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Book Review: Prophetic untimeliness: A challenge to the idol of relevance

book review by Phil E. Suiter, Ph.D.

Guiness, O. (2003). Prophetic untimeliness: A challenge to the idol of relevance. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

One of the catch phrases of the church at the beginning of the 21st century is this: cultural relevance. It has become an obsession. One sees it within the fundamental church movement as well as the emergent church movement. Yet, the author is caused to ask a question that might be phrased in this way: Why, when the very heart of the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is eternal and relevant to anyand all ages, is the church characterized by its irrelevance, sacrificing the authority of the Word of God in favor of the trivialities of the world?

Os Guiness maintains that there is a link between the irrelevance of the church at the beginning ofthe 21st century and the pursuit of relevance by that church and its leaders. A quote by the author that is found on page 15 of the book captures this essence:

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.

On the same page, the author goes on to say this: “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”.

The author explains that what is happening in the fundamental/evangelical church movement is largely because of our perception of time, specifically our attitudes toward and our understanding of the past, the present and the future. According to traditional wisdom, the past is easiest and most important to understand; the present is most difficult, and the future is impossible. But that wisdom no longer holds true. Now, the past is ignored, our understanding of the present is exaggerated, and this culture presumes to be able to predict the future.

The author makes a reference to historian Arnold Toynbee who suggested that trying to understand the present and ignoring the past is like a man with his nose pressed against a mirror trying to see his whole body.

Think about the title of this book: Prophetic Untimeliness. Independent thinkers will always be out of step with the norms of the day. Those overly concerned with current efforts to make the church relevant get caught up in the toils of fashion and conformity. The title speaks of untimely men, men whose home is not in this age or any other. Rather, they are grounded in the eternal truths of the Word of God. Thus, it is “untimely” to challenge this obsession with things present.

Prophetic Untimeliness includes three parts with two chapters in each, plus an introduction and a concluding chapter. Part 1 examines the current clock culture and its obsession with the present. Part 2 examines the impact of this obsession with the present on the church. Part 3 examines what it will take to resist the current distortions and to do so with integrity while considering the cost of such faithfulness to the Word of God. And there is a cost to be born by one who would dare challenge the timeliness of this age.

Os Guiness entitles Part 1 of the book The Tool That Turned Into a Tyrant. He is referring to “time” and particularly how we look at the present and the demands that an obsession with the present places upon us. He cites these sayings: a Filipino saying, “Westerners are people with gods on their wrists.” And a Kenyan saying, “Westerners have watches but no time. Africans have time but no watches.”

The clock culture has its negatives. The author calls them tyrannies and he defines three of them.The first is the “the power of labeling” and the pressure labeling places upon church leaders to conform towhatever is in vogue. Labeling is really our attempt to define reality as we perceive it. The second is “presumption” and our choice of words or mantras. Words state a preference and a bias. But, generally the preference is unstated and the bias is unargued. One who would dare to examine the preference or argue the bias becomes suspect. The third is “paradox.” This term is used to describe the sweeping away of years of tradition by what the author calls “the tornado of change.” The past is ignored. Terminology that was once meaningful now becomes tattered, confusing, and certainly outworn for the present age. Time has taken a great toll.

Part 2 of the book examines the impact that the search for relevance has had upon the church. This section of the book opens with a citation of statements by C. S. Lewis referring to the “two-edged character” of Christian faith. It is based upon two teachings drawn from the Bible: the creation and the fall. Thus, the believer views reality not only in terms of what the world was created to be but also of what it has come to be. The Christian faith is both world-affirming (God’s original design) and world-denying (what the world has become).

When the church is careless in holding to this dual stance, it becomes weak and cowardly. It falls into decadence and decline. When the church is faithful to this dual stance, it is characterized by the power to transform and renew the culture in which it is situated. This truth is especially vital at thebeginning of the 21st century, for this culture, as the author states, is the most powerful, the most pervasive, and the most pressurizing ever faced by the church.

What stance should the church take? The first to be cited is that of cognitive and cultural resistance. Yet few churches in this age, and few believers, take a world-denying stance. The author cites a question asked by one of his tutors at Oxford: “By the end of the 1970’s, who will be the worldliest Christians in America?” His answer was this: “I guarantee it will be the evangelicals and fundamentalists.” History has proved the tutor to be correct in his observation. Evangelicals are becoming the strongest rival to mainline Protestantism as the worldliest Christian tradition in America. The faith world of the past is now gone. On page 54, the following quotation of the author addresses this.

In its place a new evangelicalism is arriving in which therapeutic self-concern over-shadows knowing God, spirituality displaces theology, end-times escapism crowds out day-to-day discipleship, marketing triumphs over mission, references to opinion polls outweigh reliance on biblical exposition, 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 missionary enterprise is over-powered by the all-consuming drive to sustain the multiple business empires of the booming evangelical subculture.

There has developed a theological correctness. Most fundamentalists and evangelicals sense a great pressure to conform. They are not capable of making cognitive or cultural resistance. They know only the present. They lack a knowledge of history, even their own.

Most churches or other ministries seem to have chosen some aspect of uncritical adaptation to the changes that are occurring. This adaptation soon becomes surrender and unfaithfulness to Christ. This adaptation follows four steps: the first is assumption, meaning that some aspect of change is assumed to be significant and worth accepting. The second is abandonment, meaning that truths or practices of the past do not fit with the new assumptions and they are soon abandoned. The third is adaptation, meaning that what remains of faith and faithfulness is adapted to fit what is now assumed. The fourth is assimilation, meaning that what remains is absorbed by the original assumptions.

Another direct quote is fitting. From page 62, the author states: “The result is worldliness, or Christian capitulation to some aspect of the culture of its day. No longer a missionary, the church “goes native” in some foreign culture or among some foreign ideas.” What does this say? There is now developed a new Christianity for a new world. There is little to remind one of the history of the orthodox church of the last twenty centuries. The world now sets the agenda for the church. The authority from which the church speaks is no longer Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone). It has become Sola Cultura (by culture alone).

How can the church in the 21st century be characterized? There is a loss of courage; there is a loss of continuity; there is a loss of credibility; and, sadly, there is a lost of identity. It led Kierkegaard (page 67) to characterize faithless believers as “kissing Judases.” They pretend to embrace Jesus even as they betray Him.

Part 3 of the book addresses what it takes to resist the distortions with integrity and to count the cost of faithfulness. The one resisting will experience a sense of maladjustment; he will experience a sense of impatience; and he will experience a sense of failure. Throughout the book, the author maintains that progress comes only through resistance. Resistance thinking balances the pursuit of relevance on the one hand with a tenacious awareness of those elements of the Christian message that do not mesh with the present age. The Christian message is a message from God and it is eternal. The author cites such men as Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Winston Churchill, men noted for their resistance thinking and men who experienced the sensations cited above.

Men who are “resistance thinkers” may be rare, but they are needed. They are the real visionaries. First, they are men who can defend truth that is unpopular and counter to the spirit of the age. His thoughts are not shaped by popularity or convenience. Rather, they must be based on eternal truth. Second, they are men who have some understanding of history and a deep knowledge of the truth, truth from God. Third, they are men who are willing to defend that truth for this reason: to be relevant one must have knowledge of things that are eternal. When one’s view of the truth falls captive to a mistaken view of truth, that individual becomes time-bound and earth-bound in his thinking. It must be remembered that no power on earth can limit the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not even the obsession with the present that characterizes the culture in the early 21st century.

The visionary is untimely and will always be. But, that is the secret of being a man of great integrity – knowing truth and acting upon that knowledge in the face of the current search for relevance.The work of the Lord should never be totally shaped by the culture. It must also be shaped by the truth revealed from heaven. For this time in history, resistance thinking is the secret for discovering that blend of truth and relevance needed by this age.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.