Relevance may be just another word for compromise.
A recent piece by Allen Guelzo titled The Illusion of Respectability calls attention to the uneasy relationship that christian academics have with higher education. Guelzo is specifically addressing those who choose a career in academia and who will be faced with what he calls the “lust for respectability.” Is there discrimination against christians in higher ed? Most certainly. That fact will lead many to compromise and Guelzo’s plea is to recognize anew their calling as stewards, as servants, as those who need to embrace their standing as pilgrims. If academic ostracism is the result so be it. I don’t at all disagree with this, and indeed, even those whose careers are not in academia can find application here.
What I found most interesting about Guelzo’s piece is where he quotes Roger Olson, as to what he has seen change about evangelical christianity during his lifetime. “Evangelical Christians knew their Bibles forward and backward. … All that has gone away. The vast majority of evangelicals, in my experience, know very little about the Bible and never memorize any portion of it. Evangelical sermons are as likely to quote Dr. Seuss as Paul the Apostle.”
This indictment used to be particularly appropriate for youth ministry, where the overriding emphasis was on relevance. But it is doubtless true for all of the church now, and where the lust for respectability that Guelzo laments is, it seems, causing christians to ask not, “is it true?”, but rather, “does it work?” We want outcomes, results. In Jeremiah 25, the prophet tells the people, “For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, to this day, the word of the LORD has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.” In other words, Jeremiah got no results, it didn’t work. He had nothing to show as far as impacting the culture. But the message was true, and this was the gauge by which he was measured. This is the essence of what both Guelzo and Olson call believers back to. It begins and ends with scripture, with making it our study, our focus, and our guide. Apart from a deep knowledge of the Bible and the Savior, relevance is quite frankly, irrelevant.