Whether though creating trendy worship services, writing books about how Christ can be seen in current movies, or mirroring hot bands playing on MTV, Christians often try to make their faith more culturally relevant. But Os Guinness says that this desire to be fashionable is exactly why Christians are now becoming marginalized. In a lecture for the C.S. Lewis Institute in 2002, he said that the only thing that is always relevant is the Gospel.
Guinness has written or edited more than 20 books, including The American Hour, The Call, Time for Truth, and Long Journey Home. He's Senior Fellow and vice chairman of the board at the Trinity Forum. His C.S. Lewis Institute lecture has now become his most recent book, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (Baker Books).
What exactly is the problem that you defined in your 2002 lecture?
Evangelicalism has never chased relevance more determinedly than it does now. And yet, we've never been more irrelevant. That could be purely accidental, and other factors are behind it, but I would argue that we've pursued the wrong type of relevance. We've fallen captive to modern views of time, progress, timeliness, and relevance. They're leading us down a garden path.
There's nothing wrong with relevance. The gospel, of course, is relevant. But modern views of relevance are dangerously distorted and they'll lead us into trouble. The Bible meets every person's needs. It's never out of date, never old fashioned, and it's always relevant. So I'm not attacking true relevance.
Instead, the problem is this modern idea of relevance. I've argued in other books that the church is being shaped by the modern world. In this book I'm not looking at modernity as a whole, but the modern view of time. In many ways, the clock has shaped the modern world as much as any other machine.
How has our attention to time changed civilization?
If you look back when clocks came into the West, there was a subtle change. For example, the idea of being civilized for the Greeks was a spatial idea. If you were inside, you were civilized. If you were outside, beyond the pale, you were barbarian. It was a matter of being beyond.
To be civilized in our world though is a matter of time. The uncivilized are Neanderthals. Change is what matters. Progress is what matters. The latest is greatest and the newer is truer. We think that the whole of history and everything in the world leads up to you and me. We have to keep up with every emerging trend in order to be savvy today.
How do you see this adversely affecting the church?
Worship is for the Lord and his people. It isn't primarily for seekers, although we suddenly take them into account. Too many seeker-sensitive services have gutted the heart of worship. I was in a mega-church in California and in the two Sundays I was there, there was hardly a reference to scripture. There were far more references to George Barna and George Gallup than to either the Bible or God.
Once culture becomes authority, you're always shifting in terms of the latest trends and the winds of fashion. The scripture is no longer authorative. You can see it in the Episcopal Church now in the way they've elected an openly gay bishop. It's the winds of culture that are decisive, not the scriptures. And a good bit of evangelicalism is drifting down the same road.
The second problem I've seen is with continuity. If you're always changing the faith, eventually you have some new, trendy faith. It's no longer the faith of our fathers and mothers. There's a real break in continuity. This brings with it a loss of identity. Eventually people are believing things that have little decisive Christian content. What are they really believing? It's just the world's beliefs dressed up.
How should Christians balance the Scripture and the world?
It's well known that Jesus called us to be in the world but not of the world. In history, only one person has done it perfectly—the Lord. Christians have been sometimes so much in it, that they're of it and wordly. Or they can be so much not of it that they're other-worldly.
What has changed is the modern world. The rise of the Modern World through the Industrial Revolution is so powerful, so pervasive, and so pressurizing that you can barely get away from it. The world is so powerful today that what's surprising is there's almost no world-denying branches of the Christian faith left. Evangelicalism used to be very attentive about worldliness, but no longer cares about it much today.
Paul became a Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greeks, a Gentile to the Gentiles, and so on. That's what we should do. Be a hippie to the hippies, a boomer to the boomers, and so on. We've got to start where people start. But the point is, we must never end there.
So many pastors and pundits today are saying, "We've got to re-invent the church and get it moving forward—a new kind of Christian for the new kind of age." But when you look at the Scriptures and Christian History, the church always goes forward by first going back. What we're after is not re-inventing the church, but reviving the church. And part of revival and reformation is always going back to God's standards.
In this craze to be relevant and in using words like "reinventing," we've got to ask, What are we really doing? When I first came to the faith, if the church was in bad shape, there would be prayer for revival. Today if the church is in bad shape, we talk about reinvention. But what the church needs is revival, not reinvention. It's not something we do by getting up-to-date, it's something the Lord does by bringing us back to the power of his truth and his spirit.
How has commercialization come out of our desire for fashionability?
The Contemporary Christian Music and the Christian Booksellers Association are multi-billion dollar industries incredibly contained by their success. Many of them are now driven by the market, not by mission. So instead of the church being salt and light, you've got Christians writing books to other Christians.
I walked through CBA last year with one of the heads of one of the leading publishing houses. He said, "You know, 95 percent of these books are all about me, my, and that sort of stuff." Narcissistic. Very little of it is serious Christian books engaging the culture.
I love C.S. Lewis's idea of resistance thinking. He said if you only adapt the gospel to what fits your times, you'll have a comfortable, convenient gospel. But it'll only be half the gospel. And it'll be irrelevant to the next generation.
Whereas, if you follow resistance thinking—or looking into the gospel for things that are difficult, obscure, or even repulsive as he says—then you're true to the whole gospel. And secondly, you're relevant to any generation.
Twenty years ago when I first started saying some of these things, many of [those seeking to be relevant] treated me like a Neanderthal. But now, so many members of the younger generation want history, liturgy, and richness again. They're going back to the early church fathers and the Scriptures. They want the Cross and worship. The people who cut out all that stuff in the name of relevance have suddenly found themselves washed up.
If somebody says, "I want to live with that kind of prophetic untimeliness" what can they do?
There are three antidotes. The first is an awareness of the unfashionable. Be true to the parts of the gospel that just don't fit today. Have the guts to speak on truth, in a day of relativism, on hell and open inclusivism. When we're really true to the unfashionable parts of the gospel, then the power of the gospel will be on us.
The second important thing is to really appreciate history. Instead of this fascination with the future and this carelessness about the past, there's a whole stretch of verses in Deuteronomy that remind us to remember history. As C.S. Lewis says, it is "the clean sea breeze that blows through our thinking."
By focusing on history we don't become captive to our local culture and captive to our generation. We really have the independence because we're lifted above America, the West, and the 21st century. We see things with God's perspective. And that's the third thing: Really being in touch with the Lord, the eternal.
The only thing we really contribute to reformation and revival is need. When we get to a certain stage of need we turn to the Lord because we know we simply can't do it—even with all the mission statements, the re-inventing, and the punditry.
We've got to see that much of this stuff is not only bankrupt but it's totally worldly. When we get beyond that, the need will drive a huge number of people back to their knees.
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Dick Staub interviewed Os Guinness last summer about faith journeys.
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