Thursday, May 31, 2007

This Contraption Called Relevance
May 29th, 2007

Our contemporary religious contraptions are as much a ramshackle as a 19th century hair styling machine. They are every bit as dangerous, producing results every bit as ugly, and are destined for the scrap yard as time ushers in obsolescence. Such is the destiny of invention. It is both a milestone and a tombstone of time. The book, “Prophetic Untimeliness ” by Os Guinness, addresses one of our religious contraptions, called “relevance”, and persuasively argues the point that “relevance” is a cultural cage of the present. It divorces us from the past where the faith was once for all delivered (to be passed from generation to generation), and it obfuscates the path to our future.

A mere 111 pages, the book can be read in a Saturday afternoon. But I have read it over and over for two weeks now, and passages of Scripture continue to flood to my mind. Passages, for example, where Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away” (Luke 21:33), and where He warns us that various men will say, “‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is’” while instructing, “Do not believe him” (Matt. 24:23.) Other passages like, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Cor. 2:9) and “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9.)

Guinness makes this point in his introduction: “After two hundred years of earnest dedication to reinventing the faith and the church and to being more relevant in the world, we are confronted by an embarrassing fact: Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant.”

He continues on, “Relevance is not the problem…the good news of Jesus Christ is utterly relevant or it is not the good news it claims to be.”

Indeed, if that is true (I believe it is), then why for heavens sake do we worry ourselves to death about relevance? The reason must be an ignorance (and resultant distrust) of the inspired Word of God, and the Gospel it contains. Guinness establishes that we are in a losing race against time where what is relevant is always becoming irrelevant. The only mitigating agent to anything so bounded by the clock, can only be that which is not bounded by the clock (hence, the recollection of Luke 21:23.)

Man tries to compensate for this losing race against time through a tactic called “relevance”. That tactic, according to Guinness, is idolatrous.

Consider the blogged brouhaha about movies a couple of weeks ago. I believe that incorporating movies into the illustrative teaching of the church is wrong, essentially because God did not ordain the pagan mouth to declare the Truth of the gospel. The distinction about the source of Truth is paramount to discernment: Jesus said, “If anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is”, we must cognitively respond, “No, He is not.” To be more plainspoken, the claim that Hollywood’s Superman points to “the real Superman, Jesus Christ”, is the idolatry of relevance that Oz Guinness writes about. Christ’s repetitive warnings in Matthew 24 inform the Christian, “No, Christ is not found there”. The model of Christ is not in Superman anymore than he who poses as an angel of light is a model of the Son of God, compelling as it may be (Matt. 24:24.) On that basis, at least, the preacher is not at liberty to declare pagan works as a preachable source from which we can derive vital Truth.

Our problem is that we have become “put-a-coin-in-the-slot-and-pull-the-lever Christians”. We are not really sowing, but we are teaching that God is reaping: and that is a violently dangerous position to take according to Matthew 25:26-30. Relevance is the first cousin to impatience, and impatience is the reason for developing appealing methodologies. It is a whole lot more fun to “worship” under the bright lights of a production, or to “develop a relationship” at Starbucks, than it is to simply sit in our neighbor’s kitchen and talk to them about the peril of our sin.

For example, do you remember Campus Crusade’s “Here’s Life America” campaign in 1976? Based on the marketing methods of Coca Cola (“Coke Adds Life”), Campus Crusade devised a “relevant” message designed to appeal to culture’s quest for a fulfilling life. That campaign, if you read about it today, was an utter failure when compared to the number of people reached and the money spent to do it. At the time, the campaign allegedly amassed some 300,000 Christians to promote “I Found It!” buttons, bumper stickers, and billboards. It was reported by TIME Magazine that over 60 million homes were exposed to the campaign. I remember the TV ads here in Dayton where local church members sat on stools and told the viewers they had found “it” and gave the toll-free “I Found It!” phone number where the “Four Spiritual Laws” would be offered to the caller. But the public became rapidly aware of the slick marketing method to shove religion down their throats, and the campaign’s effectiveness declined as commercial and billboard contracts expired. The whole process proved that Romans 3:11, written around 56 A.D., was as relevant in 1976 as was the original utterance of that verse in Psalm 53:1-3 some nine hundred years before Christ. In other words, there is no substitute for the effectiveness of an individual Christian witnessing in earnest to an unbeliever, giving them the full gospel from God’s Word every day, wherever we are. The flash-in-the-pan method is not nearly effective as the daily, consistent witness of a Christian whose mouth is bold to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Consider: if only 50% of those 300,000 people were to witness personally to only one person a day, only 270 work-days per year since 1976, they would have witnessed to over 1-1/4 billion people by now. And if only one person per witness became a Christian ten years later, and that new Christian only witnessed to one person per month for the next 21 years, there would be another 38 million people truly reached through personal evangelism by now. Such a simple method, which is repeatedly demonstrated in the Bible, depends on a genuine concern for souls. It is, after all, the second commandment: loving your neighbor as yourself.

But Matthew 7:21-23 tells about people who are consumed with doing something utterly contrary to God’s will. Obviously, their goals are flat wrong, and they were deceived by their own methods. In the Laodicean sense, they appear to be good for nothing (Rev. 9:16) and care only for themselves (v. 17.)

As Matthew 7:21-23 and Revelation 3:14-22 make clear, methodologists are simply not performing the ultimate commission of preaching the gospel to lost souls, despite their lip service to the contrary. We know of a man who was not really concerned about souls, and brazenly rejected God’s plain instruction to reach them. That man was initially good for nothing, bringing about havoc in his dereliction, and was eventually spit out of the mouth of a fish. Can the symbolism with Laodicea be any more clear? As a result of his disobedience to his commission, Jonah was swallowed by a great fish. I find it compelling that the fish spit Jonah out after his prayer of repentance. I do not believe that Jesus enjoys coercing His blood-purchased servants into action, anymore than God was pleased to coerce Jonah; nor do I believe that Jesus is pleased with my pseudo-repentant whining every time I ask Him to withhold discipline for my willful disobedience. We are all legends in our own minds, inventing evangelistic contraptions in the name of Christ. But neither the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit are amused by our contrivances or our disingenuous lip-service. It is God who has bought us; it is God whom we serve! Has that even sunk into our heads, yet, that we might glorify Him in our bodies?

Given today’s “relevant church”, with its budgets, methods, and schemes, I cannot help but believe that we are setting ourselves up for a Jonah-like coercion toward repentance, and a cataclysmic vomiting. God wants this world properly evangelized before His great day of wrath, just as he wanted Nineveh reached.

So let’s just boil this down. We’ve got our relevant methods: Christian radio, Christian TV, Christian phone books, Christian coffee houses, Christian Schools, Christian News, and Christian Talk Shows. Many churches now rival professionally-staged productions, while others have adopted as much of the culturally-conforming presentation as their riches can afford. Even to all of that plausibly-permissible environment and technology, we add the dung of Hollywood to our preaching and call it “being relevant”; we add the psychology of Carl Jung to the evaluation of a man’s fitness for church-planting; and we evaluate the effectiveness of church growth based on statistical models. Seeing as how we’ve defined our own criteria for miracles and provision, one wonders what the Holy Spirit is doing?

Meanwhile, a large percentage of Christians saturated in the above methods are dedicating their personal time to the electronic coliseum called “reality entertainment”. We know the stats of NASCAR drivers, the rules of our favorite sports, the debauchery of the latest entertainer, the grossest antic of the current Survivor, who the next American Idol is, but we can’t explain the gospel on demand. We will erupt passionately over the War in Iraq, our political views, or the unfair nature of jobs being sent overseas — but we won’t dare to confront anyone on the state of their soul unless we spend the next year ostensibly “developing a relationship” or at least “earning the right” to speak with them.

Do we really believe that the Creator of mankind Himself is capable of communicating through the mouths of His people, or not? Evidently we do not. God communicated to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and others without any help from man’s novel methods, thank you very much. And here we in these latter times have the most miraculous communication from God ever dropped into the lap of man called the Bible. Indeed, we have the whole Bible. One wonders why we cannot be content with nothing but the Bible. It is a fair question, which goes straight to the heart of whether we really want to be genuinely relevant.

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