Monday, August 26, 2013

A Hard Look at Relevance

 Typically, I do not write book reviews, but I recently read an outstanding, short tome by Os Guinness entitled "Prophetic Untimeliness:  A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance."  This brief 119 page book written in 2003 and published by Baker Books is still available and a worthwhile read for all who love the church.
     For those unacquainted with Os Guinness, he has received his doctorate in sociology from Oxford University in England.  He is the author of numerous books on the culture and the church as well as being a well-known speaker.  He has also written a dead-on critique of the church growth/seeker sensitive movement in his book "Dining with the Devil".  In his own words, he says that he has "interpreted the world for the church and the church for the world."  He is an intellectual for the cause of Christ not unlike William Wilberforce.
     In his book "Prophetic Untimeliness", Os Guinness explores the question, "How on earth have we Christians become so irrelevant when we have tried so hard to be relevant?.....Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant" (pgs. 11,12).  After asking this question, he goes on to explain relevance as "the quality of relating to a matter in hand with pertinence and appropriateness" (pg. 12).  He argues that relevance is at the heart of the Gospel.  There is no message more relevant than sin and salvation.  However, the evangelical church has sought relevance in many other ways instead of focussing on faithfulness to the message of God's Word.  This is where the modern church today is missing out.  We live in a time of the megachurch where methods of growth triumph over the message, and unfortunately, the church is losing its saltiness in our world.
     On page 15, Os Guinness states his thesis:  "By our uncritical pursuit of relevance, we have actually courted irrelevance; by our breathless chase after relevance without a matching commitment to faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful, but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity but our authority and our relevance.  Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant."  With this grand theme to guide us, he breaks his book into three sections.
     In his first section, he explores our obsession with time and being timely.  The watch we wear or the clock on the wall seem to become "the tool that turned into a tyrant" (pg. 25) shaping our lives and our thinking to become more precise, coordinated and pressurized.  The author goes on to say that with our emphasis on time we tend to look at contemporary things as better than things from the past.  We regard the future as even better than the present.  What he ultimately means is that the newest ideas and trends are better than the old traditions.  Here Guinness makes a good case that true progress does not come from accommodating the culture, but through resisting the culture as C.S. Lewis was often known to say.  In our rush for relevance, we often forfeit wisdom and fail to learn from our past.  Somehow, we think being progressive is far better than being traditional.  As we discard our past, we become prey to the passing fads of culture and become unfit to face the future with faithfulness.
     Part two of his book deals with relevance and he outlines four steps to irrelevance:  Assumption, Abandonment, Adaptation and Assimilation.  He states that the faith-world of great believers John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, William Wilberforce, Hudson Taylor, D.L. Moody, Charles Spurgeon, Oswald Chambers and John Stott are fast disappearing.  He writes:  "In its place a new evangelicalism is arriving in which therapeutic self-concern overshadows knowing God, spirituality displaces theology, end-times escapism crowds out day-to-day discipleship, marketing triumphs over mission, references to opinion polls outweigh reliance on biblical exposition, concerns for power and relevance are more obvious than concern for piety and faithfulness, talk of reinventing the church has replaced prayer for revival, and the characteristic evangelical passion for missionary enterprise is overpowered by the all-consuming drive to sustain the multiple business empires of the booming evangelical subculture.  Many evangelicals are blind to the sea change because they know only the present and have little sense of history, even their own" (pg. 54).  Powerful words that should awaken us to what is happening in the quest for relevance in our modern time.  Evangelicals have lost the most relevant message we have and instead, bowed down to popularity, conformity to culture and being fashionable.
     Finally, in his third section, Os Guinness calls for a people who will stand for the Gospel message and its relevance rather than bowing to what the culture calls relevant.  It is costly, but God has called us out to be a peculiar people in the world but not of the world.  The author tells us that we need to stop worrying about what others think of us and the legacy we will leave.  Guinness warns us:  "Signs are that, unless some drastic rethinking takes place soon, the corruptions in evangelicalism will worsen and show through in theology, not just in practice.  Evangelicals have followed the broader cultural shift from 'religion to spirituality' and in the process have become 'do-it-yourself' in their preferences rather than living under authority; they are increasingly syncretistic rather than exclusive and discriminating" (pg. 98).  To remedy this, the author calls for radical obedience and faithfulness to the message of the Gospel if we truly want to be relevant.  We have the answers for which the world hungers.
     In summary, I cannot recommend this book enough.  It will challenge the thinking of anyone who desires to see the church recapture its relevance through faithfulness to the message we have.  Preaching the truth of God's Word is far more important than trying to be trendy to draw people in.  All too often we let the tail wag the dog by allowing the world to shape the church instead of the church shaping the world.  Let us be a people who will tear down the idol of relevance wherever we see it and speak the truth in love no matter what the cost.  This is our call to prophetic untimeliness for God's glory.  Selah!

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