top of page

Interview with Dr. Os Guinness

Part 1
By Peter Hastie

Interact Magazine 1992

Volume 3 Number 1

Os could you tell me what influence Francis Schaefer has had on your thinking?

Along with Billy Graham, Peter Berger and John Stott, Francis Schaeffer has been one of my heroes and life-models. I met him five years after I came to Christ, at a time when I knew that the narrow evangelical pietism I had been given wasn’t enough. It had failed to give me a sense of my own calling, and had been unable to help me understand modern culture, especially the exploding world of London in the ‘swinging sixties’. Schaefer was instrumental in helping me come to terms with my vocation and a Christian perspective on life.

Schaefer means many things to me. I’m certainly not a clone of his ideas, because I’m very different from him in many ways. But I learned a lot from his ideas and his style of apologetics. I also learned a tremendous amount from living with him for five years, seeing how he lived, worked and prayed and watching his extraordinary compassion for people. I’d summarise it like this: Francis Schaefer was a man who took God seriously, truth seriously and people seriously; and I’ve met few people who did so in the way he did.

Do you think that our culture is open to Christianity, or is it closed?

On the surface, it looks as though our culture is becoming closed to the Christian faith. It seems as though we were once Christian, but now we’re growing more secular in our public life and more pluralistic in our private life. However, I believe this is an extraordinary day for the Gospel. While Christian faith appears to be sidelined in the modern world the reality is that it’s the post-Christian faiths that are in deeper trouble. Marxism and Freudianism, in particular, have been exposed as theoretically and practically inadequate. Actually, the Christian faith is less seriously rivalled in the Western world than at any moment in the last 400 years.

In other words, look at the crisis of meaning in the modern world – whether of truth, personhood, the family or whatever – and you see that each of these crises is an unprecedented opportunity for the Gospel. We are living in an age of extraordinary opportunity, but we have to seize it.

Then why is the church making so little progress in the advanced technological societies of the world?

There is a simple reason: we are at the high noon of the challenge of modernity.

What do you mean by modernity?

By ‘modernity’, I mean the emerging world civilization which is now being produced by the forces of modernization, or development. It is more than a product of ideas, or revolutions in thinking. It is also the result of three great structural revolutions that have shaped human experience over the last 500 years: the capitalist revolution, the industrial or technological revolution, and the communications revolution.

Modernity is like a disease and has many ‘carriers’. It’s the result of a constellation of forces working together – the capitalist economy, the modern centralized bureaucratic state, the new industrial technology, rapid population growth, the mass media and globalization. the tentacles of modernity now reach to the farthest corners of the world.


How threatening is modernity?

It is very threatening, but modernity also brings many benefits – for example, health and travel. But it has its costs, especially for faith. It’s a challenging fact that the church has so far not flourished under the conditions of modernity. Take, for instance, three of the most modernized parts of the world. They are the greatest challenges to the gospel: in Japan, we have never won significant numbers to Christ. In Europe we need a third great missionary movement to win the continent back from the dreadful effects of the last one hundred and fifty years. In the United States, the church still has extraordinary numbers who follow Christ, but modernity has made such deep inroads that the church has been emptied of significant spiritual reality. So we need a profound reformation and revival in North America, a third mission to Europe and a new mission to Japan, because these three areas are the storm front of modernity.

You have said that idolatry poses a great threat to the church. How is it practised today?

To answer that I need to point out a couple of things. For a start, the very category of idolatry has disappeared in much Christian thought, as have the categories of heresy and worldliness in some parts of the church. We tend to think of idols as something ‘over there’, the gods of wood and stone. We forget that in scripture, idolatry is any part of the human creation, even the very gifts of God, on which we rely in such a way that they become a substitute for God. What is most sobering in Scripture is that God is against His own gifts, such as the temple, when they are idolised.

The two leading sources of idolatry today are the idea of the therapeutic and managerial revolutions. I’m not saying that we can’t use their insights and tools. As the early church said, it’s alright to plunder the Egyptians because ‘all truth is God’s truth’. But we mustn’t use the gold we plunder to set up a golden calf. As Peter Berger says, ‘If you dine with the devil of modernity, you’d better have a very long spoon.’

You’ve said that evangelicals and fundamentalists have become the primary agents of worldliness in the church. What do you mean by that?

Evangelicals and fundamentalists used to be ‘world-denying’ by definition. Today any such separation is almost unthinkable. Modernity is so strong and all-pervasive that to be in the world but not of it is twice as difficult as before. What Peter Berger calls ‘cognitive defiance’ is rarer. So from the 1970’s onwards, the stance of evangelicals in society has shifted. There has been a movement of accommodation when it comes to life-style, materialism, direct mail, and television and so on. In many areas, we not only reflect the spirit of the age, we have led it. Interestingly, theological liberalism, having been discredited in the sixties, has turned back to what are called ‘retrieval movement’. Many liberals are going back to former centuries to discover the earlier vitality of the church. Such liberals often shake their heads in disbelief at the way evangelicals are recapitulating the two hundred year old cycle at high speed.

When Protestants seek to go back to the ear such as the Evangelical Awakening and the Eighteenth century or to the earlier Puritan Movement, is that an attempt to do something similar to what the Orthodox and Catholics are doing?

Yes, indeed. Such retrievals are vital because a recovery of the past is one of the keys to the future of evangelicalism. But it has to be done well. Take the case of those interested in the Reformation. Few periods could be more important, but there are drawbacks. Sometimes it leads to a sort of antiquarian dustiness. Sometimes it creates the illusion that the sixteenth century reformation will happen again lock, stock and barrel today. Sometimes, those concerned with past reformation are uncritical about the modern need for reformation. In the United States, for example, some people in the Reformed movement are incredibly naive about the mega-church movement. Put simply, the Reformed movement is not as reformed as it thinks it is.

Many people today look at a pastor as the C.E.O. in his office, and the ‘shrink’ in the pulpit. Is this worldly?


I think so. That comment was first made in the sixties of liberal pastors. But twenty years later, it is true of many evangelical pastors. the background assumption is that the church in the modern world has lost its status and relevance. So out of a hunger for status, relevance and authority, we use the things that are really effective in the world. The managerial revolution is behind the idea of the pastor as a CEO (Chief Executive Officer), just as the therapeutic revolution is behind the idea of the pastor as a psychologist. For example, Leadership magazine is probably the widest read evangelical magazine for churches and church leaders. A recent study showed that over ten years, hundreds of different church problems were examined but less than one percent of the articles had any reference at all to theology or the Bible. The discussion was in the framework of the categories of the managerial, the marketing and the psychological. Unwittingly, it was a massive form of secularisation or worldliness.

You’ve said that fasting and prayer is one of the primary calls to the church today in overcoming worldliness. Few others are calling for it. Why do you suggest it?

Well, you remember that our Lord speaks about certain things that are overcome ‘only by prayer and fasting’. When we fast – not as a technique of weight control, but with prayer – we know that we’re beyond ourselves, that human life is not derived from ourselves nor sustained by ourselves. We need food, we need water and we need air, and the person who gets to the deep levels of fasting knows that in a very direct way. But that’s when the evil one comes in with the ultimate lie, ‘by bread alone’, just as he tempted our Lord. Adam, you remember, broke his fast and didn’t obey the Word of God. he ate when he shouldn’t have eaten. But our Lord maintained his fast and didn’t each what the devil offered.

Now the modern world is continually suggesting to us that it can be done ‘by bread alone’, by ‘money alone’. So by prayer and fasting we’re taking the ultimate stand against that lie, and we’re asserting the ultimate principle of life, that we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God – not from human techniques and reason alone.

Do you see Feminism as posing a significant threat to the modern church?

We need to remember that feminism is multi-dimensional. When it addresses the injustices that women traditionally face, it’s doing a service that we need to recognise and affirm strongly. When it goes beyond that into certain feminist rights, when it’s used to justify abortion, or when it leads to paganism and the idea of female priests, it becomes a very dangerous thing. So I think we need to be careful in evaluating it. We must not dismiss the entire movement out of hand. But we do need to discriminate. Apologetics-wise, it’s interesting that, whereas the modern rivals to the Christian faith, such as Marxism and Freudianism, are declining, we’re seeing a resurgence of ancient religions. Paganism is the strongest and many feminists are trying to find their roots there.

You’ve said that evangelicalism is easier in modern society but discipleship is harder. Could you explain this?

Modernity makes more people more open more of the time than has ever been the case before. The forces of modernity tend to dislocate people both at the psychological and social levels. Individuals feel lost and families are breaking-up under the pressure. So, people are hanging open and looking for answers. At the same time, modernity creates enormous expectations – freedom, fulfilment, self-discovery, and so on – that are bound to be dashed. So whether it’s the dislocations or the unrealistic expectations, people are opened up. they’re searching, shopping for answers. In that sense, evangelicalism is much easier than before.

On the other hand, discipleship is much harder because the same forces of disintegration work against our making Christ the Lord of every part of our lives. It’s harder to keep up the disciplines and integration of the Christian life under the pressures of modernity. That’s what I mean by ‘evangelism easier, discipleship harder’.

What’s the Church got to do to counter that tendency?

Well, at least two things. First, we have to face modernity and see what it’s doing to us. That means facing up to its challenge, and seeing the questions. Second, we have to go back to the gospel and see what an authentic Christian faith requires. Only the power and integrity of the true gospel can tackle modernity head-on. the challenge of modernity is so great that nothing less than the real thing will do.

Why aren’t the evangelical churches growing leaders of stature?

I think there are many reasons. Modernity has turned ‘crisis’ into a cliché and the same is true of ‘crisis of leadership.’ For one thing the same dislocations that are breaking up families from within, are breaking the links between generations. When people lived with each other, saw each other, followed each other and so on, the growth and transmission of leadership from one generation to another was natural. But today we have a dislocation between generations – in some cases almost a war between generations – so the development of leaders enters a crisis phase. Today leadership is something we have to work at self-consciously.

There are other reasons. Some of the post-World War II evangelical leaders were so great that they were like giant oaks that didn’t encourage smaller trees to grow under their shade. But whatever reason we use to explain it, there is a real crisis of leadership in the evangelical community.

What should Christians be doing on a family level?

Well, I think the heart of the answer is living and modelling faith. This is what I call the tutorial/apprentice/disciple relationship in the New Testament. Christ chose twelve men to be with Him so that they might go out to preach (Mark 3:14). So whether it’s pastors with young pastors, fathers with sons, or mothers with daughters, we need to be close enough to people to really have their lives opened up to us so we can learn from them. And that’s tough, because it requires integrity and vulnerability.

What does that mean for you and your son?

I try to share as much of my life with him as I possibly can, including taking him on trips with me.

Interview to be continued next issue.

This interview was done following a Pastor/Church Leaders breakfast at which Os spoke on the impact of culture on the church today.

bottom of page