Re-imagining evangelism in a postmodern culture

Re-imagining evangelism in a postmodern culture

Who are postmoderns, what do they believe, and how can we reach them?

Miroslav Pujic, DMin,is the Ministry to Postmoderns Director for the Trans-European Division of Seventhday Adventists, Hertsfordshire, England.

Scripture says that we “have a great sense of obligation to people in both the civilized world and the rest of the world” (Rom. 1:14).1 “Carrying the eternal Good News . . . to the people who belong to this world—to every nation, tribe, language, and people” (Rev. 14:6). This obligation includes postmoderns as well.

Who are postmoderns, what do they believe, and how can we, as Seventh-day Adventists, reach them?

Postmodernism defined

“Post” means “after,” and “mod­ern” means “up to date” or “now.” So, we define postmodern as “beyond now”; that is, they are living on the edge of constant change. Perhaps the most concise literary definition of post­modernism comes from Jean-Francois Lyotard, calling it “incredulity towards metanarratives.”2 Meta-narratives are the overarching stories or truths, the concepts that are an umbrella for everything else in life—like the exis­tence of Jesus Christ as God’s Son and His plan of salvation, as one example.

We find postmodernism often mis­understood. We mix the words secular, postmodern, pluralist, and contempo­rary, but they are not the same thing. A secular person does not believe in God, a pluralist believes in many gods or many truths, a contemporary person merely lives in the same time period as yourself; but a postmodern individual is far more complex. Postmoderns do not necessarily deny God; they just do not have a growing relationship with Him. They do not reject truth; they just are not sure where to find it or that the Bible has the truth.

Postmodernism reacts to modern­ism’s failures, rejecting universally applicable truth, and valuing tolerance as a paramount virtue. 3 But this has contradictory boundaries, leading to a system of selective tolerance. Steven Connor says, “What is striking is precisely the degree of consensus in postmodernist discourse that there is no longer any possibility of consensus, the authoritative announcements of the disappearance of final authority and the promotion and recirculation of a total and comprehensive narrative of a cultural condition in which totality is no longer thinkable.”4 In other words, postmodernism seems to be certain that there is no way to be certain about absolutes.

The most common misunderstand­ing of postmodernism focuses on the fact that postmodernism completly denies truth, thus relativizing every­thing. Postmoderns do not deny truth and objective reality; instead they question our ability to distinguish truth from nontruth. Postmodernism is a reactionary movement, a backlash against the arrogant approach that modernism attributed to scientific authority and “proof.”

Opportunities for evangelism in postmodernity

With the demise of absolute human reason and science, the supernatural is once again open to consideration. Because postmodernists see spiritual­ity as closely connected to supernatural experience, Christians who have expe­rienced the Holy Spirit possess a great opportunity to make friends among postmoderns and share the story of a personal God who does miracles in their lives.

Intuition and emotions are another pathway where postmodernists can discover truth. As they experience vari­ous spiritual encounters, postmoderns will integrate into a new lifestyle when they find somewhere they belong. A personal invitation to “Try it”—i.e., the gospel—should be our message to them.

People long to belong. The post­modern western European traditions of pubbing (on Friday nights) and clubbing (on Saturday nights) suggest that people still need people. Christian community offers a supportive environ­ment that can help them discover a deeper, more fulfilling meaning of life as a disciple of Jesus.

Given today’s research on the prevalency of posmodern culture, the church must adopt methods that will attract the postmodern mind. Richard Halverson said, “Dogmatism and faith are not identical! Dogmatism is like stone. Faith is like soil. Dogmatism refuses to admit doubts. Faith often struggles with doubt. . . . Dogmatism is a tunnel. Faith is a mountain peak. . . . Dogmatism insists on proposition. Faith knows Christ. Dogmatism generates bigotry. Faith stimulates understanding.”5

This does not mean we should dilute the message of Scripture in an attempt to entertain but that we should refocus our witnessing strategy, centering it on the example that Jesus Christ left us on how to live.

Because Christianity makes claims for absolute truth, it is bound to be unpopular in the postmodern setting. So while relational evangelism rates as the best approach, our “techniques” cannot be dishonest. The gospel applies to all ages in all countries and cultures. We face a danger: as we seek to “make the gospel relevant,” we may overlook the fact that it already is. The gospel will never become irrelevant as long as there are hurting people who need to find peace in the divine gift of salvation. Scripture must not be compromised or obscured by any evangelistic methodology preoccupied with church growth or obsessed with baptisms. Instead, we must remain focused on the individuals and their needs for relationship, support, and nurture.

To effectively reach the postmodern generation, we must return to the basics: living out biblical principles, developing authentic friendships, caring for practical needs, and giving new disciples an opportunity to believe through belonging. We must live out our faith because “[i]t is this kind of faith that postmoderns can accept—no, are attracted to—no, are dying for.”6

Disicpleship model in reaching postmoderns

For a new culturally sensitive approach on how to reach postmoderns who are also post-Christians, we present a disicpleship model used in LIFEdevelopemnt. What is LIFEdevelopment? 

LIFEdevelopment is a discipleship process that includes strategic vision to involve Adventist Christians:

• In building authentic friendships with unchurched postmodern people in our communities

• In the process of leading them to Jesus Christ

• In providing hope through support and nurture 7

This vision is built on three biblical principles for evangelising the postmodern world.

1. Belonging Before Believing—The most widely adopted evangelistic strategy is to teach people about the gospel, see that they behave according to the doctrines, and then accept them to belong in the body of Christ. This method has proved inappropriate and ineffective in the Western postmodern world.

People today seek for honest and genuine relationships. Jesus is the model Example of how to build friendships. “The Saviour 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.’ ”8
This requires planning and sacrifice because we are all busy. In such an environment, talking and sharing is crucial. We have to remember that talking includes listening as well. To help them understand the story of Christ requires much time and patience. We have to be understandable, honest, and not judgmental.

Food is very important. Shared meals construct and sustain human relationships and symbolize solidarity. Meals express the texture of human associations, a way of life even. Jesus ate and drank with people, even with the worst sinners (Matt. 11:19; Mark 2:15–17; Luke 15:1, 2). Jesus knew that in being with people around the table, He could influence them through words and deeds.

If the main purpose of evangelism is “believing,” then we make people aware of the truth and things they need to know. If the main purpose of evangelism is “behaving,” then we make people focus on themselves and their personal habits. If the main purpose of evangelism is “belonging,” then we make people disciples of Jesus Christ and incorporate them into the Christian community and share with them the blessings of Christian fellowship.9 “Belonging before believing” does not mean that the person is spiritually incorporated into the body of Christ but rather accepted into the process of transfor­mation, which comprises the work of the Holy Spirit.10

“A sense of belonging places seekers in the position of observer-participant so that they can learn what the gospel is all about. They can observe at close quarters how it impacts the lives of individuals and shapes a community. Through this process the seeker comes to know when he or she is ready to make a personal decision to identify fully both with the Lord and with the body of Christ.”11

Many people want to belong to a place that they can call home and identify with. The world travels now through the shift from modernism, where Enlightenment created self-autonomy, individualism, and isolation, to postmodernism, where people are searching for identity and commu­nity. We now have virtual reality, an experience real in effect but not in fact.12 As these people struggle in the misery of loneliness and search for iden­tity, Christians should create a community that will embrace and help these people find their identity as they become dis­ciples of Jesus Christ. God cre­ated community (Gen. 2:18), and Jesus Himself chose to live in a small community (Mark 3:14). This should be the frame­work for ministry in the postmodern world; an environment where people will become vulnerable enough to share their joy, suffering, and despair.

2. Process Evangelism—In the Gospels, we read that when Jesus started His mission, He entered into the world of twelve people, identi­fied with them and their conditions, and committed Himself to begin the process of evangelizing them. The apostles spent more than three years growing up in understanding more about Jesus; first as a teacher, then prophet, then Messiah, and then Son of God. This clearly suggests a process rather than an event. Even though we are accustomed to instant food, instant drinks, instant cash, instant messages, we cannot do evangelism that way, at least not with this new generation. The postmodernists find it unacceptable to be approached with the truth in the form of a dogmatic grand scheme, proposed in a point of time. They will reject it.

Evangelizing is a process and takes a person on a spiritual journey that we Christians are on as well, with all its ups and downs. On that journey our job is to go one step at a time. The Holy Spirit’s job is to convince the person and bring them to conversion. Our responsibility is to make ourselves available as the tools that God uses to complete His work. We must follow Jesus’ example. It will help us experi­ence the miracle of walking on the water, as Peter did (Matt. 14:29).

Jimmy Long identifies six steps in the postmodern conversion process, “these are: (1) discontentment with life, (2) confusion over meaning, (3) contact with Christians, (4) conver­sion to community, (5) commitment to Christ, and (6) a calling to God’s heavenly vision.”13 We have to know that this sometimes does not hap­pen in these exact sequences. Time, place, and speed are applicable to the individual. It could be that one person goes through the process more quickly than the other does or some skip a step or two. But this still remains a process, because the postmodern generation requires a lot of time to make any commitment.14 The process helps the seeker see the gospel in action in the setting of Christian community. The process shapes the seeker’s heart, not just the mind. The process leads the seeker into the holistic Christian matu­rity. The process converts the seeker to become a disciple. The process enables the new disciple to become a disciple-maker.

3. Narrative Evangelism—A story has the power to provoke our thoughts, emotions, laughter, and actions. A story has the power to create a vision, which, in turn, produces character. A story can change the person’s mind and affects his or her attitude, world-view, and soul. Jesus understood the power of a story and he “used many similar stories and illustrations to teach the people as much as they could understand. In fact, in his public ministry he never taught without using parables” (Mark 4:33, 34). 

The new generation seeks to find a role model. When they see Christians who live their stories out in a faithful community, they will respond to an alive role model. It will provide hope to a generation without hope. It will support them in their everyday life and nurture them in their spiritual growth. “The Story that there is a God who cares about the individual human being is an old message—but it has been given a new attractiveness, a new plausibility in our time.  Our postmodern generation is more ready than ever to hear this Story with new ears. Why? Because of emptiness and brokenness of postmodern life.”15 The very “storylessness” of this new generation is our golden opportunity. 

Conclusion

When the young man, who was demon possessed, was healed, Jesus told him, “ ‘Go home to your family, and tell them everything the Lord has done for you and how merciful he has been’” (Mark 5:19; emphasis added). With this, Jesus taught us the principles of evangelism. He wants us to go back to our community and build holistic connections with people around us, where we live, work, and play, to be able to share the wonderful story of our healing experience.

The Christian community has unique resources that can be drawn from reaching this group. Postmodernists provide a more hospitable platform for spiritual and theological possibilities. It is not enough for us to understand our world from a distance. It is not enough to have a strategy on how to do a mission. We need to wade into it and rub shoulders with those whom we desire to reach for Christ. We need to be willing to live life with unchurched postmodernists on their terms, not ours. This will lay the ground for real communication to take place.

References:

1 All Scripture quotations are taken from the New Living Translation.

2 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 1984), 24.

3 “Postmodernism” http://www.public-domain-content.com/Architecture/ Postmodernism.shtml (May 2005).

4 Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998), 24.

5 Reprinted in Perspective (November 4, 1996), from Richard Halverson, Somewhere Inside of Eternity (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1978), 50.

6 McLaren, 169.

7 For more information, see www.lifedevelopment.info.

8 Ellen G White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942), 143.

9 Richard Rice, Believing, Behaving, Belonging: Finding New Love for the Church (Roseville, CA: Association of Adventist Forums, n.d.), 120, 121.

10 Gibbs, Coffey, 194.

11 Ibid., 194.

12 Jimmy Long, Generating Hope: A Strategy for Reaching the Postmodern Generation (Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 73.

13 Ibid., 206.

14 Ibid., 208.

15 Ibid., 190


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Miroslav Pujic, DMin,is the Ministry to Postmoderns Director for the Trans-European Division of Seventhday Adventists, Hertsfordshire, England.

May 2013

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