Os Guinness

Challenging the Idol of Relevance

Os Guinness is an internationally renowned speaker, analyst of faith and culture issues, and author of numerous books, including Time for Truth, The Call, and Dining With the Devil. An Englishman, he was born in China, graduated from the Universities of London and Oxford, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., where he is Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum.

Preaching: Your most recent book is entitled Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (Baker Books). One thing that pastors will all relate to in this book is your discussion of time — the way that time seems to control our lives. I loved the observation of the Filipino that Americans are people who walk around carrying gods on their wrists. That says a whole lot about who we are as a culture.

Guinness: If you look at the impact of modernity, many people think of things like cars and television, which are very obvious. Actually the oldest and most powerful innovation is the clock. It was invented in 1400. If you think of it in comparison with sundials or water clocks or whatever, it brought precision. There was no precision with sundials. In the night when there was no sun you didn’t have any clock at all. It brought coordination – railway timetables coordinating things. Above all it brought pressure. Everything had to be done. Now redeeming the time means packing as much time as you possible can and maximizing and making time efficient with time management staff and so on.

This has not only shaped our world on practical levels — all of us today live crazy lives. We’re living stupid lives that are so busy. It’s also affected our psychology and philosophy. The Greeks were civilized – they were spatial — and the barbarians were non-Greeks, they were non-spatial, geographical. Now civilized is in contrast to primitive or reactionary; in other words, it is not spatial — it’s temporal. You see how our views of time shapes our mentalities. The modern view of relevance is this idea of being absolutely on top of all the trends — the latest is the greatest. If you have mastered all the emerging trends you’ve got life by the throat. This is absolutely ridiculous. What we have done is reversed the traditional way of seeing things.

Traditionally you take the past, present and the future. Human beings thought you knew a fair amount about the past — it was there. You didn’t know much about the present. You knew nothing about the future. In our idiocy we have reversed that. So the idea is the past doesn’t matter. You have the extremes like Henry Ford who said history is bunk. Many evangelicals live like that. Bill Moyers says Americans know everything about the last 24 hours — thanks to CNN — not that much about the last 24 years, and nothing about the last 24 centuries.

In the scriptures history is incredibly important in remembering as a source of trust and obedience. Many modern people not only ignore the past but they idolize the present. What’s ever-newer is definitely truer. Any change must be progress. This is absolute idiocy. Now we even have the insanity to pretend we know the future. So you look at the new wave of “pastor-futurists” — and they will be nameless. One of them writes in his book that he can put his ear to the ground and hear the future. We do not know the future. This sort of idiocy has been swept up in the cult of relevance and our current culture, without our realizing it, has made us very worldly.

Preaching: You talk about how this hunger for relevance has distorted so much of what we do. How do we avoid the other extreme of irrelevance?

Guinness: I make a case for untimeliness, not irrelevance. The gospel is always truly relevant. In other words, it meets our needs. It suits our times. This new relevance — which is keeping up with the latest trends — leads to trendiness, leads to burnout, leads to unfaithfulness. If we look at it theologically, the beginning of this was in Protestant liberalism. Freiderich Schliermacher speaks about reaching the cultured despisers of the gospel, and liberalism tends to reach them, join them, become like them. That is the unfaithfulness of liberalism. In the 60’s it went to extremes. The Protestant mainline in this country virtually committed national suicide in terms of influence. Evangelicals were much more world denying, world engaged but world denying. But with the rise of the church growth movement and seeker sensitive movement, we are now refueling an evangelical version of Protestant liberalism. So young evangelical teenagers are every bit as relativistic as their pagan peers. Or many pastors are as deeply into to divorce or pornography as their peers in the professional world. Or you have bizarre things like evangelical nepotism on the rise, that would have been considered signs of corruption in the past. Evangelicalism is rife with nepotism and all sorts of Christian organizations. Now why all these things? They are seeker sensitive; to be relevant at all costs has actually greased the slipway and made this possible.

Preaching: How does a church leader avoid getting caught up in this cultural trendiness While at the same time finding a way to communicate so that people can understand?

Guinness: There are two extremes, not one. I am engaging with the dominant trend today, which is dangerous, the trendiness. The other extreme is just to be out of it. There are clearly two extremes not one. Peter Berger calls it to be culturally resistant on one extreme or to be culturally accommodating on the other extreme. So I am attacking one. That doesn’t mean there is not another one. The balance is what we want.

The question then is how do we keep the balance? I argue there are three antidotes to resisting this cultural trendiness. One is always being aware of the unfashionable. C.S. Lewis calls this “resistance thinking.” If you fit the gospel to your times only, you have a comfortable convenient gospel that sells out the full gospel. So always preach the hard sayings, the unfashionable, the difficult, obscure. That is one thing.

Second, be aware of the historical. I argue that the best way for most of us simple mortals is not great academic tomes but biography. Christians could well get into biographies that would just teach them some of the great people of history. So be aware of history.

Third is keeping in touch with the eternal. I remember as a boy when I first came to Christ the great preachers were John Stott, Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Neither of those men said, “thus says the Lord,” probably because they did not need to. John Stott was often prostrate on his face before the Lord before he entered the pulpit. Such was his awe at the privilege and responsibility of sharing the Word. Lloyd Jones would be alone for an hour before he entered his pulpit. His church is right next to Buckingham Palace. If the queen came in he wouldn’t speak with her because he was with the King of kings. You could tell that, the old word was unction — there was a spiritual authority in the preaching because it was directly in touch with the Lord. I have not heard any American preaching in 20 years here that comes as close as two-thirds the way to that old-fashioned preaching which was so typical of those days. There is no antidote to the pull of modernity except the power of eternity.

Preaching: I had a chance a few years ago to teach pastors in Moscow. As they talked about issues they were dealing with and some of the groups they were dealing with, some of the same battles they were fighting were battles that had been fought centuries ago but they were unaware of them. It was a reminder for me of how important it is for the church to be aware of its own history.

Guinness: And of western history and of world history. I love the famous saying by Churchill that that further back you look the further ahead you can see. Those who know history have wisdom in the present. One of the great contributions of history is telling us what won’t happen. A lot of people believe bizarre things because they haven’t got the realism of a biblical view of history that just tells us what will not happen.

Preaching: There are thoughtful evangelical preachers and authors today who take elements of popular culture and try to make connections to the gospel in terms of their communication. How do you respond to that? Is there a way to do that in an appropriate way?

Guinness: Absolutely. If you look at the apostle Paul  — I become a Jew to the Jews, gentile to gentiles, all things to all people to win them to Christ. There are four phases of good communication. Phase one is always identification. We become one with the people we are trying to communicate to. You have to be close enough to be heard. That, of course, is the principle of the incarnation. God becomes a human being to talk to human beings. Paul becomes a Jew to the Jews. We should become an Xer to the Xer, a Boomer to the Boomers, a hippie to the hippies, Hotentot to the Hotentots and so on. So Paul in the synagogue opens the Torah; on Mars Hill he quotes Cretan poets. There’s nothing wrong with quoting The Matrix.

Step one is identification but step two is persuasion — you have to open their minds to the wrongness of what they are into, to the rightness of what Christ wants them to come to. That is an about turn that’s subversive. Too many people use these illustrations — they start in the right place but they stay there. I have not seen The Matrix but I read a fair bit about it. Clearly it is much closer to gnosticism than it is to the Gospel. I have heard many preachers preach it as if it was the gospel they were talking about. Incredible naivete. So use The Matrix but turn it on its head by showing the contrast and make it point towards the gospel. Step one identification, step two persuasion.

Preaching: We exist in a cultural era with culture with this whole concept of relativism — the idea of truth as so nebulous it could mean anything. How do preachers in their prophetic role find a way to cut through that worldview to be able to communicate the truth of the gospel?

Guinness: I think there are two arguments for truth over and against postmodern relativism. One style of argument is to people who actually do believe the truth but have gotten rather fuzzy. They are not opposed to it; they’ve just gotten rather careless. The lesser argument to them is that only truth lifts the faith above the morass of lesser things. In other words, the Christian faith is not true because I feel it or because it works or it’s true for me. No, it’s true for me because it’s true. It works because it is true. It’s not true because it works. I feel it because it’s true. It’s not true because I feel it. Only the truthfulness of the gospel lifts it above the morass of so many of these inadequate faiths today.

The other thing is that truth for Jews and Christians is not a question of philosophy. We don’t have to be arguing the correspondence theory of epistomology. Truth is a matter of the character of God. Unlike the Hindus, for whom god is impersonal, our God is personal and He has character. He is true. He speaks truly. He acts truly. So when we defend truth we are defending the Lord Himself. We are not looking at theology. Those are two arguments to people who do believe it but have gotten rather careless.

Then there are two arguments for people who oppose it. Now many of our secular people frankly, flatly don’t believe it. There is a negative and a positive argument here. The negative argument is: without truth there is only manipulation. So many people who think that relativism is cool and hip and politically correct — they don’t want to be manipulated but without truth everything is power and there is only manipulation. Truth is the secret to being able to resist manipulation. Whether it is Alexander Solzhenitsyn against the Soviets or a boss who is tyrannical or a father who’s over controlling. We need truth to resist manipulation.

But the higher argument is: without truth there is no freedom. Now as freedom it’s not just freedom from, it’s freedom for. To be free for, to be free to be, you have to know who you are. You have to know the truth. I’m not a camel. I’m not a woman. I’m a man. I’m not you. I’m myself. Only the truth of who I am before God will allow me to be free to be what God wants me to be. That, of course, is the idea of Jesus. If you will follow my teaching you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. There is no freedom without truth. Everyone truly wants to be free. So we don’t want to rail against postmodernism. That doesn’t’ work. We have got to give arguments that dress out the importance of truth in very fresh and living ways that come across and people go “Wow.”

Preaching: Much of evangelicalism today lives at the level of experience and feeling, and that is reflected in a “therapeutic pulpit.” How do we respond to that?

Guinness: We’ve got to distinguish the gospel from that. Many pastors, at least the polls show, have gone the route of switching their focus from “religion,” viewed as negative, to “spirituality,” which is positive. That’s disastrous. Our religion can be hypocritical and harsh and negative and all those bad things. Spirituality is theologically vague as a mist and totally, ethically undemanding. The gospel is very clear about truth and very demanding ethically. We have got to be as clear as Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in distinguishing the real gospel of discipleship from the things that led to Nazism. Evangelicals, again, in their seeker-friendly, what feels good, what fulfills you etc, etc., have gone down this road that is absolutely disastrous.

Now we have to show the difference. We’ve got to make fun of the spirituality. We have to mock it. It is as crazy as some of the Baal worship. There are three marks of deformed religion in the modern world: one is that it’s highly individualistic, and it has lost all sense of community. The second is: it’s lost authority and it’s in a kind of do-it-yourself mood. Whatever. The third is: it’s lost exclusiveness and become syncretistic. You have evangelicals who believe in the resurrection and reincarnation, read their Bibles and their horoscope and fit it all together. We have to be like the prophet Elijah. No sitting around on the fence. You want to follow God, follow God. You want to follow Baal, follow Baal. Push people out to be true to these crazy things they are into that we know are absolutely disastrous for them.

Preaching: Basically we need pastors to be confronters of culture.

Guinness: Absolutely, absolutely. Hooks, but then swing the hook around and confront it. Step one, identification — that is the hook. Step two, persuasion — take it on.

Preaching: What advice do you give to preachers who want to do this? What are some handles to help them get hold of these ideas?

Guinness: I remember when I was at Oxford I read an article which I kick myself I didn’t keep. It was on preaching. I’m not a preacher. But it argued that powerful preaching that changed communities was not preaching that had correct doctrine at its heart. It was preaching where correct doctrine was in conscious tension with cultural diagnosis. So the Word says this, the world does that. The congregation is left with a deep sense that there is a tension here — I have got to do something.

I would say to preachers to first have the confidence of your calling. For many preachers today the social status has collapsed. The expectations have become extreme, burdensome. They are expected to be everything. Many preachers are overwhelmed; they have lost confidence in being preachers. There is no greater privilege in the world than bringing the Word of God to the people of God: “Thus says the Lord.” Delivering that Word from the Lord, in the sight of the Lord, to the people of the Lord. We need preachers who recover that. Expository preaching in this country – with a few distinguished exceptions — is in hard times. We need a recovery of the greatness of preaching, the preaching that engages for the world. Here’s the world, here’s the gospel. Take it on.