U.S. Postal Service and Relevant Evangelization

In 2009 the United States Postal Service was struggling financially, as it still is today.  After noticing stamps of Elvis Presley sold better than stamps of Millard Fillmore (who?), the USPS decided to add more contemporary characters to their 2009 lineup of sea kelp and the state of Alaska (yay sea kelp!).

At the suggestion of a citizens panel, the USPS printed 1 billion (1,000,000,000) commemorative stamps with portraits of Simpsons characters: Homer, Marge, Maggie, and Baby Lisa.

It seems like a great idea and no brainer: millions of Americans watch The Simpsons, and the merchandise for the cartoon show is a hundred million dollar industry.  If Elvis sells better than Millard Fillmore, than Homer should sell better than Elvis.  Homer is more relevant to more people.

Between 2009 and 2010 the USPS sold only 318 million Simpsons stamps of the one billion they printed.  That leaves 682 million unbought and costing the USPS $1.2 million during a period of already deep debt. What happened?

The appearance of a culture is not the values (of the people) of a culture, even though they are related.

This needs explaining, because it is a subtle concept and the difference is nuanced.

Millions of Americans watch the Simpsons.  And the USPS was tempted to believe that if they translated the appearance of that culture into the snail mail world, the audience would follow and buy Simpsons stamps.

But the type of people who watch the Simpsons are not people who value sending letters in the mail, or who even receive letters in the mail.  The people who are part of a culture that watches the Simpsons place little to no value on physical mail.  They are a younger generation brought up on email and texting.  The visual trappings of the culture are not most important, the values of the people of the culture are most important.


The word relevant, according to Merriam Webster, is defined:

Relevant: having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand

All the trappings of any culture - hipster, indie, goth, rock and roll - are the outward expressions of inwardly held values and convictions. They are outward expressions of a perspective on the matters at hand - the matters that are most important to that particular culture.

Roots and Veneer

The Church wisely instructs us in a document specifically about evangelization:

"...what matters is to evangelize man's culture and cultures (not in a purely decorative way, as it were, by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots),... always taking the person as one's starting-point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God." Evangelii Nuntiandi #20

If the pastor of a Church decides to start dressing like this:


for the sake of being "relevant" to hipsters, but never has any significant bearing on the matters most important to hipsters - nonconformity, radical independence, and shameless self-expression - then he is just applying a thin veneer to the Gospel.  The pastor who does this is not taking the person as the starting point, but the clothes and appearance as the starting point of evangelization.

The appearance of a culture originates in the values the people of that culture are most strongly rooted in.  Sure there are phoneys and fakes, but the core of any culture is born in a value held by a person.  Any attempt at evangelization must take into consideration the deeply rooted values of the people being evangelized.

How to Be Relevant

As a twenty-four year old baby-faced youth minister who wears jeans, I get tired of people over the age of 30 telling me again and again "It's so good you are a youth minister, because you are young and relevant to the kids."  I know plenty of people my age who would NOT be relevant to high school teens, and I know plenty of people over 50 who are extremely relevant to high school teens.

Just for one small example: hundreds of thousands of youth flocked to World Youth Days, wherever they were held, to see a 70+ year old Pope who captured the hearts of an entire generation of young Catholics.  I would consider Pope John Paul II pretty relevant.

What is the secret to coming across as relevant when speaking to teens, hipsters, the shuffleboard club, or democrats?  Having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matters at hand, that is, the deep rooted values these people hold.  

If I talk to high school teens about the intricacies of mutual funds using their lingo and wearing their clothes and referencing their culture, that is not relevant.  If I am 60 years old and talk about how much it sucks to breakup with your boyfriend, THAT is relevant.

And when you address the deep rooted values and concerns of people, you open up an opportunity to present them with a truth they are hungering for, a truth that transcends cultures and is not only rooted in Jesus Christ, but IS Jesus Christ.

This is how we make Jesus relevant.

" always exists in a particular culture, but it must also be admitted that man is not exhaustively defined by that same culture. Moreover, the very progress of cultures demonstrates that there is something in man which transcends those cultures. This "something" is precisely human nature: this nature is itself the measure of culture and the condition ensuring that man does not become the prisoner of any of his cultures, but asserts his personal dignity by living in accordance with the profound truth of his being" Veritatis Splendor #53