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.