Thursday, December 6, 2007

Evangelism in Post-Modern America

Note: The term "Post-modern" is overused, but I can't think of a better one to describe our contemporary era. So, I will continue to use it.

A friend of mine was a missionary in Paris in the late ‘80s and early ‘90’s. He found evangelism there to be very difficult. If you asked the typical Frenchman, "Where would you go if you were to die tonight?" He would look at you and say, "Who cares?" These people have given up on finding answers to life's most important questions. In the 90’s, I read a study by The Navigators of European youth that found that today’s teenagers regard questions like "did Jesus live?" or "Was he the Son of God?" as irrelevant and unimportant.

America today is no different. We live in an age of "make your own religion". In our day, all religious beliefs are seen as equally valid. There is no standard for separating truth from falsehood because the notion of truth and falsehood no longer apply to religious beliefs.

We now live in a post-Christian culture. It used to be that the vast majority of Americans believe that the Bible is literally true. Today, only 32% believe that it is true. That affects how we proclaim the gospel to this post-modern world.

Chuck Colson tells this story from World War II. After Hitler blitzkrieg-ed his way across France, demanding the unconditional surrender of the Allied forces in the European theater, thousands of British and French troops dug in along the coast of northern France in a last-ditch effort to hold off the German forces. Trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, they knew they would soon be obliterated by the Nazis.

During that agonizing period, the British soldiers broadcast a terse message across the English Channel. Just three words: "And if not."

"And if not"? Was it code? No. It was a reference to the Old Testament episode when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood before King Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace. "Our God is able to save us, and He will save us," the young men had said, "and if not, we will remain faithful to Him anyway."

As astonishing as it seems today, the oblique message was immediately understood by the British people. In the days that followed, a ragtag flotilla of fishing boats, pleasure cruisers, yachts, and rowboats set out from the shores of England, managing to rescue 338,000 Allied troops. If the same message were sent in America today, it would be greeted with raised eyebrows and blank stares—even from many Christians. The tie that binds us is no longer common religious belief or heritage.

Practically, what this means that most of the evangelism methods that we use today have a very limited effectiveness because they do not communicate with the modern mind. The people of the world no longer share basic presuppositions with us that are necessary for our gospel presentations to be intelligible. We can no longer simply proclaim that "Jesus is the answer" because most people don't even know what the question is.

Our "modern" tools for evangelism are designed for people who are already ripe for the gospel. They are used for reaping for those already prepared to hear the gospel. Unfortunately, the percentage of people who are already prepared is decreasing. That means churches and parachurch organizations are constantly scrambling to reach a small harvest among the prepared while the majority of unprepared are neglected in our evangelistic outreach.

According to a leader in Billy Graham's ministry, in the early years of Billy Graham's ministry most of those responding to the gospel came from liberal churches where they were not hearing the gospel. By the 1990’s, more than 90% come from what he calls "our evangelical churches." When asked why the change, he said, "the tree has been shaken."

So, what do we do? How do we communicate the gospel to a generation with whom we have nothing in common? We need a three-pronged strategy. I will develop these thoughts later (Lord willing), but let me introduce it here.

1. Prayer

This is obvious, but it needs stating. One man said, “"...Men may spurn our appeals, reject our message, oppose our arguments, despise our persons -- but they are helpless against our prayers." We must remember this. Nothing happens without prayer.

2. Challenge the Prevailing World View

I am a big proponent of presuppositional apologetics. In this form of “defending the faith”, the Christian does two things. First, we expose the weaknesses of our culture’s world view. That is, we need to help our non-Christian friends see that their worldview doesn’t hold water. The predominant worldview cannot answer questions of purpose or meaning. They can’t even explain such basic concepts as love or beauty. While they say that evil is a problem for Christians, it is an even bigger problem for those who are non-theist. Christians often are defensive about their faith. I think we should be more lovingly aggressive in asking our non-believing friends to defend their faith. Frankly, this is an easier task than most Christians realize.

We must work from our world-view to show them the deficiency of their world-view. We must, from the point of a biblical philosophy of life show them the inadequacy of their own philosophy of life. Whether the natural man realizes it or not, the Bible tells us certain things are true about him. He is guilty of sin and his own conscience convicts him. A woman may delude herself into thinking that her feelings of guilt are only false echoes of a Victorian ethic, but she cannot extinguish them. The feeling of guilt is there, and, even though it might be buried, it never goes away. Because all humans are created in the image of God, there is worth, value, and significance to human life. However, nothing in their world-view can support this notion.

The second task in presuppositional apologetics is showing the foundation for the Christian worldview. We explain to them why we believe in Jesus. Here, we can show that our own faith is internal consistent, which is more than they can claim about their non-theistic faith.

For more information on this, there are a number of excellent sources. The easiest to read is Richard Pratt’s Every Thought Captive (the video series of this has much better content, but the production values are lacking). John Frame has a great book, but it is more challenging to read for most people. Bill Edgar’s books are terrific and examples of this (Reasons of the Heart, The Face of Truth). They are very readable. Del Tackett’s “The Truth Project” (produced by Focus on the Family), does a great job of presenting a Christian worldview and deconstructing a secularist worldview. It can be very helpful in informing Christians with the truth they need to talk with others. This is especially true if they learn Del's respectful tone.

3. Deeds of Justice and Compassion

Besides being biblical (as if that were not enough of a reason), the church should be engaged in deeds of justice and compassion because it gives credibility to our message. Compassion ministry for the poor is part of the way we announce the coming of Christ’s kingdom. Tim Keller says that mercy ministry is the apologetic of the post-modern era. I agree. Unless the church engages in ministries of mercy, we will not have credibility in our message with many of our contemporaries, especially younger people. The Evangelical church foolishly (and sinfully) has seperated the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom in words from the proclamation in deeds. The two must be brought back together.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Church as a Mission

The church is both a home and a mission.[1] It is a home to its people and a mission to its community. As a home, the church provides care for its people, nurtures them, and equips them to live out the Great Commandment and Great Commission in their daily lives. As a mission, the church is an embassy of the Kingdom of God, announcing the arrival of King Jesus, calling people to allegiance to Him, seeking to bring everything under His reign, and seeking to bring the blessings of His kingdom to a world in need.

In this role of the church as a mission, we are facing unprecedented challenges and opportunities in our day. If the church is going to overcome these challenges and seize the opportunities before it, then some of our models of ministry must change.

Much has been written over the past thirty years on the spiritual and social changes in American culture. While most Christian leaders are very familiar with these changes, I am not convinced we have taken them seriously enough. The church continues to minister as if it were the 1950’s, except in some cases we have replaced the organ with guitars and hymnals with PowerPoint. While there is nothing wrong with these changes, these changes are, for the most part, cosmetic and do not address the real challenges ahead.

In his book, Living Proof, Jim Peterson outlines the problem well. While churches and Christian ministries may say that they are trying to reach the whole population, they really are simply competing for an ever shrinking piece of the pie. Most churches are only capable of reaching people who have a particular background. Truly secular people have worldviews and assumptions that are so radically different from Christians that the average church member (and leader) is no more equipped to reach out to them than they are to the tribal people of New Guinea. They no longer speak the same language. The gap is widening.

In the 1950’s, most non-Christians in America at least had a Christian heritage. They were not truly secular. For the most part, they accepted the authority of the Bible, they believed in God. They believed in the concept of sin. Furthermore, the cultural gap between those inside the church and outside the church was not that great. Most Americans shared certain core values that were essentially Judeo-Christian.

That is not the case today. America has become increasingly secular. The church and most evangelism techniques still work well with the segment of the population that conforms to the old values. However, neither the church nor most evangelism programs have any idea of how to reach those who are further away. Yet, the church continues to minister as if we live in the world of Ozzie and Harriett. Ozzie and Harriett are still out there, but their numbers are shrinking greatly. We are ministering as if we are in a Christian society instead of ministering as if we are in a secular society. The result is, we are relevant to ever decreasing percentage of the population and are quickly moving (if we are not already there) to being a ghetto of mainstream society.

In The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter notes that “The Church, in the Western World, faces populations who are increasingly “secular”—people with no Christian memory, who don’t know what we Christians are talking about. These populations are increasingly “urban”—and out touch with God’s “natural revelation.” These populations are increasingly “postmodern”: they have graduated from Enlightenment ideology and are more peer driven, feeling driven, and “right-brained” than their forebearers. These populations are increasingly “neo-barbarian”; they lack “refinement” or “class,” and their lives are often out of control. These populations are increasingly receptive—exploring worldview options from Astrology to Zen—and are often looking “in all the wrong places” to make sense of their lives and find their soul’s true home. ”

Hunter goes on to tell the story of St. Patrick. Patrick was born in Britain in the year 387. When he was 16 years old, he was kidnapped by the wild people of Ireland and forced to live as a slave. However, six years later, he escaped and returned to Britain. Upon his return, he entered the priesthood. However, after a few years, he petitioned the church to be sent back to Ireland as a missionary. However, the church was reluctant to do so because the church at that time did not believe the Irish could ever become Christians. Why? Because the Irish were barbarians. The assumption was that a population had to be civilized in order to be Christianized. Secondly, if they ever were Christianized, they were expected to adopt the “Roman way” of doing things”. Since the Irish clearly were not civilized, they could not be Christianized.

That mentality (either intentionally or unintentionally) is pervasive in the church. For example, if you see one kid wearing all black, who has black eyeliner all around the eyes, and a series of tattoos, and you see another kid in khakis and wearing a polo type shirt, which one is most likely to become a Christian? Who is most likely to become a Christian, the president of the PTA or the president of Hell’s Angels?

In the way we talk, the way we do ministry, our churches are designed to minister to “civilized” people. If a person is conservative, moral, and preferably Republican, our church is a warm environment. However, one who does not fit our standards of civilization is often excluded based on his behavior and cultural values before we even have the opportunity to talk about Jesus.
We think you have to behave then believe, and once you do those two things, you belong. However, Jesus reverses all of this. By eating with sinners, Jesus does not condone sinful lifestyles but attests that these persons and their lifestyles can be transformed.

The problem is, as Christians, we see the moral failure of our culture and we want to address this. So, we take a strong stand for moral behavior. We accept those who behave properly and reject those who do not because we do not ever want to send the message that we condone immorality. However, in doing this, we reverse the biblical order.

The gap between the Church and the culture, though, extends far beyond behavior. Our worldviews are so different that we do not know how to talk to one another. Living in our own communities has become so cross-cultural that there is a natural tendency for Christians to gather together with people who think like we do. The problem is, we are gathering together, maintaining our culture, but becoming a ghetto of the dominant culture. We are quickly becoming the Amish, only we are more fashionably dressed.

A while back, I attended a wedding in a Greek Orthodox Church. It was beautiful. I had never been to anything like it. However, it was also completely foreign to me. I did not understand the rituals. It seemed to me to be extremely culturally bound. It was as if when I got out of my car and entered the church, I was transported to a different country. I was a foreigner there. That experience caused me to wonder if that is how secular people feel when they attend our church.

The answer is not to compromise. That is what the liberal church has done. We are not called to blend into the culture, but to transform it with the gospel. The answer then, is neither to compromise or retreat to our ghetto, but to be missionaries. We are to live and act as resident aliens in our culture. Instead of trying to maintain our culture and protect it, our calling is to engage the culture, incarnate the gospel in the culture, in order to transform the culture.

Even in seeking to be missionaries to our culture, we must be careful that we do not merely focus on doing that which is attractive to the culture rather than that which is transformational. For those of us who value cultural relevance, we have been driven by a desire to reach lost people. As a result, we have worked hard to grab their attention and speak with relevance. Much of the results of this have been good. We have seen many people come to church and eventually to Christ that never would have gone to church before. The truth of the Bible has not been veiled behind unintelligible liturgies. Lives truly have been changed by the gospel.

However, churches have not just grown by attracting non-Christians, but by attracting Christians. People now crave relevance more and more. In reality, they want a church that entertains them and puts on a good show. We have created a church that values entertainment over doctrine. I heard a pastor of one of the largest churches in my denomination say, "If we changed our theology, a few people might leave. If we changed our music, half the church would be gone by next Sunday".

I agree that church should not be boring. God isn’t boring. It is the equivalent of a modern miracle how we preachers can talk about our amazing God in such a way that puts people to sleep. However, the danger is, when you build your church on having a good “show”, you now have created an appetite for entertainment that constantly needs to be fed.

While the contemporary church has been far more successful in reaching lost people than the traditional church (look at the PCA’s statistics on those joining by profession of faith and this is obvious), it also has grown by attracting people who are bored with their old church. If people come to you because you are more exciting than their old church, then they will leave when they find another church that is more exciting than yours.

This has created a consumer mindset in church members. The members of the church no longer see themselves as owners/ministers, but as consumers. Just as they will leave their old grocery store to shop at Wal Mart, they will leave one church for another if it provides a better show or better services for their family.

We are seeing this all over the country. I can cite a number of examples in my own denomination where a church was once the hot church in its community, but now is experiencing decline because some other church has come that puts on a better production. The drive for cultural relevance has resulted in consumerism. Consumerism will eventually bite the church. It is a beast that cannot be contained.

So, the church must recognize that it is ministering in a secular society. It also must approach ministry with a missionary mindset—seeking to reach the people of its culture in a way that makes sense to them. At the same time, the church must guard against compromise and consumerism. Instead, it must function as a missionary society that loves the people of its community and desires to see them transformed by God’s grace.

[1] I “borrowed” this simple model from Randy Pope at Perimeter Church. I like its simplicity.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Better than Panera

For years, Panera has been my second office. The combination of comfortable seats, light classical music, free wi-fi, cinnamon crunch bagels, and an endless supply of coffee have kept me coming back for years. Today, I found something better--the East Library on Union. The library sits on top of a hill (6600 feet). The west side of the library is a curved wall of windows, giving you a panoramic view of Pikes Peak and the Front Range. It is spectacular. It even has a coffee bar and free wireless. While they don't give free refills and there are no cinnamon crunch bagels, the view makes up for it. If I can get a decent picture, I will post it here.

Another Colorado experience -- A few weeks ago, I went hiking in Waldo Canyon with some friends. It was seven miles of beautiful scenery and great conversation. I thought I was doing pretty good to make the hike when this girl went running past. She was running the trail I was hiking. What is worse, when we neared the end of the hike, she was running back for lap two. Embarrassing.

Last week, I had several great Colorado experiences. A couple of days, Tricia and I got up early and went on hikes in Palmer Park before the girls went to school. Then, some guys in the church took me fly fishing. I had never done it before. I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical. The idea of standing in ice cold glacier water while the air temperature is cold enough to kill an Orange grove, and throwing some bug on a string into the water didn't sound all that great. So, I took a vacation day on Wednesday and we headed up to "The Dream Stream", just above the 11 Mile Resevoir. Despite my initial hesitation, I soon discovered it was a blast. I didn't catch anything, but standing there in a stream on a sunny day, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains was a real treat. The fellowship was great as well. As far as being cold goes, even though it was in the high teens when we started, I never got cold. As a friend on the Search Committee told me before we moved, "There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing." That really is true. If you are properly dressed and the sun is shining, it is a beautiful day.

Then, on Friday, my regular day off, Tricia was busy all day. So, I drove up to Copper Mountain just to check things out for our family trip in December. I spent the morning skiing. Even though they haven't had much snow and only had a couple of Blue runs open, it was wonderful. The drive up there was worth the trip.

Friday, October 12, 2007

What I Learned Today

Now that I am a Coloradoan, I decided I better start living like one. So, I have done a little hiking, I am getting ready for ski season, and today, I decided to go mountain biking in Palmer Park. The park is great because they mark trails well. They even tell you if they are green (beginner), blue (intermediate), or black (advanced), just like ski runs. I have been mountain biking before, but I am not sure the trails out at Chuluota, Florida really qualify. It is kind of hard to go mountain biking if there are no mountains. So, I decided to do a green trail. Next time, I will be looking for the bunny slope. It was an educational experience. Here is what I learned:

1. The fool says in his heart that there is no God and that bike helmets are for dorks.

2. Middle age + out of shape + high altitude = lots of heavy breathing.

3. If you are from Florida but now live in Colorado, there is no such thing as a small hill.

4. A corollary to the above: just because it doesn't look like a hill doesn't mean it is not a hill.

5. Little boulders can be big problems.

6. Going downhill is more fun than going uphill.

7. If you are going fast down a hill and you are on a dirt trail, just because you have good tires, that does not mean you can turn.

8. My back hurts.

By the way, the Colorado Springs Gazette now has a great website with a guide and map for all sorts of hiking and biking trails in the region. I put it in my links to the left. The site is Colorado Springs Outdoors. Check it out.

Friday, September 14, 2007

We Aren't In Florida Anymore

I will get to serious issues at some point, but for now, it is all about life in Colorado. I woke up this morning and it was in the high 40's. So, Tricia and I decided to go for a walk in Palmer Park. I was wearing shorts, sandals, and a sweatshirt. I was comfortable. Really. However, when we came back down from the park, I stood outside talking to our real estate agent (who is also our friend) and engineer in our yard about our drainage problem (long story). After standing there for a while, I started to get a little chilled. I don't think I have ever been cold in September (except for the AC at the UPC office). Yep, we aren't in Florida anymore!

All of these pictures are from Palmer Park (yep, our backyard). Our house in the neighborhood in the background of the picture.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


Welcome to my new blog. I recently moved from Orlando, Florida where I was the pastor of University Presbyterian Church to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where I am now pastor of Village Seven Presbyterian Church. It is a dramatic change, to say the least. While the two churches are part of the same denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, they are different in size, style, and age. Yet, they share the same rich theology and heritage, as well as a passion to see God's grace proclaimed to their cities and the world.

I titled my blog "A View from 6000 Feet" because a) I am bad at thinking of titles, and b)my home in Orlando sits at a stunning 75 feet above sea level. Our new home is at 6316 feet, which is nearly has high as Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi. The picture at the top of my blog was taken from Palmer Park, which is at the end of our cul-de-sac (then up about 200 feet). It shows downtown Colorado Springs with Pikes Peak (14,110 feet) in the background.

Living at high altitude offers a different perspective. On the one hand, you can see a long way. You are up above it all and can see things that those down at low altitude cannot. On the other hand, the air is thinner. So, some of my comments may reflect oxygen deprivation.

Colorado Springs is a beautiful place to live. Every morning, I see the sun shining on Pikes Peak and am held captive by its beauty. I have only been here for three weeks, but I can't imagine ever getting tired of it. We can walk out our door and go for a hike in Palmer Park (pictured above). In 10 minutes, we can be in the Garden of the Gods. In less than 20 minutes, we can be up in Cheyenne CaƱon. When the snow falls, the ski slopes are only 2 hours away. It is an amazing place.