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A Clash of Cultures: Evangelism in a Postmodern World (Part I)

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January 2005, Part 1 of 2 (Click here for the second article)

Postmodernism officially began in 1960, but as with all youngsters it has taken some time to find its place in the world. Universities are generally one of the first places where new ideas take hold, while culture at large lags behind. And what lags behind the general culture is Christian culture. Howard Hendricks, professor at Dallas Seminary, is fond of saying to his students, “They should charge admission to this place so that visitors can see how people used to live 50 years ago!” Certainly part of the reason for Christians to be slow to change is our conservative values. But I digress.

When it comes to culture, Christians generally have one of three attitudes:

  1. opposition: “Everything in the Enlightenment is wrong,” or “Everything in our modern culture is wrong.” Ironically, when we were thick in modernism, few evangelicals bought into it lock, stock, and barrel. But now that we are past modernism, too many evangelicals are longing for the good old days, almost as though they are perfect, en masse mimics of the Imago Dei. For many evangelicals, whatever is in society right now is all bad. As an illustration, a few years ago I heard some philosopher-theologians debate one another at the Evangelical Theological Society. The topic was postmodernism. Some of the panelists were arguing that we need to first to “convert” a person to Aristotelian logic before we can convert them to Christ! There seemed to be a genuine dread that culture was shifting, as though these professors would be out of a job! Some astute observer from the crowd said, “Maybe you guys just need to learn to love a little more! It won’t kill you to change your paradigm a bit.”
  2. assimilation: We become conformed to the cultural values that surround us. For example, pop culture is more often guided by emotion than reason. Hence, “seeker-oriented churches” continually face the temptation to put a priority on relevance over truth, while those in evangelical seminaries are generally still steeped in modernism. Pastor and pew are clashing nowadays like never before, and something has to give. Usually, it’s the pastor who blinks first. But there are some churches where the pastor has trained the folks to think like modernists, to use their brains, to study, to learn. Of course, many of these churches care little for society, think little of missions, evangelism, or social issues that must be addressed by believers. In such cases, the pastor has assimilated the church to his values all too well!
  3. engagement: What is good in society and what is bad? There is a huge dichotomy between churches and seminaries: There is a constant dumbing down in the churches, while seminaries are training the life of the mind. But while those in seminary often have a great struggle with seeing the value of personal experience, those in the pew often have a great struggle with seeing the value of Bible study. Both are necessary. The successful seminary graduate will realize that his or her training only addresses a part of Christian ministry. He or she will desire to learn from the experiences of others, of elders in the church, of sages who have great skill at living. Indeed, he or she will realize that upon seminary graduation, the apprenticeship for ministry now begins. The unsuccessful seminary graduate will assume a gnostic-like relationship to his/her congregation, equating knowledge with spirituality and authority. All too many seminary graduates have a “local Protestant pope” mentality. Engagement is the best model for us to follow: There is good in society and there is bad. We need discernment more than judgment or acquiescence.

At bottom, I think all of this needs to be related to the Imago Dei. We recognize that the image of God was not destroyed in the Fall, though it was distorted. James 3.8-9 says, “But no human being can subdue the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people made in God’s image” (NET). In the least, this text is telling us that human beings are still created in God’s image. That image-making did not cease with Adam and Eve. But everyone created in God’s image is a sinner, and that means that the image is distorted, twisted. In each of us there is a beauty and a beast. In other words, there is good and bad in every person.

How does this relate to postmodernism? If the Imago Dei is distorted for each individual, it stands to reason that the same holds true for a group of individuals. There is thus a beauty and a beast in every culture, every society. To be sure, the more we hold biblical values, the more we resemble the beauty rather than the beast. But all cultures have ugly elements in them, and all have beautiful elements.

So how does postmodernism stack up? Its focus on emotion, on relativism, and as a subsidiary, on relationships, is not altogether a bad thing. Colleges, even high schools, are far more service- and community-oriented today than they were when I was in school. This is certainly a good thing! But there is a despair, an uncertainty, and an isolation that marks postmodernism. Without a good dose of reason, logic, and truth, this almost always must be the case because a purposeful existence now has, at best, a near horizon. The irony is that dread of isolation is what seems to drive much of postmodernism, yet it is a hopeless battle.

But modernism, with its overindulgence in reason, tended to lose sight of our full humanness. We also have emotions, and we live in communities. Modernism produced isolated geniuses and emotional dwarfs. Among evangelicals, it produced “neck-up Christians”—those who were believers only from the neck up. Evangelical scholarship then took on their liberal counterparts and now, finally, when evangelicals can claim a great deal of respectability as to their intellectual prowess, liberalism has moved on. Relativism and tolerance for competing viewpoints is all the rage. As proof, Harvard Divinity School recently opened a post for an evangelical chair to be filled in the near future! This would have been unthinkable thirty years ago.

It strikes me that since we are living at a crossroads of cultures we must learn to become all things to all people that we might win some to the Lord. There are still large pockets of modernism in our shifting culture. And those folks will not be reached if all we have in our arsenal are postmodern techniques.

When we look at scripture, we see that this kind of adaptation is exactly what Jesus used. In John 3, he spoke to Nicodemus, “the teacher of Israel.” He used logic, scripture, and subtle arguments. He addressed his intellectual pride (“you must be born again”). In John 4, he addressed the woman at the well. Here, he spoke to her isolation (“Go, call your husband and come here…” “I have no husband…”) and her sin of seeking relationships inappropriately (“you have had five husbands and the one you now have is not your husband”). There was terrible isolation for this woman, even though she was desperate to have solid, permanent relationships.

As in Jesus’ day, we will not find a one-size-fits-all culture surrounding us. We must adapt, and we must discern. Creative thinking should help us wrestle with how to connect with people and meet their felt needs without compromising on the meaning of the gospel. May God grant us both the wisdom and the passion to reach the lost!

In the second essay on this topic, I will give a specific example that I learned of recently. It moved me beyond words.

Related Topics: Cultural Issues