Relevance or the Gospel?

I’m often asked, “How is the Church doing?” The carrier of globalization is Western civilization, and the Christian faith is the single strongest set of ideas that has characterized the West. Yet at this moment, we have effectively lost all the key sector leaders in the United States. The only place the Church is strong in the West is ordinary people in America, which are largely evangelicals, and if you look at the evangelical community, it’s anti-intellectual. It’s handicapped, populist, and incredibly worldly. In many cases, the Church is shaped more by the world than by the Gospel of Christ.

Oscar Wilde once quipped to a trendy clergyman, “I not only follow you, I precede you.” In other words, the people were using the very same things he believed but dressed up in Christian language. Where there is outreach, often it’s not decisively, persuasively Christian.

That’s why one of the pressing needs in the Church today is the rediscovery of biblical persuasion—going to people whose minds are closed, indifferent, hostile and knowing how to open them up. The heart of outreach is persuasion. That’s the missing element.

On What’s Relevant

The Gospel is always truly relevant; relevance is not the problem. The modern view of relevance though focuses on trends—the idea that we have to be on top of the 10 emerging trends if we’re really going to reinvent the Church. This has led to a transience or a trendiness, a kind of burnout. Evangelicals are becoming as unfaithful to the Gospel as liberals were 200 years ago. Evangelicalism has replaced sola scriptura with sola cultura, through culture and being relevant.

C.S. Lewis called it “resistance thinking,” saying if you apply the Gospel in ways that fit into your own age, you’ll end up with something comfortable and convenient. You have to remember the resisting material—the parts of the Gospel that don’t fit in. Lewis called it “the parts that are difficult and obscure and even repulsive.” Teach and be faithful to those, and you’ll be faithful to the whole Gospel and the next generation.

Look at the faith of many of the people who are seeker-friendly to Boomers. They remove crosses from churches. They’ve watered down, diluted, streamlined, and softened the Gospel. Then along came the Xers who said, “Wait a minute, we want crosses, history, literature. We want to put some guts to what we’re about.” They said, “You people have betrayed it!” Lewis’s resistance thinking is far better:  teach what’s unfashionable, too.

On the Exclusive Gospel

We’re in a “feel good” generation. Do what feels good to you. But Jesus says, “If your hand offends you, cut if off.” His teaching is stern and unrelenting. Certainly He was appealing, but often He was, quite literally, appalling. Much of evangelicalism now is shaped by this craze for relevance or positive thinking. It’s a soft Gospel that won’t really convert people properly. What we need are disciples, not decisions. Everyone in a postmodern age is relativistic, including Christians. The polls show that young Christians, even middle-aged Christians, are as relativistic as their pagan neighbors, whereas the Gospel is absolute, exclusive, tough, and true. We have to teach these unpopular things as well as the popular things if we’re faithful. Otherwise, we’ll have anemic disciples.

So, like Lewis, I think there are three antidotes to worldliness. One is always being aware of the unfashionable, for example, intolerance. The second is appreciating the historical. The third is cultivating a living awareness of the transcendent through the spiritual disciplines.

The French philosopher Simone Weil says, “If you want to be always relevant, you have to be eternal. Only the eternal can be eternally relevant.” I’ve been in mega-churches that quote Barna and Gallup more than the Bible and God. This is crazy. Our preaching has to be in touch, but the source of it has to be the North Star.

A Mission to Leaders

I have a great heart for pastors. It seems that on the one hand, the social status of pastors has shrunk in some areas. On the other, the expectations have risen, forcing pastors to be a “jack of all trades.” They have to be super-celebrities, credible counselors, and amazing administrators. I think pastors must have the courage of their convictions and their calling. Pastors have to remember that the Word of God must be delivered to the people of God, and that is the heart of their calling. Many of them, however, have a crisis of confidence; they don’t trust the heart of their ministry or the authority of the Word. We need reformation and revival in the Church and a mission to win back the West.

The most important unreached people group in America are leaders, because America is the leader of the world. Yet most evangelicals are suspicious, resentful, and even hostile to leaders. A few years ago, I was talking to one of the most famous network anchors when he was considering faith. He said what put him off the Christian faith was sackfuls of hate mail from evangelicals. We don’t pray and reach out thoughtfully.

On the Gospel’s Wonder

Contrast is the mother of clarity. I always find that I understand and wonder at the Gospel when I see the contrast of the alternatives. I remember when I studied under a guru and, for the first time in my life, saw the profound difference between the Gospel and Hinduism. I came back just deepened in my wonder, and the same is true in the West today as I see the insane and the inadequate things people are believing and getting into.

Religions are not all the same. There are huge differences between the faiths, and the differences make a huge difference—not only to individuals, but to communities, countries, and civilizations. Jesus says, “Will you leave me?” The disciples say, “To whom can we go?” The answer is knowing Him better, but for me it’s also seeing the crazy alternatives and realizing by force of contrast the wonder of the Gospel.   

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Os Guinness
Os Guinness is an author, a social critic, and a Senior Fellow of the EastWest Institute in New York. He is a co-founder of the Trinity Forum and served as Senior Fellow from 1991 until 2004. Great-great grandson of Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewer, Os was born in China in World War II where his parents were medical missionaries. Os has written or edited more than twenty-five books, including The American Hour, Time for Truth, The Call, Invitation to the Classics, Long Journey Home, and Unspeakable: Facing up to the Challenge of Evil. His latest book, The Case for Civility was published by HarperOne in January 2008. Copyright © by Outreach magazine. All rights reserved. Used by permission.