Postmoderns are drowning in an ocean of choices and are looking for guidance. In the face of endless options and perspectives, people are frustrated by the complexity of life and have found that the rules they were taught as children no longer seem to apply. Every belief, every fact, every person seems to have another side to them or another angle to it. How do we speak the guiding truth of Christ to a world of shifting perspectives and endless options?
People are looking for authenticity in an age of sales pitches
It simply isn’t sufficient to build the positive case for Christianity, the wonderful contribution that Christians have made to the world. One significant bridge building technique is to admit that there are valid objections to the way Christians have treated others in history. For example, I have spoken as a Jewish person to the way some Christian heroes have related to Jews. I’ve read passages from Martin Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies.” Luther recommends that Jewish synagogues be burned to the ground and that Jews be driven out of their homes and be forced to wander from village to village, friendless, and homeless. He recommended that Jewish books be burned in the public square, that their businesses be destroyed. Luther’s viewpoints might have been the seed from which German Nazism and barbarism like Krystalnacht, the Night of Broken Glass happened.
I’ve talked about the Jewish experience and the Holocaust and having good Catholics in Poland and Lutherans in Germany join with the Nazis in berating and abusing Jews. I’ve talked about how few were the Christians who assisted Jews during WWII.
Now this discussion about the reality of the Christian life through the centuries can take us in several directions. One direction might be to talk about the grace of God that offers hope and forgiveness even to cowards and abusers and the self-righteous—people like us. A second direction that an authentic discussion of Christian history might take us is towards the redefinition of the word “Christian” and “Christianity.” You offering a fresh definition of the word “Christian” would, simply help most of the postmodern audiences that we speak to. And here you could talk about Christian and Christianity as not being synonymous with certain political perspectives. That to be a Christian doesn’t mean that you are necessarily a conservative Republican.
People are looking for inclusiveness and welcome
Postmoderns have a longing for inclusiveness. Is the gospel of Jesus Christ simply narrow and exclusive, “Come join us as we brow beat the rest of the culture?” If you wanted to do a series on welcome, on God changing someone’s heart from being narrow, nationalistic, racist and exclusive, you couldn’t do a better job than preaching through the book of Jonah. We can identify with Jonah. We all desire for God to get our enemies. We all want God to bless us and crush those we hate. To Jonah’s horror, he learned that God not only is willing to bless Israel, but he blesses Israel’s enemies. The same lessons could be drawn from the book of Ruth, from the Abrahamic covenant, the parable of the great banquet.
People are looking for truth in an age of relativism
There is the great challenge as well in proclaiming truth in an age of relativism. There are lots of ways to attack the issue of truth other than to simply overwhelm the hearer with an accumulative case based on evidence. That is one approach. Here we could talk about the mystery of faith. C.S. Lewis has a wonderful illustration of how reality goes beyond our capacities to apprehend things without denying the reality of the thing itself. Lewis writes, “What they do when they want to explain the atom or something of that sort, is to give a description of which you can make a mental picture.
But then they warn you that this picture is not what the scientists actually believe. What the scientists believe is a mathematical formula. The pictures are only there to help you understand the formula. But they are not really true in the way the formula is. They don’t give you the real thing, but something more or less like it. They are meant to help. If they do not help, you can drop them. The thing itself can not be pictured, it can only be expressed mathematically.” Lewis goes on to say, “We are in the same boat here. We believe that the death of Christ is just that point in history at which something absolute unimaginable from the outside shows through into our own world.
And if we cannot picture even the atoms of which our world is built, of course we aren’t going to be able to picture this. Indeed, if we found that we could fully understand it, that very fact would show that it is not what it professes to be, the inconceivable, the uncreated, and the thing from beyond nature striking down into nature like a bolt of lightening. Let me ask, ‘What good will it be to us if we don’t understand it?’ But that is easily answered. Man can eat his dinner without understanding how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works. Indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.
We are told that Christ was killed for us, that his death has washed out our sins, and that by dying he disabled death itself. That’s the formula. That is Christianity. This is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up regarding how Christ’s death did this are, in my view, quite secondary, mere plans, or diagrams, or pictures to be left alone if they don’t help us. And if they do not help us, not to be confused with the thing itself, all the same some of these theories are worth looking at. We can help people. We can say, ‘Here’s the essential thing and these are all the models built around it.’”
People are looking for the elimination of unnecessary dogmatism
In an age of pluralism and relativism, we must eliminate unnecessary dogmatism. There is a wonderful story I heard about an old man who lived in Kentucky. He was a farmer and he came from a very rigid, legalistic, Pentecostal background. This farmer’s little blond-haired, 3 or 4-year-old daughter was walking with the man and whenever something contrary to the old man’s way of thinking came up in the conversation, he made a point of saying so that the little girl could hear it, “We don’t believe in that, do we?” And so if the subject of dancing came up, he looked at the little girl and he said, “We don’t believe in dancing, do we?” If the subject of women working outside the home came up, he’d say, “We don’t believe in that, do we?” The subject of smoking, working on Sunday, mixing of races, “We don’t believe in that, do we?”
As the little girl and her grandfather approached the farm pond, they discovered that one of the ducks had hatched her eggs and was now surrounded by a dozen little scurrying balls of yellow fluff. The little girl ran to the duck and these little ducklings and squatted own in their midst for a few moments. She was absolutely entranced by the ducks. Then suddenly, she remembered her grandfather and she looked up at him and said, “Granddaddy, do we beweeve in ducks?”
There are various issues where committed, evangelical Christians differ regarding their positions. Historically, the church has been far from gracious and has had the tendency of labeling contrary views as un-biblical and questioning the faith of genuine believers. One of the things preachers can do in their sermons to gain great credibility is to preach on the topics where you have the whole church as your hero, rather than simply focusing on your brand of the Christian faith.
People are looking for answers that work
How do we deal with the loss of truth in an age of relativism? Not only can we eliminate excessive dogmatism, allow for discussion around models, but we can move the issue of truth from the abstract, from the philosophical, to the practical and behavioral. Don’t simply argue abstract beliefs. Call people to do Christianity.
Blaise Pascal, the French scientist and mathematician and philosopher, was working at his laboratory shortly after his beloved daughter died. A friend dropped by and was amazed by how peaceful Pascal was in the face of the tragedy that he had suffered. The friend said, “I wish I had your beliefs. Then I could live your life.” Pascal countered, “Start living my life, and then you will soon have my beliefs.”
You can pull out what Jesus said in John 7:17, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I am speaking on my own.”
The Christian faith is something that you do. It is not simply something that you believe. If you have people actually read the New Testament, they will come to one of five conclusions regarding their life and their faith in Jesus:
1. They don’t do it.
2. They can’t do it.
3. They don’t want to do it.
4. They are evil.
5. They love to deceive in moral issues and suppress the truth regarding Jesus.
You can challenge your audience. You can say, “If you doubt whether Jesus is who he claims to be, start putting his words into practice even while you doubt.” Of course, what will happen to the individual who attempts to put into practice what Jesus taught him is a recognition of their utter inability, an awakening of their sense of need, a desperation for some outside help and completion. People don’t always move from intellectual conversion to behavioral conversion. Very often the process works in the reverse. We start with behavior.
People are looking for life change
Many people recognize that they are leading a rotten life. They see their lives as broken down, full of cynicism, full of lust. They wander if they will be this way forever. The typical view of sin in our culture is people who really, really want to go out and offend God. Most people though do not see themselves as addicts or people who intentionally want to offend God. They do see themselves often as stuck and unable to get beyond some habit or relational problem. Most people when they hear the word addict, think only of some “heroine addict” and make no connection with their own lives. But we are constantly speaking to people who are genuinely looking for a way to change their life—be it relationally, some habit, job difficulties, marriage struggles, parenting relationships, etc…
People are looking for new stories
What I find particularly helpful about postmodernism is its emphasis upon story, upon what postmodernists call meta-narrative—the big explanatory story of life. This is so enormously useful for Christians to comprehend and it is huge for pastors. For example, let’s say you are doing counseling or you are thinking about having a recovery group for women in the church who struggle with eating disorders, with anorexia or bulimia. Now, you can approach the counseling problem by discussing the issues of control and body image and family dynamics; you could do several sessions on self-image and substance addiction.
Some of this might be helpful. But postmodernism gives us the insight that whenever you sit down to counsel someone you are telling a story. You can tell the cognitive-behavior story to the person who is struggling, you can tell the family systems story to the bulimic, you could tell any one of the competing humanistic stories to interpret for this woman why she does what she does or you can fit her behavior into the grand Christian story of sin, forgiveness, redemption and grace.
The Romans 1 story is a story of how we all have spiraled down to a desperate place where we all need God. Verse 21 explains that it begins with my ingratitude. Each of our stories includes our inability to live in a place of thankfulness and delight in who God is. Verse 21-22 highlights our ignorance, showing that each of us in claiming to be wise, we have actually become foolish.
Verse 23 then shows us that we have turned to some form of idolatry and have created gods that we have come to worship above and beyond God. Verse 24 concludes with each of us being in a place of impurity and in a place where we are under God’s judgment. God gives us over to our own way. His judgment is simply letting us have our own way.
Now, many Christian pastors, and I would venture to say the majority of Christian counselors, don’t understand that every counseling session is the telling of a story. Often we tell misleading stories, untrue stories that provide a false interpretative grid. “Well given the hyper-control of your family, eating was the one area you could control.” By telling a story that way, how have we helped the person to reorient their lives around the biblical compass of the fallen tendency to turn everything in creation into an idol; to explore with an individual the nature of idolatry—what an idol is, how we offer false worship, how can our idolatry be repented of. You can’t repent of family of origin issues or controlling parents.
I think in our preaching, we have to get used to telling the big story over and over; not just a verse here or there. Help people hear the biblical story and how it relates to the questions that people are actually asking: Do you know why we are having these corporate scandals? Do you know why there is so much corruption? Do you know why we see marriages falling apart? Do you know why we see Hollywood stars take their lives? Do you know why we constantly compare ourselves with others?
Tell the biblical story! The story of creation and the fall. The story of sin and redemption, of forgiveness and grace.
There are a number of reasons why preaching has no contemporary respect. Many people have seen it as a boring lecture that they have to endure week in and week out. Much of this comes from the confusion of preachers regarding their task. We need to be clear on what the task of the preacher is. We need to constantly help people see how their lives and what we are teaching fits into the big biblical story of Creation, Fall, and Redemption.