It’s been a little bit since I picked up the “pen” (keyboard) on the postmodernism series, and it seems a good time to write a few thoughts on one other aspect of faith and the increasingly postmodern culture. With postmodernism’s distinct angle on truth, the whole subject of sharing our faith may need to be revisited and rethought through. How does evangelism work in a postmodern context? What does it look like to share the good news in a post-modern context? As with many aspects of our faith, if we don’t think through how to approach this effectively, we may wind up speaking a very different language than the culture, and that gap will reduce our effectiveness.
The Modern Approach to Evangelism
The modern era emphasized truth and in a large part saw the “good life” as achievable by discerning and aligning our lives with the truth. The thinking is that if we can discover how life really works and line ourselves up with that, we can expect life to work well for us. In a context where that is the baseline assumption, the task of evangelism is tantamount to convincing someone that the Christian story is the real truth about the universe. In a modern world, once someone concludes that Christianity is the truth, the natural course of action is to begin to follow Jesus and align ourselves with his Lordship.
If the task of evangelism is the task of revealing the truth, apologetics then naturally becomes the discipline we look to for credibility. If Christianity is the truth, then we need to be able to demonstrate that what we believe is logical, sensible, and the worldview that matches the world we live in. Christianity is framed up as the ultimate truth, and apologetics helps us defend that assertion when need be.
With our apologetics in our back pocket, we do evangelism itself largely through the process of information transfer. Put another way, evangelism is about communicating the truth and inviting others to realize that the Christian story is indeed the truth and to align their lives accordingly. This approach has been put into dozens of frameworks like the 4 Spiritual Laws or the Romans Road that help facilitate clear communication and invite someone to respond to Jesus.
This whole framework has been self-consistent and as a result to a large part effective for a long time. The late evangelist Billy Graham comes to mind, who may have been one of the pinnacles of this modern era approach to evangelism, leading 3.2 million to the Lord, according to his staff team. Inspiring!
…and then Postmodernism makes it more Complicated…
Anyone who has been involved with evangelism in the last decades has been aware that it feels like the territory is shifting. People aren’t responding to the gospel as a presentation of truth like they used to. Those who do process the Christian story as truth respond differently; incorporating it as one of many elements of truth in their life, rather than the central truth that orients everything else around it. Evangelism feels like it is getting more complex and challenging.
How are we to process these shifts? Surely it cannot be that God has met his match! Surely it cannot be that the gospel has failed! What then ought we to think?
We know that postmodernism doesn’t approach truth the same way that modernism does. Like it or not, this is how it works, and it’s not something we have the ability to change. If the starting point for any evangelistic connection is going to be relative truth, we probably won’t get very far until we factor that into our approach. Perhaps that means something radical; perhaps that means that truth may not be the most helpful starting point for evangelism anymore.
Now please don’t hear what I’m not saying; I’m not suggesting that Christianity isn’t the truth. I’m saying that may not be the best road in for someone who is starting in a postmodern context. Engaging with a conversation about truth is trying to meet the person at one of the points of the least interest. The goal in our context is no longer to find the most accurate truth and align ourselves with that; the goal is for each person to discover their own truth and live that truth out. Like it or not, that is where society is at.
The People of Faith in Times of Exile
As we examine the Scriptures, we see there are distinct contexts that faith gets worked out in. Specifically, we see that sometimes the people of God live in an environment that is formed to fit the things of faith. Jerusalem in the times of David and Solomon (at least most of Solomon – and the occasional good king that came along afterward) was an environment fit to faith; to be a part of the people of God was culturally valued and validated.
There are also contexts of exile; times when the people of God have to grapple with a foreign context in which their faith is not going to be validated or valued. Joseph’s and Daniel’s fruitfulness in foreign lands or Paul’s missions work in the pagan context of the Roman Empire are all times where to be faithful to the Lord involves “going against the grain” of the culture.
For whatever reason, the Lord has seen it fit to place us in a context where the West has recently moved from the former to the latter. For some of us, it has happened where we live over the course of our life. However the details, by and large, this transition has already happened; we’re now in exile, and that means working out how faith works in this context. My friend Scott Chapman puts it this way: “We’re no longer a subculture, we’re a counterculture.” That’s a powerful way to frame it: we have to learn what it means to be a Christian where that means being countercultural.
So back to evangelism: how does that work in times of exile and times of relative truth? I would suggest that it involves taking a different tact: rather than leading with the truth, we lead with the way. What I am getting at here is Jesus’ famous words:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6
In this verse, Jesus claims to be the way (the path to walk) and the truth (what is true). In times of exile, what I see the heroes of the faith doing is working to be faithful to their way, not working to defend their truth. Daniel doesn’t witness to kings because he shares a powerful message; he does it because he remains faithful to his dietary and prayer rhythms, even when it involves risking his life in the process. As he does, God backs him up, and that is what creates the witness to the people around him. Paul seems to employ the same tactic:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. Philippians 1:12-13
Walking God’s Way
I realize this may sound foreign; suggesting that perhaps the best way to evangelize doesn’t start with telling the gospel story. I’m not saying we never get there: I’m saying we may not be able to start there. We may have to start further back than that: living true to God’s ways, and taking the commensurate risks that come with that in a culture defined by exile. If we walk God’s way, we walk it with God himself, and he is well able to demonstrate himself as real through us.
This approach acknowledges the plural perspective that postmodernism takes as its starting point: look, I’m going to live my truth, you live yours, and I’ll let you have a front-row seat as to how mine works out! Rather than having credibility because we can prove our truth is “truer” than someone else’s (a conversation a postmodern isn’t interested the least bit in having and pushes them away from the faith), we have credibility because the truth is better in our lives than someone else’s truth is in theirs. When others recognize that gap, that’s when the conversation about the Christian message can begin.
The challenging thing about this approach is that you actually need God active in your journey and you need to be willing to create the risky space for God to show up! You need to be willing to tell your boss, “Look, I can’t lie to that client because I find that when I lie, God isn’t as involved in my story. I believe that if I’m faithful to God he will reward that: what if we gave him a chance to show up here?” Is that risky? You bet. That’s what it looks like to shine as a light in the darkness; what it looks like to not hide our light under a basket. We don’t need to be religious, or try and push anything down anyone’s throats, but we do need to be faithful and open with our faithfulness.
A number of years ago we had some neighbors who had some extremely tragic circumstances befall them. They had a governmental agency show up and raid their house, looking for evidence of a crime that they hadn’t committed (although we didn’t know that at the time). Our neighbors were an immigrant family, and as I tried to put myself in their experience, I could not imagine the horror of government tactical officers entering your house, holding your family up at gunpoint, cuffing everyone and bringing you and all your stuff away, without having any understanding of what they were accusing you of (on the whole, their English was less than great). Were they guilty of something? I had no idea – I didn’t even know what they were potentially being charged with – I just knew that I can’t imagine the terror of that experience. My wife and I were traumatized just watching it happen from across the street.
During the raid, they hauled off the whole family: grandparents, parents, kids. One by one they were escorted back to their empty house, dealing with layers of emotional shock I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t know my neighbors well, but I knew they weren’t terrible people, and I couldn’t believe what they had to be going through. As my wife and I talked about it, our consciences felt so jumbled up. What had happened? What would Jesus do here? We decided that we couldn’t do anything – we couldn’t imagine Jesus doing that. We decided to go and pick up dinner and bring it to them and tell them that we didn’t know what had happened, but that if they needed help as they sorted all this out we wanted to be there for them.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment of ringing their doorbell and the wife opening the door, wracked with fear in her eyes. I briefly explained that we didn’t know what happened but that we were for them and wanted to help them as we could, and then gave them the dinner we purchased for their family. We talked briefly and I offered for her to use my phone to try and contact her husband (who wasn’t home at the raid and her phone had been confiscated). She wasn’t able to get through and we made some plans for her to try and continue to reach out to him. We told them we were praying for them and left them to their supper. My heart was racing as we walked home. Did I just somehow become an accessory to a crime by letting her use my phone? Will the rest of my neighbors ever talk with me again? What does all of this mean? I didn’t have any answers, but I knew we had just been faithful. I gave food to one who was the hungry and the “least of these” (Matthew 25:35).
Two days later, guess who was knocking on my door, asking if I go to church and if they could join me? I didn’t say anything about the gospel; I just demonstrated risky faithfulness to God’s way of love, and my neighbor, along with her parents, invited herself to my church. A few months later I got to baptize the lot of them.
The advantage of being a counterculture is that we’ll have plenty of chances to step into that kind of risky faithfulness. We don’t have to go out of our way; just living life will set us apart, and every time it does there will be a gaping hole that God can step into and fill up. People can’t help but see that and move towards it. We don’t have to defend truth, we just need to live faithfully to it, and let God use that to draw people to him. Jesus said that when he is lifted up, he draws people to himself. May that be true in our lives.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Putty Putman