Reprinted from the March 2014 issue of “Gospel Advocate” Magazine.
In the last 50 years, society has experienced a tsunami-like change in the way that it thinks. There are many terms by which this philosophical change can be described, but for purposes of this article, let’s say it is the difference between a rationalistic, enlightenment way of thinking (from about 1700-1960) and a postmodern era way of thinking (from 1960 to today). It represents a shift in civilizations, one where values held for several hundred years are collapsing.
While we must know the gospel, and while it is always true, we must also know the world to which we take the gospel. Much of the evangelism we carried out in the past was “argument-based,” dependent on rational reasoning and an appeal to biblical authority. Neither of these can be counted on as persuasive today. Please note that although the gospel has not changed, simply shouting Bible verses and expecting to make disciples by out-arguing people will not prove as effective in today’s culture.
The Enlightenment (1700-1960)
In this era we observe the elevation of human reason over every other aspect of human life. God’s authority was replaced by humans as the center of existence. Once Napoleon was speaking to French scientist Pierre-Simon LaPlace about the solar system: “I notice you made no mention of God in your calculations,” Napoleon noted. “Sire,” LaPlace was said to have responded, “I no longer have need of that hypothesis.”
Although early scientists in this era were devout believers in God, as their scientific method began to produce more and more scientific advances, they began to see God as unnecessary, a remnant of the Dark Ages.
Terry Bowland in Make Disciples! Reaching the Postmodern World for Christ notes what he calls the “Four Pillars of Enlightenment.”
(1) The ultimate reality of nature: As Carl Sagan once declared, “The cosmos is all that there ever was or ever will be.” As a result, all serious conversation about God ceased in universities and among the scholarly world.
(2) The ultimate animality of man: If the universe was all that existed, humans could only be a part of that physical world and nothing more. Talk about human souls and eternal life ceased. Darwin’s theory appeared to give this pillar scientific credence. Man was the highest rung in the evolutionary ladder.
(3) The inherent goodness of man: Because God was out of the picture, so was any concept of sin or responsibility toward a creator. Humans needed only to become better educated, more rational and nobler, and it was assumed they would.
(4) The inevitability of progress: There was great optimism regarding human progress. Why look forward to a home in heaven when humans could solve all social ills, heal all human disease, and develop a utopia on earth? Society was progressing in a continual upward spiral. To all these the modern reader might respond in two words: “Global Warming” or, to put it differently, we will have to acknowledge that despite evident scientific advances, the best and brightest human beings have also brought us a polluted and marred world.
Yet these pillars are collapsing. Modern people no longer believe that matter is all there is. They are willing to contemplate the possibility of reality beyond the reach of the test tube. They speak of being “spiritual” (though by “spiritual” they do not necessarily mean “Christian”). Neither are postmodern people willing to see humans as little more than advanced animals. They are unwilling to accept the consequences of such an idea. The malevolent actions of Nazi Germany seeking to wipe an entire race off the face of the earth is a reminder that we cannot simply view human beings as highly evolved animals. Few people these days believe humans are inherently good; that idea was thrown out with the slaughter of World Wars I and II. Crime, racism, wars, dictators and greed have persisted in spite of humans, freed from God and religion, living under enlightenment ideals. Once the phrase “science says” carried the clout of divine decree. This is true no longer. These days science as infallible has been replaced by books and film depicting science gone awry and post-apocalyptic devastation.
Postmodernism (1960 to the present)
The collapse of humanistic enlightenment has made way for postmodern thinking. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the melancholy theologian, began to break the grip of enlightenment thinking: Kierkegaard, who has been called the “father of modern thought,” surmised a “leap of faith” where one might be willing to move beyond the merely rational and contemplate truths that, while subjective, were nonetheless true. In the 1890s, for instance, after a religious debate, people might say: “This person’s argument was more logical than that person’s.” In our day we are more likely to overhear someone say, “I didn’t like that speaker’s attitude; I thought he was unkind.” This approach has filtered into the church, and herein lies our challenge.
To misunderstand Scripture is to be unfaithful to the mind and heart of God. To misunderstand the culture in which we live is to guarantee unfruitful labor in our effort to reach our community. Remember, however, that for its first four centuries Christianity spread its message in a society that was every bit as hostile to the gospel, just as ignorant of God’s ways, and with a religion just as pluralistic as it is in ours.
The people around us, our neighbors, our friends, think in terms of relativism: “This is the absolute truth: There is no absolute truth!” This raises serious questions: Is it wrong to break the law of the land? What about the beliefs of your church? Who decides? Are we (our feelings, our intuition) in authority or is God’s Word? In evangelizing a society that is highly relativistic, we will have to understand that at least initially they will reject the idea of absolute truth as revealed in the Bible (or anywhere!).
Replacing objective authority is experience – sense and feeling. Rather than ask whether Christianity is true, moderns ask whether Christianity works. Thus they aren’t as concerned with ideas and arguments as they are with experiences and feelings. One approach we can use is to explain how Christ is available to help us in everyday life. We must demonstrate to a new generation that Christianity does work! (Of course we know that Christianity works because it is the truth!)
If there are no absolutes, it stands to reason that all viewpoints are equally valid. So is pornography as much art as Michelangelo? Were Nazi efforts to annihilate Jews morally correct, or are we correct to say it was wrong? When approaching postmodern people, we will have to understand that they will initially reject our claim that the Christian lifestyle is the only one that is right in God’s sight. When we preach the exclusive claims for Christ, this runs the risk of being called judgmental by our postmodern listeners. Our neighbors are hostile to the church and friendly to Jesus Christ. We need to somehow make known the exclusive claims of Christ without sounding smug or condescending.
Postmodern people are no longer loyal to denominational ties, preferring places where they believe their needs will be met. Does this mistrust of denominational structures present an opportunity for undenominational Christianity?
Postmodern people do not believe an objective reality is “out there” in the real world. A piece of literature cannot be interpreted for what it objectively means but only for “what it means for me.” There are numerous meanings for a text (what it means for you, what it means for me, what it means for someone else). Every interpretation, therefore, is as valid as the next. The postmodern view of religion is a hodgepodge of New Age thinking grafted into old Sunday school stories.
If the enlightenment was optimistic, even arrogant, postmodern people are pessimistic. Life is meaningless, according to philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. There is no objective and good provider of morality (God), and now people are rudely awakened to the fact that humans (science) are equally incapable of solving their problems.
Postmodern people are searching for community: In this scary world people are drawn to a community where they might find a sense of significance and identity. Traditionally, people sought this through their nation, their family and their church. Today they might seek it through body-builder health clubs, inner-city gangs or social groups on the Internet (such as Facebook).
Do you see an opportunity here? The church could provide this once more if we sought ways to demonstrate to postmodern people how the church is the greatest community of all. Modern people long for friendships. Broken families, frequent moves, even alienation in urban areas lead to this hunger.
We cannot treat postmodern people as “prospects” or “projects,” however. We will have to build an actual relationship with them. After all, how do you feel about being solicited on the phone? Does that person care about you? Do you really want to make a vital, life-affecting decision with a complete stranger guiding you through it? We must be able to offer genuine Christian fellowship, the kind the Bible depicts.
It needs to comprise commitment, support and forgiveness, the kind that comes from our common relationship with Christ. The postmodern person will either find his needs for community in redeemed surroundings (the church) or unredeemed (gangs or social clubs). Because the postmodern crowd is reluctant to make firm commitments until they have examined every option, churches should expect a long, slow courtship.
What We Have Learned
With the collapse of enlightenment skepticism of the supernatural and the Bible, the way has opened up again for spirituality. This presents us with both an opportunity and a problem: “spirituality” to postmoderns could mean anything – Zen, the Orthodox Church, the occult or some combination. They are spiritual but not necessarily Christian. This is how someone can be a Catholic on Sunday and meditate with Buddhist monks on Tuesday. Yet a relationship with Jesus Christ can be and should be the greatest experience in the universe. This is true only because Jesus, the Son of God, is in fact the Son of God and none other. The postmodern will balk at this, at least initially.
Humans are not as good as enlightenment people thought. Remember the atom bomb? A despoiled environment? However Christians may be looking at the best opportunity in a hundred years to reach the world for Christ if we understand the nature of the opportunity we face.
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ ” (John 14:6 ESV).
Stan Mitchell lives in Henderson, Tenn., and may be reached by email at email@example.com.