Something’s gone wrong with the contemporary evangelical church

(Os Guinness, photo courtesy

A review of Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness

By Spencer D Gear

A Christian friend who is a musician said to my wife recently, “We sing no song in our church that is more than 2 years old.” The pastor of my church, at the traditional service, spoke of “silly old hymns.” This trend for relevance and debunking of our history and theology in song, is creating a new kind of evangelicalism that is far removed from biblical Christianity.

Once in a while a new book comes along with a prophetic edge in nailing what is wrong with the evangelical church. Os Guinness’s book (2003), is one of them. Guinness, a Brit now living in the USA, shows how the contemporary evangelical church, in its attempt to be relevant, has not only become irrelevant, but also has departed from historic Christianity.

In this short book (123 pp.), Guinness, a former associate of the late Francis Schaeffer and now Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum, Washington, D.C., attempts to answer a “disconcerting question”: “How on earth have we Christians become so irrelevant when we have tried hard to be relevant?” (p. 11)

What is happening to the church?

Evangelicals used to be known as “the serious people,” but “it is sad to note that today many evangelicals are the most superficial of religious believers—lightweight in thinking, gossamer-thin in theology, and avid proponents of spirituality-lite in terms of preaching and responses to life” (p. 77).

What has gone wrong? Guinness remembers his tutor at Oxford University, a prominent European scholar who made this statement in a social science seminar in the 1970s: “‘By the end of the 1970s,’ he asked, ‘who will be the worldliest Christians in America?’ There was an audible gasp when he eventually answered his own query: ‘I guarantee it will be the evangelicals and fundamentalists'” (p. 52). What has been the result? “The years since the prediction at that Oxford seminar have shown beyond question that evangelicals and fundamentalists have embraced the modern world with a passion unrivaled in history” (p. 53).

Without giving away all of the prophetic content of this book, Guinness names these things, amongst others, that are contributing to the demise of what was formerly the Bible-believing and Bible-practising churches.

1. Irrelevance. Church leaders are “solemnly presenting the faith in public in so many weak, trite, foolish, disastrous, and even disloyal ways as today” (p. 11). These disloyal ways include:

a. Faithfulness has been redefined “in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ” (p. 15).

b. “We have lost not only our identity but our authority and our relevance. Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant” (p. 15).

2. The tyrant of time. Filipinos say that “Westerners are people with gods on their wrists” and the Kenyans believe that “Westerners have watches but no time. Africans have time but no watches” (p. 28). This commitment to the clock leads to precision, co-ordination and pressure: “This manic speed is affecting our faith as much as our blood pressure” (p. 36).

3. The worldliness of the church. The church should be “against the world, for the world” (C. S. Lewis). This means that “all truth is God’s truth” (the best, good, true and beautiful can be supported wherever they are found) but “whatever law or practice [that] contradicts God’s law or principles must be confronted” (p. 50).

4. The faith-world of evangelicals is crumbling. In place of the biblical faith of John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Catherine Booth, Charles Spurgeon, Carl Henry, John Stott and others, is “a new evangelicalism” where “therapeutic self-concern overshadows knowing God, spirituality displaces theology, end-times escapism crowds out day-to-day discipleship, marketing triumphs over mission, references to opinion polls out-weigh reliance on biblical exposition, concerns for power and relevance are more obvious than concern for piety and faithfulness, talk of reinventing the church has replaced prayer for revival, and the characteristic evangelical passion for missionary enterprise is overpowered by the all-consuming drive to sustain the multiple business empires of the booming evangelical subculture” (p. 54).

5. “But evangelicals are blind to the sea change because they know only the present and have little sense of history, even their own” (p. 54). Instead, evangelicals have rushed headlong into unfaithful adapting to the world through accepting the world’s assumptions, abandoning what does not fit these modern assumptions, adapting traditional beliefs and practices to fit the worldly way, and assimilating the world’s ways. “The result is worldliness, or Christian capitulation to some aspect of the culture of its day” (p. 62). The World Council of Churches in 1966 “adopted the bizarre dictum, ‘The world must set the agenda for the Church'” (p. 63). The evidence points to an evangelical church that also has bought into this world’s agenda: “For all the lofty recent statements on biblical authority, a great part of the evangelical community has made a historic shift. It has transferred authority from Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) to Sola Cultura (by culture alone)” (p. 65). In so doing, these evangelicals are recycling “the classic error of liberalism” and are courting “the worldliness, irrelevance, and spiritual adultery that it represents” (p. 66).

Guinness is convinced that these misguided approaches of history and theology among evangelicals and liberals “are a key part of the story of the loss of the West by the Christian church” (p. 66). What have these churches lost? Courage! Continuity! Credibility! Identity!

6. The siren call to captivity to worldly thinking involves conformity to the lure of others, the power of approval, and the seduction of timeliness. These evangelicals “put other gods before God” and choose “other gods beside God.” This is leading to “the loss of the Christian gospel in much of the Christian church in the West today” (p. 66).

That’s the bad news! Is there a way out?

There are solutions.

Guinness believes relevance is correct for the church as it “is at the very heart of the gospel of Jesus and is the secret of the church’s power down through history.” We have seen this in the witness “of some of the world’s greatest thinkers, writers, scientists, poets, painters, and reformers—Augustine, Dante, Pascal, Rembrandt, Newton, Wilberforce, and Dostoyevsky. Each of them was as faithful to Christ as he was fresh in his times” (p. 13).

The answers are found in

(1) the courage of “prophetic untimeliness” (a term he borrows from Nietzsche and shapes it with “the precedent of the Hebrew prophets”, p. 19); these people are not at home in the present age but belong elsewhere; and

(2) to develop the art of “resistance thinking,” a term from C. S. Lewis, which “is a way of 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” (p. 20).

The author warns that history teaches that “there is a clear link between each messenger’s perspective and each messenger’s pain.” For Christians to speak up about “the church’s deepening cultural captivity” will mean that their “prophetic untimeliness carries a clear cost” They will:

(1) Be “misfits in an ill-fitting world” (p. 86). They are maladjusted enough to know that something is seriously wrong with the church. They will march to the beat of “a different drummer” and will be like a C. S. Lewis who referred to himself as an “Old Western man”, a “dinosaur”, and a “Neanderthaler” (p. 87).

(2) Have “a sense of impatience.” Why? “When society becomes godless and the church corrupt, the forward purposes of God appear to be bogged down and obstructed, and the person who lives by faith feels the frustration” (p. 89). Their natural cry will be, “How long, O Lord?”

(3) Have “a sense of failure.” With the march of a godless society and the evidence of church corruption, “the prospects of good people succeeding are significantly dimmed and the temptation to feel a failure is ever present” (pp. 91-92).

Guinness suggests ways of “escaping cultural captivity” by “untimely people” with their “resistance thinking.” Among other things this will involve “the challenge of the difficult” with “a radical obedience.”

I especially liked Guinness’s emphasis on the church that loses its perspective on history and the eternal, as a loser: “Only the wisdom of the past can free us from the bondage of our fixation with the present and the future. . . . In [C. S.] Lewis’s words, ‘The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of history blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books'” (pp. 104-05). However, in the words of French philosopher, Simone Weil, “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal” (p. 105).

To redeem the time and to be prophetically untimely, Guinness believes that cultural “progressives will always prove stagnant while resistance thinkers will be fresh and creative” (p. 116).

What are you called to? To be a resistant thinker or a cultural absorber?

Gems from Guinness

“The place of the prophet as the one who speaks the word of the Lord is too important to give up, even with the threat of counterfeits” (p. 21).

“I have been in megachurches where there was no cross in the sanctuary and no Bible in the pulpit, and where the sermons refer more to the findings of Barna and Gallup than to those of the Bible and God” (p. 110).

“When was the last time a sermon ended and you just wanted to sit there and ponder what God had just said to you?” (p. 111).

“The fact is, 99 percent of what we know about the future is the past. Far better too the astuteness of Billy Graham who, when criticized for ‘setting the church back fifty years,’ answered that he was sorry he had not set it back two thousand years” (p. 116).

“Of all the cultures the church has lived in, the modern world is the most powerful, the most pervasive, and the most pressurizing. And it has done more damage to Christian integrity and effectiveness than all the persecutors of the church in history” (p. 51).

“In swapping psychology for theology in their preaching and enthroning management and marketing in their church administration, the evangelicals were making the same errors as liberals had earlier. Whatever the newly sharpened statements about biblical authority, the real authority of the Bible has been eclipsed in practice by the assumptions of the modern world” (p. 60).

“Without the decisive authority of the word of God that defined the true prophet, false prophets were simply captive to the culture they reflected. They were popular, they were entertaining, they were soothing, they were convenient, they were fashionable—and they were utterly false” (p. 63).

“What followers of Jesus need is the freedom from the forces of the modern world that prevent independent thinking and living with integrity” (p. 71).

Many years ago, Dean Inge of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, spoke what has become “the epitaph for many trendy church leaders, ‘He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.’ As with great art, faith that lasts is faith that answers to standards higher than today’s trends” (p. 78).

“Our ‘failures’ may be [God’s] success. Our ‘setbacks’ may prove his turning points. Our ‘disasters’ may turn out to be his triumphs. What matters for us is that his gifts are our calling” (p. 94).

“What, for instance, would John Wesley or Charles Haddon Spurgeon have made of evangelicals who read their horoscope as well as their Bible? How would Jonathan Edwards and D. L. Moody have responded to evangelicals who believe in reincarnation as well as the resurrection?” (p. 98).

“C. S. Lewis counseled, ‘It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between'” (p. 104).

Questions about his view

There are very few areas of this book with which I disagree. I consider the diagnosis and remedy have hit the mark. The book is brief but punchy!

While referring to Old Testament and New Testament examples of people who challenged the status quo, this book is not a profound exposition of the Scriptures but is an example of the need for and practice of cultural apologetics – a defense of the faith that addresses the cultural challenges, biblically. It is an insightful assessment of how the evangelical church’s popularisers have bought into cultural values of the “emerging church,” the “seeker sensitive church,” “the doing church.” the “intentional” and “on-purpose” church (p. 64). This has led to a demise in biblical Christianity in such churches.

As a minor point of discomfort, I question Guinness’s use of a person such as Friedrich Nietzsche, German atheistic professor of philosophy in the 19th century, who called himself “the Anti-Christ,” as an example to follow in some areas. How could Nietzsche’s world and life view provide some illumination on Guinness’s thesis about the worldliness of the church today? Perhaps this is Guinness’s way of showing how “world-denying” and “world-affirming” (“all truth is God’s truth”) views need to be happening in a healthy, biblical church! However the author is clear on the antidote: “It only takes the real Word to speak to wake up the church and the world” (p. 109).

There is a possibility that his support of the C. S. Lewis dictum, “against the world, for the world,” may seem to promote integrationism, like psychology’s amalgamation of secular philosophies with the Word of God.

“How long, O Lord?” will it be until You descend on a decadent church and provide a heaven-sent revival of orthodox, biblical Christianity, empowered by the authentic Holy Spirit’s ministry?

Also recommended

There’s a popular-level book that provides a parallel emphasis to Guinness’s articulate assessment. This provocative piece of “resistance thinking” shows where the evangelical church is going: Gary E. Gilley, This Little Church Went to Market (2005). Tim Challies wrote of Gilley’s book: “He concludes that churches built on seeker sensitive model will be built on the wrong foundation, will teach the wrong message, will focus on the wrong need and will misunderstand preaching and worship. In other words, these churches will bear little resemblance to a New Testament, Christian church.”


Gary E. Gilley 2005, This Little Church Went to Market: Is the Modern Church Reaching Out or Selling Out?, Evangelical Press, Faverdale North, Darlington, UK.

Os Guinness 2003, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Copyright (c) 2007 Spencer D. Gear.This document last updated at Date: 20 May 2016.