Postmoderns need Jesus too
Sam Chan wants you to think again about communicating with the 21st Century
Although as Christians we affirm the existence of absolute objective truth, in our postmodern age we must also acknowledge the role of community perspectives and tradition in shaping our perception of truth. In light of this, I want to make several suggestions for how we can engage in fruitful evangelism in a 21st-century, postmodern world.
The buzzword for postmoderns is authenticity. Unlike moderns, the first question is not, “Is it true?” but, “Is it real in our lives?” Are we living consistently – or better, coherently – with our beliefs? Do we walk the walk as well as we talk the talk? This should lead us to think about how we evangelise to our postmodern friends in a way that communicates authenticity. While the gospel is something we speak, words that communicate God’s truth, there is also a sense in which we ourselves are a component of how the message is communicated. We speak the words of truth, but we speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15).
Hospitality is another means of evangelism and if we carefully read the New Testament letters we find that hospitality is quite prominent. Hospitality demonstrates that the gospel is real, authentic, believable, attractive and livable.
Hospitality provides the space in which gospel conversations can happen in a friendly and safe environment. Most people are uncomfortable sharing private matters of values and worldviews – things like politics and religion – in public places. But in the private spaces of our homes, around food, our friends are more likely to talk about matters related to religion, especially if we show them it is safe to do so.
Practising hospitality follows the model of Jesus, who ate with sinners and tax collectors. When we practise hospitality, it demonstrates that there is a distinction between loving someone and agreeing with them. For example, Jesus can eat with sinners, but that doesn’t mean he agrees with what they’re doing. It’s the same with Christians. We can welcome people into our homes without saying that we approve of their lifestyle.
Hospitality is also a powerful apologetic tool. Often we have to defend questions such as, “Why are Christians so hypocritical?” or, “Why are Christians homophobic?” We can give good explanations for why Christians are (or are not) hypocritical. And we can try to give good examples for why Christians are not homophobic. But more often than not, our friends aren’t listening to our answers because their minds are already made up. But if we have them over to our homes to enjoy a meal with us, then it is hard for them to accuse Christians of being hypocritical.
Our testimony is another powerful proclamation of the reality of the gospel. Again, a postmodern person is less likely to be persuaded by our clever arguments – “Is it true?” – but they might be persuaded by our life story – “Is it real?”
A postmodern person is likely to accept our testimony as a valid source of knowledge. Our testimony demonstrates that the gospel works. And while our non-Christian friend can argue against a truth claim, there is no argument against our personal story.
In general, we should use more stories in our evangelism. Stories work well because they invite the hearer to see the world through our eyes.
When I make a truth claim, the hearer is being asked to believe it or reject it. But when I tell a story, the hearer has to suspend their disbelief and enter my world of presuppositions, construals and perspectives.
Engaging the creative arts
If the age of modernity was the age of the scientist, then the age of postmodernity is the age of the artist. In postmodernity, we should concentrate on the imagination and aesthetics, giving attention to beauty, stories, emotions and feelings.
When we present the gospel, it’s no longer a case of presenting propositional data about Jesus. The story needs to be embodied in our own story. And tradition, aesthetics, form and beauty are also very much part of that story.
In the past, the church has often encouraged people with intellectual gifts – those who are doctors, engineers and lawyers – to participate in preaching, teaching and evangelism ministries. The underlying assumption is that we need intellectual people in ministry. But we also need creative people who are skilled with storytelling, imagination and aesthetics. Rather than automatically encouraging our gifted people to go to seminaries, maybe we need first to send them to an arts school.
Explore different metaphors
When we share the gospel with moderns, we tend to privilege the metaphors of guilt and transgression for sin, and forgiveness and justification for salvation. But when we tell the gospel to postmoderns, we should explore the variety of other biblical metaphors for sin and salvation.
Better metaphors for sin to a postmodern person might be self-righteousness, shame and the idea of being owned by whatever we’re living for. For example, many of my postmodern friends have a high concern for social justice, but in doing so they can become quite self-righteous about their acts of good works and judgmental against those who don’t share their concerns. Many of my postmodern friends are stressed with staging the perfect wedding or raising the perfect children to the point where these are idols in their lives that promise status, success and social standing; these are things that own them. Or now that postmoderns are less individualistic and looking for belonging in tribal groups, they are rediscovering the idea of shame. Thus when I explain to them that we have shamed the God who loves us, I find that many postmoderns readily accept this explanation of sin.
Better metaphors for salvation might include restoration, peace, freedom and adoption. We can see how these metaphors apply readily to a postmodern person who is concerned about social justice – the brokenness of this world – and longs for restoration. Or the postmodern person who looks for social harmony might also be crying out for peace. Or the postmodern person who senses that they have been owned by whatever they are living for will now be longing for freedom. Or the postmodern person who is looking for belonging might also be looking for adoption.
Use wisdom as an entry point
If the book of Proverbs is right, then Christians should have a way of life that works. The Bible isn’t just true: it also works. By being faithful spouses who don’t cheat, Christians have happy family lives. By being peacemakers, they resolve conflicts. By being loyal, they have rich networks of friends. They are happier, more fulfilled, more trusted and more respected.
If this analysis is correct, then wisdom can be an entry point into the gospel. For example, I run seminars for non-Christians who work in large corporations. They invite me to talk about general themes like leadership, success and ethics, and I try to show that these generally work better if we use a Christian worldview. The aim of the talks is for the non-Christian to come away saying, “Wow, I can see how the Christian way is a better way.” My hope is that they will be more open to the claims of Christianity and consider whether they might be true.
Changing our pedagogy
With moderns, we used to employ this logic:
Truth, Belief, Praxis
• This is true.
• If it’s true, then you must believe it.
• If you believe it, now you must live it.
But with postmoderns, I believe a better pedagogical sequence is:
Praxis, Belief, Truth
• The Christian life is livable.
• If it’s livable then it’s also believable.
• If it’s believable, then it’s also true.
Therefore, evangelism to postmoderns requires a lifestyle change. We need our Christian friends to become friends with our non-Christian friends. We need to be part of the same community. And then our non-Christian friends can see how the Christian life works. Then they will discover it is livable. And if they see that, they will see that it’s believable. And if they see that, they might also acknowledge that it’s true.
But this will happen only if we live with our non-Christian friends. Not just visit them. Not just go out with them. But live among them so that they are part of our closest network of friends, and we are part of their closest network of friends.
Adapted from Evangelism in a Skeptical World by Sam Chan. Copyright © 2018 by Sam Chan. Used by permission of Zondervan.