In recent years it has become increasingly popular to discuss “re-imagining” or “re-imaging” the life of faith, the form of the church, the gospel–the list could go on. I’ve been an advocate of these conversations. People are crying out that the church needs renewal, the gospel needs to be clearly preached, the name of Jesus needs to be named, and that his people need to recognize the costs that come with following him and take up their cross accordingly. In North America, the waning of Christendom has left the church disoriented, yielding these cries, and we are unsure what to do. Whatever we’ve tried, many of our efforts have focused on being relevant.
In his book Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance, Os Guinness observes that during a time in which the church has sought to become increasingly relevant, it has been relegated to irrelevance. In the book he examines the pressures which our current understanding of clock-time has placed upon the church, and advocates a form of resistance thinking that “balances the pursuit of relevance on the one hand with a tenacious awareness of those elements of the Christian message that don’t fit in with any contemporary age on the other.” As Christian people, Guinness claims that true faithfulness will lead to our being an untimely people. In this book, Guinness identifies the focus of his inquiry by saying:
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 that 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.
These words are jarring, not so much to the church (though I might suspect this as well), but to me as a leader. At one time or another I have contended that we don’t need to make the Bible, the church, Jesus, or the life of discipleship relevant–it already is. I simply have to live in faithfulness to Jesus, invite others into that life, trust that God will draw others by his grace, and the relevance of the gospel will be made apparent. At other times I’ve been frustrated with the church and with my own ministry because there are so many obvious things that we must do differently if we are to reach those in our world. In these moments I’ve talked about the need to re-imagine, re-envision, and re-cast who we are to be as the people of God. I’ve trumpeted our need for relevance over our need for God.
In light of ongoing conversations concerning how we can re-imagine church this book created a good deal of dis-ease. Among others, this quote from Guinness provided me with a kick in the gut:
Is the church ours to reinvent, or is it God’s? Does the head of the church have anything to say, or do the consultants have the last word? Shouldn’t ‘doing church’ follow from what we believe is the church’s being? Was the church first invented by a previous generation, so that it is our job to do it again, or is the church’s real need for the revival and reformation that can only come from God?
Guinness then encourages his readers to consider prayer, and the immense importance which this practice has held for all renewal and reform movements.
Though I think such efforts to re-imagine church are needed during our time, Guinness’ words have provided an immense challenge in how such efforts should be undertaken. First, I am reminded to pray. Second, I’m reminded how obsessed our culture is with the future–with the next thing–so much so that we cut ourselves off and forget to study and understand our past. This doesn’t mean that we should cease the task of casting vision, but perhaps it means that we should become intensely focused on rooting ourselves in our past. The pursuit of such knowledge, I think, would bolster our ability to discern where we now stand. When church history reflects on our time period, we can only hope that it is said we “understood the times” as did the sons of Issachar (1 Chron. 12:32), who no doubt were perceptive thanks in part to the wisdom they’d gained from their ancestors.
For those out there in pursuit of relevance, who possess a deep desire to see the church live faithfully during our time, I pray that we would first seek God in prayer and invite the Holy Spirit to work through the conversations we have with friends, fellow disciples, and our congregations about being the church today. I would also recommend a consideration of how we as Christians can become what Guinness describes as “untimely people,” possessing a sense of maladjustment like that of the prophets, who were seen as out of sync with their surrounding culture but clearly in tune with God, and thus able to point their world to renewed faithfulness.