]:

thanks for mentioning “high fidelity”, one of my favorites

I agree with your list for the most part, and I think a lot of them would be on my top ten list.

I am glad high fidelity made the list its one of my top 5 favorite movies

Way to be relevant. All good flicks with which everyone is familiar. I think you did a fine job.

Granted, I’ve cherry-picked comments here, but “relevance,” it seems to me, has become evangelical slang for “familiar comfort.” And, to be blunt, I can’t think of a more damning critique of the church. It’s the type of relevance that leads to books like The Maker’s Diet and Wild at Heart, books that capitalize on “secular” trends (the Atkins craze or Mars/Venus pop philosophy) by refinishing them with a sanctified varnish. I mean, do I need Relevant magazine to tell me The Da Vinci Code “meets all the expectations of a great suspense novel without being formulaic or predictable”? Can’t I learn the same thing from a quick glance at the Best Sellers list?

So, now in an effort to be a relevant Christian, I’m going to quote from one of Relevant‘s favorite artists, Bono [again, my italics]:

I think our whole idea of who we are is at stake. I think Judeo-Christian culture is at stake. If the church doesn’t respond to [the African AIDS crisis], the church will be made irrelevant. It will look like the way you heard stories about people watching Jews being put on the trains. We will be that generation that watched our African brothers and sisters being put on trains….

As I’ve mentioned before, the tragedy of Africa is so great as to be incomprehensible to me. I wasn’t able even to finish reading Nicholas Kristof’s recent series of editorials from Sudan. I prefer to ignore completely the millions of dead and dying and, instead, to vent my frustrations at other targets. It’s easier that way. Safer. But over the last year or so I’ve been shamed repeatedly by Bono’s use of the word “relevance” when describing the church in relation to Africa.

I say all of that to say this: my experience of church for the last few years has been marked by a growing dissatisfaction with its “familiar comforts” — its familiar language, familiar lessons, familiar social interactions, familiar rituals — and I think I’m at something of a crossroads. I wouldn’t call it a crisis of faith, exactly, but something more akin to growing pains. These lines from Thomas Merton have long been a comfort:

The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with the rest. It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center, the existential altar which simply “is.” In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is.

I don’t, by any stretch of the imagination, claim to be a Merton-like contemplative, but I am suffering the realization that I no longer know what relevance the evangelical church has for me. If I leave, I want it to be a considered decision rather than the slow consequence of atrophy. And, also, my decision must be complemented by the finding of another community of sacred worship, perhaps in a non-evangelical protestant church, perhaps…