The Idol of Relevance

It is most difficult to balance the precipice of non-conformity and cultural relevance as one seeks to live and speak the gospel message to any generation, though especially the one we currently find ourselves in. On one dangerous slope there is the abandonment of truth for the sake of numbers and mass appeal. One unguarded step tumbles towards a free fall in the canyon of ears tickled, which is closely located to the cavern of a wasted life. Yet, on the other slope is the sacred, hallow halls of the monasticm, where the truth of Christ's messages is rarely digested. As someone concerned with this balance on your terrain, consider Os Guiness.

The Idol of Relevance
by C.J. Mahaney 10/3/2008 9:47:00 AM Since we’re talking about Os Guinness, I pulled my stack of well-worn copies of his books off my shelves. And one of the most dog-eared, check-mark-littered, and highlighted copies is the book Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (Baker, 2003).

The book is a piercing critique of the church’s uncritical pursuit of relevance for the sake of relevance. His argument: “Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant” (p. 12). Guinness explains it like this:

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. (p. 11)

This is because, as Guinness writes, faithfulness to eternal truth is the means to genuine cultural relevance. In every generation, our goal is centered on the proclamation and advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the local church. Only because of the gospel’s continued relevance is it rightfully called the “good news.”

The gospel is good news. In fact it is “the best news ever” because it addresses our human condition appropriately, pertinently, and effectively as nothing else has, does, or can—and in generation after generation, culture after culture, and life after life. Little wonder that the Christian faith is the world’s first truly universal religion and in many parts of the world the fastest growing faith, and that the Christian church is the most diverse society on planet earth, with followers on all continents, in all climates, and under all the conditions of life and development. Of course, Christians can make the gospel irrelevant by shrinking and distorting it in one way or another. But in itself the good news of Jesus is utterly relevant or it is not the good news it claims to be. (p. 13)

Escaping the Cultural Captivity

The strength of Guinness’s book is not only the insightful criticism, but the constructive vision he presents to the reader. Chapter six, “Escaping Cultural Captivity” (pp. 95–112), was especially helpful. Guinness writes,

Without God, our human knowledge is puny and perverse, limited on the one hand by finitude and distorted on the other by sin. That said, and that said humbly, three things can help us cultivate the independent spirit and thinking that are characteristic of God’s untimely people. In ascending order, they are developing an awareness of the unfashionable, cultivating an appreciation for the historical, and paying constant attention to the eternal. Each is crucial for effective resistance thinking. (p. 96)

Guinness then develops each of these points:

1. Awareness of the Unfashionable: Because the cross runs across the grain of human thinking, the faithful choice is often not the culturally popular choice. Guinness introduces the countercultural actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. While the Führer demanded complete allegiance, Bonhoeffer was stressing the cost of discipleship and allegiance to Christ alone. In all generations, the church needs to cultivate an awareness of the unfashionable to avoid being captured by the popular or “relevant.”

2. Appreciation for the Historical: Americans, Guinness writes, seem to know everything about what’s happened over the past 24 hours, but little about the past 600 or 60 years. “Essential for untimeliness is appreciation for the historical, for no human perspective gives us a better counterperspective on our own day” (p. 100).

Guinness continues,

Mere lip service to the importance of history will not do. We each have to build in a steady diet of the riches of the past into our reading and thinking. Only the wisdom of the past can free us from the bondage of our fixation with the present and the future. C. S. Lewis counseled, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” (p. 104)

On the next page, he quotes Lewis again: “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of history blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books” (p. 105).

3. Attention to the Eternal: “Essential for untimeliness is attention to the eternal, for only the eternal is eternally relevant” (p. 105). The way to remain relevant is to stay on the path of eternal truth. Guinness asks us to consider, if we are seeking to be relevant, why? To what end are we seeking relevance? “Nothing is finally relevant except in relation to the true and the eternal….Only the repeated touch of the timeless will keep us truly timely” (pp. 106, 112).

Yet again, it’s worth quoting him directly:

How then do we lift ourselves above the level of the finite and the mundane to gain an eternal perspective on what is true and relevant? The biblical answer is blunt in its candor. By ourselves we can’t. We can’t break out of Plato’s cave of the human, with all its smoke and flickering shadows on the wall. We can’t raise ourselves above the level of the timebound and the earthbound by such feeble bootstraps as reason. But where we are limited by our own unaided efforts, we have help. We have been rescued.…God has broken into our silence. He has spoken and has come down himself. And 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. (p. 107)

Conclusion

I highly recommend Prophetic Untimeliness, especially for pastors. We would do well to heed Guinness’s call to faithfulness: “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” (p. 15).

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