Evangelizing to the Postmodern Mind
To understand the context of postmodernism, a person must start with the intellectual shifts in culture that influenced postmodern thinking. Such significant shifts in postmodern thought include the popularization of the death of God movement, religious pluralism, the power to inform through the visual and the blurring of reality and imagination, the lost center of cultural molding, and the shifting of power to a younger world. As a result of these shifts, there has been a major epistemological impact on the world.
Today’s philosophy has moved to the existential, artists have moved to the sensual side of humanity, religion has been moved into the mystical realm of spirituality, education has gained an aura of skepticism, and individuals have moved to transcendental thinking. The impact of postmodern thought has divided the world. In the western world, Christianity has become marginalized; there has been a struggle with higher education and academic trends, as well as theology replacing religion.
In the eastern world, western religion is criticized, and there has been a resurgence and greater appreciation for ancient wisdom, where religion has been and continues to be seen as a pursuit. In the west, there has been a displacement of objective truth, with nothing to replace it, while in the east there was no feeling of displaced truth because cultural focus was elsewhere. Within the context of postmodern thought, religious pluralism has made a significant impact in the shift toward postmodern intellectual thinking.
In the past several years, the paradigm of understanding the relationship between Christianity and other religions has been understood in three broad categories: particularism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Pluralism is the category that has been most influential on postmodern thinking. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, theologians became unhappy with particularism and inclusivism, and were rejecting the superiority of Christianity and the idea that salivation is found in Christ, instead embracing pluralism. Pluralism, then, rejects the suggestion that there is anything unique, normative, or superior about Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. Salvation (or enlightenment or liberation) is said to be present in its own way in each religion” (Netland & Johnson, 2000, p. 50). Theologians began to promote the thought that no religion could claim to be superior to any other, but that all religions in their own way were historical and cultural responses to divine reality. Basically, these pluralist scholars were asserting that while Jesus may be the savior for Christians, He is not necessarily the savior for all people.
The modern appeal of religious pluralism in the postmodern mind can be attributed to increased awareness of religious diversity, the tendency to regard religion in highly pragmatic and consumerist terms, religious commitments being more tentative, the distinguishing between the public world of facts and the private realm of opinions, values, and preferences, the desire to affirm increasing cultural diversity, and a deep sense of “post-colonialist guilt” (Netland & Johnson, 2000, 54). When considering the postmodern intellectual arguments to the gospel, there are several elements that need to be considered before evangelizing.
These elements include: religious tolerance, the assumption that all paths lead to the same destination, religion exists to meet psychological and social needs, religious truth as metaphor, the issue of sincerity, and the inappropriateness of judging other religions. When a Christian responds to these elements, it is essential to keep these points in mind: an understanding of contemporary religious pluralism, the basic differences between religious traditions, adjusting the starting point of the onversation to address previous assumptions, presenting the gospel within the framework of the Bible’s storyline, and using kindness, compassion, and respect in all evangelistic efforts. Overall, successful evangelism to pluralist postmoderns does not come from insisting Christianity is objectively true, but rather identifying their objections and responding in a thoughtful manner. The matter of sin in regard to spiritual thought in the postmodern mind is a major issue, when it comes to evangelizing.
Postmodern thought on the issue denies a metanarrator (God) and a metanarrative (God’s plan), and instead focuses on the individual, and the individual’s life plan. By not recognizing God, they instead deify themselves. Therefore, postmoderns do not take responsibility for their actions, and sin does not exist. For Christians to respond to the issue of sin in postmodern thinking, sin must be reasserted as a reality. To resolve this issue in postmodern minds, there are four ideas that should be addressed: communicating, community, conscience, and conversion.
In communicating, at all times God’s truth should be affirmed. To effectively communicate this truth, a Christian must have a basic understanding of what postmoderns think and believe. The postmodern mind does not grasp the idea of evil and wrong, and this is an idea that Christians must be aware. The idea of God’s law and standards for living might be hard for postmoderns to grasp, but it is an essential truth to Christianity that has been held since the creation of man.
The postmodern mind must recognize God’s authority and teaching, and focus on fulfilling His plan and purpose. The postmoderns, in essence, must recognize the deity of God, and disavow the notion of them being deified. Although Christians should not claim to possess all knowledge, it does not mean because they do not know everything that they do not know anything. The important truth to share is the truth of God, particularly his holiness and transcendence. In communicating, the main focus should be to recognize the perception of God and self in the postmodern mind.
For people to truly know themselves, they must first know God. By accepting the truth of God’s deity, the postmoderns gain an understanding of personal responsibility by responding to God’s truth. Community is another issue that must be addressed in postmodern evangelism. The importance of committed relationships is an essential part of Christianity. Community relationships opens up people to understand and relate shared experiences and issues in their lives, and allows them to encourage and hold each other accountable in their actions.
Responsibility for one’s actions is something the postmodern mind may reject, but it is a powerful truth that must be communicated. By communicating responsibility for one’s actions in a communal relationship setting, it continues to open up postmodern thinking to the existence of sin. Community, then, acts as the external boundaries of self, and allows a person’s self to become obvious to them. While community acts as the external boundary, the internal boundary must also be addressed: conscience. Even though postmoderns might not believe they have a conscience, they do.
It is essential for postmoderns to not only grasp the concept that evil and wrong exist, but that they also are evil and wrong. This goes against postmodern thought, as postmodernism encourages the ignoring of personal responsibility. The reality of sin and guilt must be communicated, and postmoderns must recognize their own personal responsibility in issues of sin. The importance of a person’s conscience should not be neglected when evangelizing to postmoderns. Conversion is the most important factor to recognize in the spiritual aspect of evangelizing to the postmodern mind.
It is essential to highlight the truth that true conversion comes only through God. It is God that has given the opportunity for repentance and salvation, and Christians who are evangelizing only share the message. Although this may be a difficult concept for postmodern thinking, this truth should always be communicated. The idea of conversion means a lot in postmodern thinking. A meaningful definition for conversion is “…to turn from one set of beliefs to another” (Andrus, 2000, p. 154). Conversion signifies a change in intellectual or theological perspective.
An evangelistic perspective on conversion involves “a ‘turning to God or a turning to Christ’” (Andrus, 2000, p. 154). When addressing conversion with postmodernism, it is important to view conversion as not just a decision, but as a change of life and perspective. When confronting conversion in the current postmodern culture, three factors must be considered: it must be content specific, it must include the notion that Christ is the exclusive way of salvation, and it must result in a radical change of belief and conduct in the convert.
Content is very important when it comes to conversion. Without content, there is a risk that any decision made is nothing more than a convenient expression of a person’s religious preference, rather than a true conversion. Important content issues that must be addressed are: who God is, who we are, what sin is, who Jesus is, what Jesus has done about sin, and what we must do about what Jesus has done. With all of these issues, what the scripture says must be presented effectively. Another important issue that must be addressed is that salvation is found in Christ alone.
While other faiths promote their own means of salvation, when it comes to the conversion of postmoderns, Christ must be shown to be the only means of salvation. While it is difficult for the postmodern mind to grasp the idea of the exclusivity of salvation through only Christ, it is essential that it be addressed so that their conversion is sincere, rather than just an intellectual preference. The issue of actual change in a person’s life is also crucial when it comes to conversion. There must be true evidence of repentance and change in a person’s life, rather than it being an intellectual ideal or choice.
A person’s actions, attitude, and example is what a person can most easily observe, so it is highly important that a true conversion has taken place, so that others can be led to Christ by their example. To the postmodern mind, the gospel can come across as a paradox. The idea of sin and redemption can be seen as contradictory. But, as it is seen well throughout the gospel, salvation from sin comes through Christ to all willing to accept it, no matter the sins of their past. All sins were forgiven and atoned for with Christ’s death on the cross.
While this may be difficult for the postmodern thinker to accept, it does not make it any less of the truth. When dealing with the spiritual aspect of postmodern evangelism, this must be addressed and reconciled in the mind of the postmoderns for a true, sincere conversion. Today’s ministry and campus groups have to take into consideration the postmodern mindset. For ministry and evangelism to be fully effective, churches, ministries, and campus groups must work together to reach out to the postmoderns.
When ministering to this postmodern context, there are four characteristics to consider: subjective experience versus objective reasoning, the preeminence of the community rather than the individual, the transcendent rather than the objective, and culture being needy and hungry. When it comes to experience versus reasoning, experience will always win out. If a person can experience (feel, touch, see, smell, hear, etc. ), they are much more likely to be impacted by it than just having a conversation with intellectual reasoning behind it.
It is the same with community over the individual. With a focus on community, it is about the experiences of the entire community, rather than a focus on one person’s experiences. Diversity and reconciliation are two key issues that must be addressed, and there is no better avenue to address them than in a community setting. The emphasis on the transcendent rather than the objective is also very important, as this has become a very “…‘spiritual’ culture, and many desire an experience of something that is beyond them” (Gauthier, 2000, p. 08). At the same time, there is no transcendent whole overarching experiences or thoughts of the postmoderns. With pluralism and relativism dominating the culture, people are left trying to make sense of pieces of their own personal experiences. Without a cultural metanarrative, there is a difficult time trying to reconcile past and present, and present and future. This results in fragmented people, which make their lives numb and meaningless. The culture is also very hungry and needy, and looking for answers.
The world is very complex, and there are deep needs that fragmented and relativistic worldviews cannot meet. The promise of past generations that the world will be a better place to live for current generations has left these people skeptical and disillusioned, as they feel the world is not a better place to live. With those characteristics in mind, that is why it is crucial for all ministry groups and churches to work together, instead of separately, so that the ministry will be fully effective and result in sincere conversions of this postmodern generation.
With shared resources and numbers, there is obviously a higher chance of greater impact in the world today than there would be if these ministries and churches worked alone. The presence, influence, and visibility of ethnic minorities has created today’s backdrop of postmodernism in society. The clashing of worldviews, values, and interpretations of history has caused society to reevaluate their assumptions. How Christians respond to these minorities affects the effectiveness of their evangelism.
Each ethnic group has their own unique identity that must be addressed, as well as an understanding of their metanarrative (if one exists) with the metanarrative of Christians. With all of these cultural ideas in society, religious relativism and pluralism has become prevalent. All of these cultural differences and issues must be addressed and reconciled with the truth that we are all created by and are children of God. While the cultural barriers may be difficult to overcome, it does not mean they can be ignored when sharing the gospel with different cultures in this postmodern society.
The relational aspect of evangelism is crucial when it comes to the postmodern mind. Even though postmoderns and Christians might believe different ideologies, it is still essential and possible to build relationships. The context of relationship allows the gospel to be shared openly and effectively, building off the trust in the established relationship. When considering the relational aspect of evangelism to postmoderns, there are three dynamics to consider: creating an environment for spiritual progress, engaging in persuasive interaction, and persuading people from the base of an authentic walk with Christ. Creating an environment for spiritual progress has to do with connecting with unbelievers in a relational environment that allows them to move from a position of little understanding of God and the Bible to an attitude of openness and interest” (Hecht, 2000, p. 246-7). It is important to keep in mind that evangelism must be done gradually, so that the gospel does overwhelm the hearer. By starting with one, easy to understand idea, a foundation is established that can be built upon in continuing conversation.
Persuasive interaction deals with using words in a constructive, tactful way. It allows the truth to be spoken gently, without overwhelming or offending the hearer. By using persuasive interaction, it allows the point to be gotten across, as well as assessing where the hearer is in their understanding of the topic being addressed in the evangelistic efforts. Persuasive evangelism must also come from people with an authentic walk with Christ. By sharing the gospel by example, and not only words, the message becomes more effective.
Engaging postmoderns from a sincere, Christ-like example, gives them an opportunity to see the gospel in action. Effective means of evangelism in a relational setting includes small groups and shared experiences. In small groups, evangelistic topics can be discussed in a relaxed setting, allowing questions to be addressed, without the stress of being in a large group. The small size of the group allows everyone to open up and be honest about his or her beliefs, and makes the evangelistic efforts more intimate and effective.
A shared experience, such as dinners and other social activities, allows the opportunity to share in normal social settings where evangelism might not normally take place. Once again, in this setting, the evangelistic efforts are more relaxed, allowing for more meaningful conversation and openness, because of the established relationships. In evangelizing to the postmodern mind, the mission outpost approach can be particularly effective. Mission outpost is “…simply a group of people who have banded together for the purpose of taking the gospel to the lost” (Bartel, 2000, p. 46). By taking this approach, it allows the group to think like missionaries, which allows them to understand the gap between the Christian and postmodern world, connecting with people in relevant and sensitive ways, taking initiative to love people, and reaching out to unbelieving friends and neighbors. By working together in these mission outpost groups, it promotes teamwork, which is encouraging in evangelistic efforts. With everyone supporting each other, it is much easier to take on the difficult task of evangelism head-on.
While teamwork focuses on the task at hand, the aspect of community is also addressed, which focuses on the nature of relationships. As previously stated, relationship is an essential aspect of evangelism. Community promotes understanding and support, and allows the example of Christ to be lived and shared with others. Another core aspect that should never be neglected in evangelism is prayer. The power of prayer can do many things, and no evangelistic effort should be undertaken without a serious amount of prayer.
Effective evangelism in today’s society must address the intellectual, spiritual, and relational aspects of postmodern thinking. While there is no cut and dry “cookie-cutter” model to evangelism, the important idea that must be kept in mind is the bridging of the Christian and postmodern context of beliefs. There are many practical ideas and strategies when it comes to evangelizing to postmoderns. Above all things, it is relationships that allow effective evangelism to take place, and allows for true conversion. While communicating the truth of the gospel to the postmodern mind can be a difficult task, it is not impossible.