This sentence is sometimes used to imply that irrelevance is synonymous with triviality. If something is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter. It’s meaningless.
Not true. Irrelevance is a distraction, and a dangerous one.
Imagine walking up to two doors. One door is wood, locked, simple. It leads to the room you seek. The other is gold, dazzling, singing an irritating yet catchy tune. You open the dazzling door. You slam your head on the blank wall behind it. And now you’re backing away, rubbing your head, wondering why you walked up to those damn doors in the first place.
Irrelevance can be dangerously distracting. It can draw us away from what we intended, what we desired, what we came here to do.
Irrelevance can be damaging, especially for organizations with limited resources to attract and engage people. Irrelevance is just as appealing to those of us doing the work as it is to those we seek to reach. Irrelevance is everywhere. It is in every sexy new technology. Every program pursued strictly to fulfill a funder’s interest. Every short-sighted way that we get people’s attention without capturing their imagination.
Irrelevance often cloaks itself in familiarity, feigning relevance. Irrelevant things often seem relevant to everyone. Free food. Sexual titillation. If you provide free food, people will come. If you integrate sexual innuendo into a church sign, people will read the sign.
But will they connect with whatever you actually wanted them to come for? Will it have meaning for them? The church service, the sales pitch, the exhibition opening?
When I became director of the MAH, our busiest night of the month was First Friday. We were regularly attracting 500 people to an evening of free exhibits, live music, and tasty appetizers. But we had a problem. People spent all their time dancing, eating, and socializing on the ground floor. Very few made it up the stairs to the exhibition galleries.
On one level, this wasn’t a problem. It’s good for people to have convivial experiences in a museum. But we wanted visitors to connect with exhibitions. We knew we had more to offer them if we could entice them upstairs.
So we did something counterintuitive: we cut the free food.
Free food was irrelevant to the museum. It wasn’t making the museum matter more to people. It wasn’t about art. It wasn’t about history. It was about food. In addition to all its delicious, distracting qualities, free food was a literal barrier to people visiting the exhibitions, because they couldn’t bring their plates into the galleries.
I’m a bit embarrassed to recall how nervous I was about cutting the food at First Friday. I had two fears. First, I was afraid people would be upset that we dropped something they loved. Second—and more importantly—I was afraid that people might stop coming. I was afraid the food was the only thing bringing them into the museum.
But we took the plunge. We cut the food. We added a hands-on art activity. Within months, attendance had doubled—and everyone was making the trek up the stairs to exhibitions. Within a year, attendance tripled. 1,500 people were coming monthly for an evening of exhibitions, live music, art activities… and no food.
It turned out that the food was not relevant. It was a distraction. It was a shiny barrier masquerading as a door. Right after we cut the food, there were a couple complaints. Within a few months, it was as if the free food had never existed. The event became more affordable to present, more on-mission in its content, and more attractive to more people. Arguably, First Friday became more relevant—even as we eschewed one of the most appealing enticements we had to offer.
When I see a church with a sign outside that says “Sunday’s Message: Jesus said, Bring me that ass” or “God’s favorite word is Come,”* I smile. But I also know they are wasting their time. Sex may be attractive. It may be arresting. But unless it will help people make meaning at church, it’s irrelevant.