Never have Christians tried to be so relevant, and yet never have they been so terribly irrelevant. How could this happen? It is this question that Os Guinness addresses in Prophetic Untimeliness, which claims to be “A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance.” Guinness says that the goal of the book is to explore how the stupidity of relevance has come about. “How on earth have we Christians become so irrelevant when we have tried so hard to be relevant?…Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more relevant” (page 11, 12).
Before beginning the study in earnest, the author is careful to define relevance, which he says is “the quality of relating to a matter in hand with pertinence and appropriateness” (page 12). He says that relevance is the very heart of the gospel, for there can be no message more relevant than that of sin and salvation. But this is not the relevance that the evangelical church has sought, and thus they have missed out on true relevance. The true question the church needs to face is how to be both faithful and relevant.
Here is the thesis of the book: “By our uncritical pursuit of relevance we have actually courted irrelevance; by our breathless chase after relevance without a matching committment to faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful, but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine outselves 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” (page 15).
It came as a surprise that following this introduction challenging the church’s assumptions about relevance, the first section of the book is dedicated to the Western world’s obsession with time and timeliness. There are three features of modern clock time that shape our lives and our thinking: precision, coordination and pressure. This overbearing emphasis on time is driving our lives. Guinness refers to the clock as “the tool that turned into a tyrant” (page 25). In the next chapter he writes about the tyrannies of time – the deeper features of a clock-driven society that effect our lives. All of this leads to the conclusion that because of our obsession with time, we regard what is contemporary as inherently better than what is from the past, and we regard what is future as better than what is present. In short, the latest is the greatest. We assume that progress is change, and change is progress, yet history shows clearly that this is not always the case. Having examined how the pressures of modern time have shaped our lives, he is now able to examine relevance.
The second section of the book begins the examination of relevance. Guinness outlines four steps to irrelevance, which should be self-explanatory. They are: Assumption, Abandonment, Adaptation and Assimilation. We need to be shaped by our faith rather than the world, yet we have allowed the world to shape our faith in the name of relevance. In so-doing we have lost the most relevant message in the world. We have bowed before the forces of cultural captivity – conformity, popularity and fashionability.
All of this leads to the author’s call for prophetic untimeliness; a call for people who will stand on the relevance of the gospel message even at the expense of perceived cultural relevance. This may lead to us feeling maladjusted, impatient or even feeling like failures, yet we do not need to worry about how people perceive us or even about the legacy we will leave behind. We need to be faithful and obedience above all. In the end, all that matters is the eternal, and only the gospel message carries an eternal impact. If we downplay this message, we have become unfaithful and irrelevant. To go forward, the church must go back and learn how to be fresh and creative, while maintaining faithfulness.
This book is a timely and faithful call to the church and one we would all do well to read and consider. It stands as a forceful critique of the idol of relevance and a loving call to the church to recover the only message that can truly make her relevant. I give this one a wholehearted recommendation.