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God's mighty acts in a changing world (part 1 of 2)

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Archives / 2006 / February

 

 

God's mighty acts in a changing world (part 1 of 2)

Jon Paulien
Jon Paulien, Ph.D., is chair of the New Testament Department, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

 

The Seventh-day Adventist Church faces serious problems in evangelism and church growth. One such problem became clear during a recent pastors’ meeting in South England, where we reviewed the status of the church in Britain. In spite of a major increase in immigration over the last twenty years, 95 percent of the British population remains English-speaking whites. Of the 20,000 Adventists in that country, about 10 percent reflect this majority; 85 percent come from West Indian immigrants, who constitute only 2 percent of the general population; and the rest from other ethnic groups. Of the 8,000 Adventist members in London, only about 100 are whites. Most members felt that these statistics indicate a racial problem: blacks are naturally open to the gospel and whites are naturally closed.

My experience in New York City and extensive research on Western Christianity suggest a different explanation. In North America the divide of spiritual interest is not between whites and blacks but between indigenous and immigrant. Recent immigrants from Eastern Europe have been wide open to the Adventist message, as my German forebears had once been. But second and third generation German-Americans are not being reached. Large numbers of blacks from places like Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad are baptized every year in New York City, yet that seems not to be the case with African-Americans.

Likewise, church growth among immigrant Hispanics continues, yet we rarely baptize large numbers from third or fourth generation Hispanics. And in the Asian community, massive defections are common among second and third generation Korean-Americans. This leads me to the conclusion that the real evangelistic challenge faced by the Adventist Church in the Western world is not how to reach whites, but how to reach the mainstream cultures of North America, Europe, Australia, and other developed countries. When it comes to evangelism, we do not face a racial problem but an indigenous problem.

When I shared these thoughts with the largely West Indian audience of Adventist pastors in South England, one pastor remarked: “Why are we wasting time talking about hard–to–reach people? We don’t have time for this. Let’s invest our time and money on people groups that are open. If the majority culture isn’t open to the gospel, it’s not our problem.”

I responded, “Do you care if your children and grandchildren stay in the church? My experience as a second-generation German-American tells me that your children and grandchildren will be indigenous Brits; they won’t be West Indians anymore. If the church doesn’t learn how to reach indigenous British, it won’t interest your children and grandchildren either.”

A white pastor spoke up: “There’s something here I don’t understand. When the Adventist Church first came to Britain (toward the end of the nineteenth century), we reached the British mainstream. If that wasn’t so, we wouldn’t have any Anglos in the church at all right now. What has changed between then and now?”

The question suddenly connected a whole lot of things in my mind. My recent study and research on the philosophic changes that have affected Western thought, giving way to what is now known as postmodernism, suddenly made sense concerning the lack of response to gospel outreach on the part of the indigenous populations of the Western world. What I am about to share is relevant to the situation in North America and in other western countries where the concept of truth and reality has undergone tremendous changes. These changes need not frighten us, but with patience and understanding we can see God at work through such changes for new ways of witness and outreach.

This article will provide a brief historical survey of the religious thought and discuss the main contours of postmodernism, and how we can shape our response to postmodern challenges, keeping in view that God is in ultimate control.

A short history of religious thought

At the risk of superficiality, we begin with a short history of religious thought. The following question will guide that history: How do people determine truth? How do they decide what is true and what is not?

The premodern period. In the Middle Ages (the premodern period), truth was thought to reside in privileged groups. The average person didn’t think he or she had a clue. Truth could be found only in the clergy or in the Church. If you wanted to know the truth, you needed to talk to a priest. Whenever the priests would disagree, truth would be decided by the head of the Church or an action of one of the great councils.

Christian modernism. During the Reformation, people’s confidence in privileged people and groups began to break down. Truth was seen to reside no longer in the Church or the state but in logical statements based on careful biblical research. Priests, popes, and nobles had no greater access to truth than anyone else. Anyone with diligence and talent could understand the truth through careful study of the Scriptures.

The worldview of Christian modernism dominated nineteenth-century America. It was the milieu in which Adventism got its start and found its logical appeal to the American mainstream. It was the milieu in which early Adventist missionaries found a ready audience in Great Britain as well. And anywhere in the world where Christian modernism still dominates, Adventism still reaches the mainstream with power. But those areas are shrinking rapidly. The spearhead of philosophical change has already moved two generations past nineteenth-century America. The changes have been wrenching and massive.

Secular modernism. With the Enlightenment the world experienced a shift from Christian modernism to secular modernism. While intellectual circles were already making this move in the eighteenth century, secular modernism became the dominant worldview in North America sometime in the early decades of the twentieth century. The Fundamentalist-Liberal controversy of the 1920s could be seen as a rite of passage, in which conservative Christianity lost touch with the mainstream.

Beginning with Descartes (1596– 1650), the father of modern philosophy, secular modernists came to believe that the key to truth was not careful Bible study but methodological doubt. The goal was to eliminate superstition of all kinds by exposing the flaws in all previous thinking. This would be done by applying careful, scientific methods to all questions, including religious questions. So secular modernists believe that truth cannot be found in the church or the Bible, it is found in a scientific process of careful observation and experimentation.

The goal of secular modernism was a “bomb-proof” minimum of truth in which one could have absolute confidence. With continued application of scientific method, these “assured results” could be gradually increased until life could be lived with a fair amount of confidence that we knew what was really going on. Science would provide the “truth,” and technology would provide the power to change the world. Education would spread this new “gospel,” and the result would eventually be a paradise of affluence and security.

But reality got in the way of this dream. A hundred years ago the concept of relativity and the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics began to paint a very different picture of the universe. The twentieth century also shattered the dream of a technological paradise. Scientific progress seemed to go hand in hand with an increase in pollution and crime. World War I, World War II, the Holocaust and other genocides, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism combined to wring the confidence out of scientific modernists. A new generation proclaims the god of secular modernism to be a false god. Humanity today turns away from the truth of science to look for truth in other directions.

Secular postmodernism. In the United States, beginning with Generation X (born 1964–1980), an increasingly pervasive worldview distrusts the scientific approach to truth. In postmodernism, truth is not primarily found in science, the Bible, or the church. It is found in relationships and the telling of stories. Truth has become rather elusive. Instead of Truth (with a capital “T”), the postmodern prefers to think of “many truths,” a “variety of truths,” or “truth for me.” Feeling that no one has a clear grasp on truth but that everyone has a part of the picture results in small bits of expertise floating around in a vast array of ignorance.

The building of community, therefore, is a key component of the postmodern search for truth. As we each share that part of truth that we are “expert” on, everyone benefits. In the postmodern environment, building community becomes more important than the ideas that once held communities together.

At first blush the basic “truth” of postmodernism seems a self-evident truth.

Only an egotist would claim to have a handle on all truth. Human beings have long recognized that “in the multitude of counselors there is safety,” and that we all have a lot to learn. But something more than this is going on here.

Generally accepting and inclusive, postmodernism is quite exclusive in three areas:

1. It rejects metanarrative, the big stories that try to explain everything, like the great controversy—feeling that metanarratives try to explain too much and therefore promote an exclusivism that leads to violence. It is, after all, faith in a metanarrative that fuels the terrifying actions of an al Qaeda or the medieval papacy.

2. Postmodernism rejects truth as an institution (church), particularly when that institution thinks of itself as unique or better than others (the true church?). Thus the Adventist idea of a “remnant church” is problematic in a postmodern environment.

3. Postmodernism also tends to reject truth as Bible considering the Bible to be filled with violence, everlasting burning hell, and the subjection of women and minorities. While most of these charges are somewhat misplaced, they can be a significant barrier to casual exploration of the Scriptures.

The hand of God in postmodernism

As we contemplate these trends, we find it easy to question whether the hand of God could possibly be seen in postmodernism. Is postmodernism an act of the devil, or something that God could use? Is it, perhaps, even a necessary steppingstone to where God wants the human race to go? As a Seventh-day Adventist nurtured in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, I cannot fathom an environment that leaves God “without witness” (Acts 14:17). Convinced that God’s hand is behind these changes and that we are heading to the place of His choosing, I have found eight reasons to believe that postmodernism is an act of God in the positive sense.

1. A sense of brokenness. Postmoderns definitely don’t share the self-confidence of secular moderns. They are much more likely than their grandparents to think of themselves as broken people. They often come from broken families. When they share home stories with their friends, they discover that things aren’t any better with them. Postmoderns, as a result, have a keen sense of brokenness, a deep need for inner healing. While brokenness can lead to despair, it also can open the way to the refreshing winds of the gospel.

2. Humility and authenticity. Living in an age where image is king, postmodern individuals place a high premium on humility, honesty, and authenticity in interpersonal relationships. It is considered better to be honest about one’s weaknesses and handicaps than to craft an image. This principle is closely related to the previous one. Postmoderns are willing to share that sense honestly with friends they consider safe.

Humility and authenticity are, of course, at the root of Christian faith. Confession is nothing else than telling the truth about oneself. In modernism, humility was thought demeaning to human value; people were humble only if they had plenty to be humble about! Postmodernism, on the other hand, sees genuineness as a higher value. God is bringing the culture to the place where it values one of the great testing truths of the Christian tradition (John 3:19, 20).

3. The search for identity and purpose. Postmoderns long for a clear sense of personal identity, yet question whether they could ever attain it for themselves. In their experience, the identity claims of others often prove to be flawed or selfconstructed. With few or no role models, postmoderns tend toward identity crisis. They may try on several “identities” yet end up with no clue which identity is really theirs.

This is an opening for the kind of positive identity that can come from knowing that one has been bought with a price. A well-rounded Christian faith helps people know why they are here, where they have come from, and where they are going. Postmoderns need their lives to have a sense of mission and purpose, a sense that their lives make a difference in the world. Scripture encourages the idea that each person is the object of God’s purpose (Jer. 1:5).

4. Need for community. Postmoderns have a strong need for community. I have been amazed to watch this younger generation handle relationships. Unlike my generation, they seem much less likely to pair off. They tend to go out in groups of five (say two girls and three guys) or seven (say five girls and two guys), always with their friends, yet somewhat afraid to go deep.

Community (koinonia) remains foundational to New Testament faith. If Christian communities can learn to experience and express the kind of community the New Testament proclaims, they would find postmoderns quite interested in what they have to offer. Once again, the hand of God seems to be moving the mainstream a bit closer to the biblical ideal.

5. Inclusiveness. There exists a refreshing inclusiveness in the postmodern attitude toward others. When I was doing my doctorate, the intellectual atmosphere of scholarly societies seemed much more controlled than it is now. One could only read papers and make meaningful comments in relation to the fairly rigid agenda of modernistic historical criticism. Since that time scholarship has been much more open to a variety of perspectives, including Adventist ones. The inclusiveness of postmodernism has opened the way for Adventist exegetes and theologians to share the kinds of insights that have benefited us for a century and a half.

6. Spirituality. The younger generation tends to be more spiritual than its predecessor. Even among actors, athletes, and scholars, people are becoming more open about their own personal faith and practice. While there is a strong suspicion toward traditional institutions and the Bible, postmoderns are open to spiritual discussions with anyone who knows God and can teach others how to know God.

7. Toleration of opposites. One of the fascinating characteristics of postmodernism centers on its ability to tolerate opposites. Philosophically, the Greeks saw the opposite of a truth to be false. Scientific modernism was grounded in Greek Western logic. But Hebrew logic could often see contrasting ideas not in terms of true and false but in terms of a tension between two poles. So the postmodern ability to tolerate opposites is closer to the biblical worldview than the sharp distinctions of scientific modernism. This means that postmoderns may have an easier time understanding the Bible than did previous generations.

8. Truth as story. For postmoderns truth is found not in church, Bible (as traditionally understood), or science but in community and in story. The concept of truth as story provides a powerful corrective to traditional use of the Bible. Many are frustrated that the Bible was not written as a systematic theology. You would think God would have been a little more logical about this truth business. But since I cannot outline exactly what God thought when He caused the Bible to be put together the way it was, I can only assume that the result is exactly what He wanted. If God chose the Bible to be a collection of stories, then postmodernism might be our best chance to fully explore the implications of those stories for the character and purposes of God.

Conclusion

I realize that some sociologists question whether such a thing as a postmodern worldview exists. Perhaps it is better to speak of a “postmodern condition.” There are definitely changes afoot, even though we do not know where those changes are taking us. But one thing is clear to me: God’s hand is not weaker than before. His mighty acts are present in even the most challenging of circumstances.

In a succeeding article (April 2006), we will explore the impact of the postmodern condition on the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

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