“I have very little idea of what is going on in the world, but occasionally I happen to see some of the things they are drawing and writing there and it gives me the conviction that they are all living in ash cans. It makes me glad I cannot hear what they are singing.”
— Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
“It’s Friday. Sunday’s a-comin’!”
–– Tony Campolo
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For the past half-century the church in America has been caught up in a desperate, breathless, and mostly losing race – a race to stay “relevant” to the surrounding culture.
There are at least three big problems with this. In the first place, there’s the difficulty of trying to hit a moving target. Other than the fact that culture is generally “progressing” on a steep downward curve, it’s hard to predict exactly where it’s headed or what it’s going to do next. Under the circumstances, most church leaders (who aren’t particularly adept at analyzing social trends) have no choice except to operate from a reactive rather than a proactive base. As a result, they’re usually running about five to ten years behind the times.
The second problem is more fundamental and more important than the first. It has to do with the Pilgrim’s identity as a stranger and sojourner. Foreigners are “irrelevant” by definition. People who are simply “passing through” have no reason to pay much attention to the habits, attitudes, and practices of the natives. Their home and destination are elsewhere.
The third difficulty is inherent in the meaning of the word itself. Of necessity, “relevance” is measured in terms of some outside reference point. One can only be “relevant” to someone or something else. “Relevance,” like a planet’s orbit around the sun, takes shape around a defining center of gravity. The concept is devoid of significance until you’ve identified this nucleus.
For the Pilgrim there is only one defining center of gravity, and it never changes. It entails no necessity of predicting or following future trends because it is, in and of itself, both present and future. As a matter of fact, it can be described as the presence of the future. As author Jacques Ellul explains,
The Christian is essentially a man who lives in expectation. This expectation is directed towards the return of the Lord which accompanies the end of time, the Judgment, and proclaims the Kingdom of God … Consequently it means bringing the future into the present as an explosive force. It means believing that future events are more important and truer than present events; it means understanding the present in the light of the future, dominating it by the future, in the same way as the historian dominates the past.
Clearly, there is a great deal about our unstable and ever-shifting society that simply fades into insignificance when viewed from this perspective. In light of the reality of the Kingdom – which is not only coming but, according to the Master Himself, is already “at hand” – it matters very little who is in the White House, which team wins the Super Bowl, what the Supreme Court has to say, or where the Dow Jones Industrial Average lands. To concern ourselves with such petty stuff is to be like that “ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”
Does this mean that the Pilgrim doesn’t care about culture or society? Absolutely not, for the Pilgrim cares deeply about people, and people are what culture and society are ultimately all about. But it does imply that the Pilgrim approaches people consistently from the perspective of the Eternal Present. He has no interest in the latest fad or trend.
It is, of course, more than likely that the kosmos will regard this approach as “irrelevant” or “dated.” But then that’s of little consequence. For “the kosmos,” as we know, “is passing away, and the lusts thereof; but he who does the will of God abides forever.”
 Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, 49, 51.
 C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory.”