A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance


Os Guinness

Baker, 2003, 119 pp.


Guinness is always thought provoking.  In this book he rebukes the church for caving in to the cultural pressures of time and relevance. 


“How have we Christians become so irrelevant when we have tried so hard to be relevant?”  “Rarely has the church seen so many of its leaders solemnly presenting the faith in public in so many weak, trite, foolish, disastrous, and even disloyal ways as today.”  “How can we do better in a day that is hungry for a word from God?”  (11)


“Our challenging task is to be like David himself, who was said to ‘serve God’s purpose in his generation.’” (12)


“Relevance is at the very heart of the gospel of Jesus and is the secret of the church’s power down through history.”  “In itself the good news of Jesus is utterly relevant or it is not the good news it claims to be.” (13)


“The church is largely irrelevant to Western affairs at a supremely important moment.  For today the forces of globalization unleashed by the West are simultaneously stimulating other civilizations (such as the Chinese, Indian, and Islamic) into life while undermining the authority of Western beliefs in the West itself.” (14)


 “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.” (15)


“It is time to challenge the idol of relevance, to work out what it means to be faithful as well as relevant, and so to become truly relevant without ever ending up as trendy, trivial, and unfaithful.” (15)


“How are we to be wise and understanding, not simply well-informed with a surplus of facts and figures?”  “How are we to be always timely, never trendy?” (18)


Answer:  Regain the courage of ‘prophetic untimeliness’ and develop the art of ‘resistance thinking’ and so become followers of Jesus….”  (19)


Resistance thinking is “a way of thinking that balances the pursuit of relevance on the one hand with a tenacious awareness of those elements of the Christian message that don’t fit in with any contemporary age on the other.”  It is “a way of relevance with faithfulness.” (20)


The clock is the source of our time pressures and our view of the present and future.  “Westerners are people with gods on their wrists” (Filipino saying) “Westerners have watches but no time.  Africans have time but no watches.”  (28)


Three features of the modern clock shape our thinking.  (31-33)

  1. Precision - punctuality as a virtue
  2. Coordination – the importance of timing, plans, schedules & logistics
  3. Pressure – the above drives and squeezes us (harried and hurried)


“Time is the ultimate credit card; speed is the universal style of spending.”  “Jam-packed eventfulness is a necessity and attention deficit disorder a common condition.” (35)


Tyrannies of Time

Our view of time has the power of labeling or defining reality.  The way we say things shapes the way we see things.  For example, “The uncivilized are no longer beyond in terms of space but behind in terms of time.”  Progress almost always refers to time.  Words also smuggle in evaluation in the guise of description.  Progress describes advance but it also implies “good.”  Reactionary (to progress) implies “bad.”  (37-9) 


Our view of time imposes a presumptive bias for change.  “Our modern words about time have a preference and a bias, but the preference is left unstated and the bias unargued.” (41)  Any kind of change qualifies as “progress.”  The present is privileged over the past and the future is privileged over the present.  (44)


“Incessant change plays havoc with our categories and our conclusions.  Settled convictions, assured judgments, long-held beliefs, age-old traditions, newly trumpeted discoveries, and radical new fashions are all swept away without ceremony in the tornado of change that is modern time.”  “We face a harvest of ironies and unintended consequences.”  (44)


“A vital secret of the church’s power and glory in history lies in its calling to be ‘against the world, for the world.’” “The Christian faith is simultaneously both world-affirming and world-denying.  When the church is weak or careless in maintaining this dual stance, it leads directly to cowardice and corruption, decadence and decline.  But when the church is faithful, it lies at the core of her power to transform and renew culture.” (49)


“Of all the cultures the church has lived in, the modern world is the most powerful, the most pervasive, and the most pressurizing.  And it has done more damage to Christian integrity and effectiveness than all the persecutors of the church in history.” (51)


“Few Christians are willing to think or live decisively ‘not of’ it.” (52)  “Evangelicals and fundamentalists have embraced the modern world with a passion unrivaled in history.” (53)


In the new evangelicalism “therapeutic self-concern overshadows knowing God, spirituality displaces theology, … marketing triumphs over mission, …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 the missionary enterprise is overpowered by the all-consuming drive to sustain the multiple business empires of the booming evangelical subculture.”  (54)


“Many evangelicals are blind to the sea change because they know only the present and have little sense of history, even their own.”  (54)


“Fear of one extreme is cited to excuse the collapse into another. ‘Thank God,’ our new evangelicals say, ‘that we have escaped from the ‘do’s and don’ts’ and ‘no-nos’ of the narrow worldliness of the previous generation.”  But the pitfalls of legalism are not the urgent danger of today.  We are pretty much at the other end of the spectrum. (55)


“Uncritical adaptation reaches so far out for relevance that it “ends up toppling over into surrender to the modern world, therefore becoming unfaithful to Christ.” (57)  This happens when:

  1. An assumption is accepted without thought because it is current.
  2. Whatever doesn’t fit in is neglected (such as customs or truths).
  3. Everything else is adapted, altered to fit the new assumption.
  4. What remains is absorbed by the new assumptions. (57-62)


“A great part of the evangelical community has made a historic shift.  It has transferred authority from Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) to Sola Cultura (by culture alone).” (65)


“Independent thinking, protest, refusal, resistance, and the courage to say no are all essential to the vigilance that sees something is wrong and is willing to stand up and take action.”  There is little appetite for such a sustained struggle.  (69-70)


“Our deepest necessity is to be shaped by our faith rather than by the pushes and pulls of this world.” (71)


The siren calls are public opinion, popularity, fashionability, fascination with the future, and relevance.


“For us the power of public opinion is the most dangerous because it is today’s danger.” (72)


“Whereas our grandfathers and grandmothers lived as if they had swallowed gyroscopes, we think and act as if we have swallowed Gallup polls.  Our thinking is all too easily ‘group thinking’—that which is shaped by a desire for concurrence rather than by critical thought.”  “For when truth’s importance decays, independent thinking, debate, and disagreements decay too.” (73)


“Relevance is not the problem but rather a distorted relevance that slips into trendiness, triviality, and transience.”  (75)


“The past is dry, dusty, and remote…. The future rushes toward us gleaming and bright.”  “Everything Christian from worship to evangelism must be fresh, new, up-to-date, attuned, appealing, seeker-sensitive, audience-friendly, and relentlessly relevant, relevant, relevant.” (76)


“Much Christian pursuit of timeliness has become trivial.”  “Many Christian leaders have become trendy.”  “Evangelicals were once known as ‘the serious people.’  It is sad to note that today many evangelicals are the most superficial of religious believers—lightweight in thinking, gossamer-thin in theology, and avid proponents of spirituality-lite in terms of preaching and responses to life.” (77)


“He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.” (78)


History’s unheeded messengers (Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Winston Churchill, etc.) have common virtues: “discernment of the times; courage to repudiate powerful interests and fashion; perseverance in the face of daunting odds; seasoned wisdom born of a sense of history and their nation’s place in it; and—supremely with the Hebrew prophets—a note of authority in their message born of its transcendent source.” (85)


Speaking out carries costs:

·       A sense of maladjustment (Praised prophets are mostly dead.)

·       A sense of impatience (frustration that God’s forward purposes are obstructed)

·       A sense of failure (which is only to be expected)


So how do we react?  “”Our ‘failures’ may be his success.  Our ‘setbacks’ may prove his turning points. Our ‘disasters’ may turn out to be his triumphs.”  “So every day our work is like a prayer.  And every day we give back all we can of God’s gifts to him—with love, and trust, and hope.” (94)


How do we escape cultural captivity and arrive at a true perspective?  “We are all more culturally shortsighted than we realize.”  (95)


1.  Be aware of the unfashionable.  Wrestle with the truths that are unpopular.  Be challenged by the difficult.  Face up to those elements in original Christianity that are personally obscure or repulsive. 


“Early twenty-first—century evangelicalism mimics popular culture as closely and successfully as anyone could ever hope to while still getting away with it.  In each case the end result is not only a betrayal of the faith but a hapless impotence before the very audience the church was out to impress.” “Evangelicals … are increasingly syncretistic rather than exclusive and discriminating.” (98)


Exercise radical obedience (like Bonhoeffer).  “The cross of Jesus runs crosswise to all our human ways of thinking.”   (100)


2.  Appreciate the historical.  “History is essential for our knowledge of ourselves as human beings.” (102)  “The further back you can look, the further forward you can see.”  Read old books.  Read biographies.  “It is essential that we rise above the limitations of being children of our own age.”  “The past is the greatest source of corrective wisdom….”  (105) 


3.  Pay attention to the eternal.  “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.” (quoting Simone Weil) (105)  “Nothing is finally relevant except in relation to the true and the eternal.  “Only truth and eternity give relevance to ‘relevance.’” (106)  “In his written and living Word we are given truth from outside our situation, truth that throws light on our little lives and our little world.” (107)


“God is always bigger than our misunderstandings of him.  However distorted and inadequate our views may be, it only takes the real Word to speak to wake up the church and the world.” (109)


“Attention to the eternal assumes and requires the practice of the spiritual disciplines today—to cultivate the spiritual habits of the heart and learn to do as second nature what we cannot do as first.  And above all, we need to practice the presence of God and to pursue the reality of knowing God.”  (112)


“Only the repeated touch of the timeless will keep us truly timely.” (112)


“To go forward, the church must always first go back.  “In a world obsessed with change and progress, progressives will always prove stagnant while resistance thinkers will be fresh and creative.”  (116)