Quite often a church’s quest for relevance ends up in unfaithfulness to Christ and his Word. In Os Guinness’ terms, it is a “collapse into worldliness.” The question is, how does this happen? Guinness gives four steps of this downward spiral that starts with a desire for relevance and ends in unfaithfulness. (Note: I’ve edited the following to keep it brief, though I do highly recommend reading this in its entirety – see the citation below).
“Step One: Assumption. The process of uncritical adaptation begins when some aspect of modern life or thought is assumed either to be significant, and therefore worth acknowledging, or superior to what Christians know or do, and therefore worth adopting. Soon the assumption in question becomes an integral part of Christian thought and practice. The danger is when something is accepted without any thought, simply because it is modern or new.”
“Step Two: Abandonment. Everything that does not fit in with the new assumption (step 1) either is cut out deliberately or is slowly relegated to a limbo of neglect. Truths or customs that do not fit in with the modern assumption are put up in the creedal attic to collect dust. They are of no more use. The modern assumptions are authoritative. Is the traditional idea unfashionable, superfluous, or just plain wrong? No matter. It doesn’t fit in, so it has to go. In the 1980s and 1990s…the air in evangelical conferences and magazines was thick with assaults on the irrelevance of history, the outdatedness of traditional hymns and music, the uptightness of traditional morality, the abstractness of theologizing, the impracticality of biblical illustration, the inadequacy of small churches, and the deadly, new unforgivable sin – irrelevance.
Step Three: Adaptation. The third step follows logically from the second, just as the second does from the first. Something new is assumed, something old is abandoned; and everything else is adapted. In other words, what remains of traditional beliefs and practices is altered to fit with the new assumption. After all, the new assumption has become authoritative. It has entered the mind like a new boss at work, and everything must smartly change to suit its preferences and perspectives. What is not abandoned does not stay the same; rather, it is adapted. The habits and assumptions of a certain age and culture are accepted without thought, and then they replace the authority of traditional Christian assumptions.”
“Step Four: Assimilation. The fourth step is the logical culmination of the first three. Something modern is assumed (step one). As a consequence, something traditional is abandoned (step two), and everything else is adapted (step three). The outcome is that what remains is not only adapted but absorbed by the modern assumptions. It is assimilated without any decisive remainder. 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. In 1966, the World Council of Churches even adopted the bizarre dictum, ‘The world must set the agenda for the Church.’”
“What links all these movements in the church [these emphases on baby-boomers, youth, the urban crowd, etc.] is the same principle. The authentic church is the relevant church, and the relevant church is the attuned church, and the attuned church is in sync with its audience. A great part of the evangelical community has made a historic shift. It has transferred authority from Sola Scripture (Scripture alone) to Sola Cultura (culture alone).
You’ll have to think of these steps in light of certain movements in the American church the last 100+ years. A few that come to my mind is one recent article in a Christian Reformed Church (CRC) publication saying we must reformulate all our doctrines based on the findings of evolution. Another that comes to mind is the decades old movement from psalms to hymns to pop-worship-music. Yet one more is the pro-gay movement in many protestant churches and denominations, from the PCUSA to the ELCA. The list goes on.
Constructively speaking, the way to fight this collapse into worldliness is a firm commitment to God’s Word (sola Scriptura) – and always reforming according to it (rather than culture, populism, or relevance).
Here’s the book: Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), chapter 3.
rev shane lems