Relevance

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a year or two, you know I very much appreciate Os Guinness’ books.  This one is no exception: Dining With the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity.  Though it is nearly 20 years old, it still speaks profoundly to the crisis in American Christianity – the crisis of culture shaping the church more than Scripture.  This section where Guinness speaks of relevance is outstanding.

“…Relevance is a question-begging concept when invoked by itself.  And when absolutized, relevance becomes lethal to truth.  Properly speaking, relevance assumes and requires the answer to such questions as: Relevance for what?  Relevant to whom?  If these questions are left unasked, a constant appeal to relevance becomes a way of riding roughshod over truth and corralling opinion coercively.  People are thinking or doing something simply ‘because it is relevant’ without knowing why.  But truth, in fact, gives relevance to ‘relevance,’ just as ‘relevance’ becomes irrelevance if it is not related to truth.  Without truth, relevance is meaningless and dangerous.”

“In addition, relevance has a false allure that masks both its built-in transience and its catch-22 demand.  Dean Inge captured the transience in his celebrated line, ‘He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.’  But it was Simone Weil who highlighted the catch-22: ‘To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.'”

“…The pursuit of relevance thus becomes a prime source of superficiality, anxiety, and burn-out.  (‘Hell,’ it has been said, ‘will be full of newspapers with a fresh edition every thirty seconds, so that no one will ever feel caught up.’)  In its competitive – read ‘marketed’ – form, relevance becomes ‘trendier than thou’ and eventually becomes the fast road toward irrelevance.  Revealingly, when “Saturday Night Live’ becomes a church’s seeker-friendly ‘Sunday Morning Live’ and ‘The Best Show in Town,’ the typical church staff question after worship becomes, ‘How did it go?'” (p. 63-64).

I’m especially interested in the provocative questions Guinness asks: “Relevance for what?”  “Relevant to whom?”  When churches bend over backwards to be relevant, those questions must be asked and answered.  I’ve seen some churches – in the name of relevance – not only water down the truth of the Word, but also ignore entire segments of people (older people, singles, handicapped people, etc.).  Anyway, I recommend this book very much: Dining with The Devil by Os Guinness.  I honestly think every serious Christian should read through this (especially pastors, elders, and other church leaders). There are even a few study questions at the end of each chapter – and the chapters are quite brief and readable.  At the time of this post, you can get copies of this book (used) on Amazon for  under $6.00 shipped.

shane lems

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One comment on “Relevance

  1. Tom Lassiter says:

    Shane, you reminded me of a church out on the east coast I used to attend years ago. Their emphasis on ministry to the military became so ultra-important to them that they sometimes absolutely refused to help people in need because they were not active military. As a veteran myself, I understand the special needs of the military, but never to the exclusion of all others!
    This sounds like a very good book on the problems in “churches” today. I have often said that a lot of what happens on Sunday mornings today is more like a theatrical performance that a worship service.

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