Being friends with postmoderns

A blended, inclusive way of doing city evangelism.

Jeremy Arnall is an associate pastor at the Bowman Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Cleveland, Tennessee

The postmodern person makes sense of his or her world, arriving at "truth" through up front observation. Somewhat in contrast to this, most Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists, treat truth much as we treat science: through careful, in-depth study of the evidence. Consequently, if some one wants to understand or know what Adventists believe, we refer them to our neat ly-packaged pod of 27 fundamental doctrines. If they wish to understand end-time events, we display one of our prophetic time charts. When we have done this we tend to feel our work is done.

Yet, in describing ourselves this way, we must yet strongly affirm that we are deeply grateful that we have indeed carefully studied truth, and that what we have is immensely valuable to us. However, in all this there is an inherent danger in having the wonderful resources we now have. We may take our grasp of truth too much for granted.

If given the chance, the postmodern per son in our neighborhood might be quick to point this out to us, telling us that we come across as though we "possess the truth."

To which some might say, "But we do!"

Possessing the truth?

While we as a church have been blessed with a great deal of light and truth from God, to say we possess the truth can be misleading and an unnecessary turn-off to our postmodern neighbor who may say, at least under his breath, "How arrogant! Who are you to say you have the truth?"

For the postmodern, reality or truth is something that varies for different people because each of us is brought up in his or her own culture and environment in which reality is differently perceived and explained.

Therefore, many criticize postmoderns because they tend to say that everything is relevant ... to someone. Thus the onlooker often concludes that, to the postmodern, there is no such thing as absolute truth.

However, in his book, The Church on the Other Side, Brian McLaren enunciates an important distinction. He writes that postmoderns (at least those more thoughtful) tend to reject absolute knowledge but not absolute truth.1 That is, the postmodern doubts that anyone can fully understand truth because it's bigger than any of us, and our language is incapable of communicating it.

Nietzsche described the beauty that is lost when we try to contain truth. For example, he states that the concept of a leaf doesn't adequately describe leaves. He says we can form the concept of leaf only by overlooking the many differences inherent in leaves. Thus a certain beauty is lost when we categorize leaves by saying leaf.2 So in reality, postmoderns show a respect for truth that perhaps we more traditional moderns have lost. Perhaps, in this sense, we must learn once again to rev erence truth more, as do many with a postmodern bent.

It is for this reason some have begun to realize our current approach to evangelism needs review. In communicating, even inadvertently, that we possess the truth we have appeared to be irreverent when it comes to that which is transcendent in truth. While we love truth and have a great passion and zest for it, perhaps we have come across as having it bottled up and ready to distribute, or worse still, to market.

The postmodern would say, "You can't simply dish up a serving of truth for me. I have to behold it and savor it. I have to experience truth for myself."

Our dilemma

If Seventh-day Adventists (some, at least) do in fact believe that we can and should simply "dish up" a 27-course meal of truth in our evangelistic endeavors, we are faced with a dilemma: We must effectively communicate our very well conceived understanding of truth, but doing so in the traditional way (which will, of course, reach some) will strongly and unnecessarily repel the rising numbers of postmoderns in the typical Western city.

At present, we may sense two basic approaches in Adventism to this dilemma. One is to continue as usual with the typical crusades and seminars which might then be followed up with books and tapes. In this approach, the evangelist typically travels from city to city and stays for six to eight weeks. Working with the local pastor, he becomes the center of a given evangelistic campaign.

Another less traditional approach is to avoid the overt confrontation often associated with public evangelism. Here, we might attempt to mingle with and befriend people, seeking to open the way for people to see Christ working in the local Church, and thus leading them to make their own choice. Such an approach may seek to help people by meeting their felt needs. Eventually, under these influences, we believe that those involved will start asking questions and open the door for us to share our complete message and lead them to baptism.

Blending our approaches

All this is valid, and we should not be blindly and negatively critical of it. But in the light of all that has been said so far, it seems imperative that we come to the place of blending our approaches. It is critical that we become friends to the people about us who may have a postmodern worldview.

The problem is that while our traditional methods are quick to call for a decision or a commitment, the friendship approach by itself tends to slow us down too much when it comes to the matter of leading people to come to such a decision.

Why not therefore blend the more direct approach of the six-week evangelistic crusade with the friendship, silent-witness approach and include with it all a mature understanding of postmodern concerns?

In some situations we could take our blending a step further and include the element of church planting. In the church planting context, the approaches described above can be properly blended, because while a church planting initiative could include a short six-to-eight-week evangelistic emphasis, at the same time the church planter is called on to settle in and live with the people he or she is working with in planting the church. He or she intermingles with them and becomes involved, listening to their stories, ideas, hopes and sorrows.

In planting a church our methods can by all means seek to be responsive to postmodern orientations, but this does not mean the direct appeal needs to be neglected. Again, in such situations, more inductive approaches may be used, with more stories and art, for example, but in such approaches we can still call our new friends to step forward and come to Jesus, with the implications that such a step involves.

In some respects, the new community may look different from other Adventist churches, but it will still remain Adventist. It will still hold to 27 fundamentals, while it may describe them in different language. Nonetheless, it will hold to these fundamentals in order to be in line with Jesus' call to "come out" (Rev. 18:4).

Christ's method

We are all familiar with the well known, wise insight from Ellen White which reads, "Christ's method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, 'Follow Me.'"3

This approach will reach the post modern heart. Jesus did not use good deeds as bait. He sincerely cared for people, physically, mentally, and spiritually. But He did not beat around the bush when it came time to explaining what it meant to follow Him. He told one interest, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Matt. 8:20). When appropriate, we must not be afraid to take this approach. We cannot afford to neglect the friendship, which requires time and effort, nor can we neglect the appeal, which requires courage and faith. We must simply be true friends to those with whom we share our faith.

1 Brian D. McLaren, The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 2000), 166.

2 Stanley J. Grenz, Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996), 89.

3 Ellen G. White, Ministry of Healing (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1905), 143.

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Jeremy Arnall is an associate pastor at the Bowman Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Cleveland, Tennessee

December 2002

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