Many emergent church leaders resist highly polished approaches to evangelism, as in the seeker church movement. They believe their practices are more “authentic” and “other worldly.”
Some return to ancient practices of the church past; the late Robert Webber is an example. “The Chicago Call,” with theologians Donald Bloesch and Thomas Howard, also attempted to appeal to a form of ancient church history. In 1988 Richard Foster introduced Roman Catholic mystics to Protestants and promoted a mystical approach to evangelicalism. It is interesting that these leaders do not go back to definitive apostolic teachings but to some aberrant teachings of the church flying in the face of the message of the gospel.
Critique of those involved in postmodern methodology is always difficult because the movement is purposefully diverse, curiously amorphous, and constantly in change. It carries no clear uniformity in doctrine, theology, or practice.
Merging postmodernism with the Bible is tricky business. By holding truth claims with suspicion, something has to give; invariably, it is the gospel message itself, especially the certainty and knowledge of truth given by God. Postconservative equivocation is capitulation to postmodernism.
The worldview of the emergent church is decidedly postmodern and overwhelmingly uses postmodern modalities. Each message is filtered through that grid.
Some postconservatives hold to deconstruction of the Bible. We cannot know what the author of Scripture meant, they say; the important thing is our experi- ence with it. This guts the Bible of its original meaning.
For Christian postmoderns to be consistent with the absence of unconditional truth in the secular world, they must dispose of biblical unbending truth claims (doctrine). They minimize the idea of an exclusive gospel that exposes the need to deal with sin before God. They replace doctrine and extant statements of the Bible with question and mystery. The reason they want to emphasize these ideas is to move away from certainty and the clarion call of unquestioned truth. Reality for them is mysterious and without clarity. They replace certainty with the elements of dialogue, dialectical thinking, conversation, search, and intrigue as though these ideas were ends in themselves.
The emergent church attempts to frame the gospel message in a way that meets the unique challenges of postmoderns. (This, of course, is a valid issue.) We acknowledge them for addressing this concern. However, accommodating the message itself, rather than only adjusting approach, has allowed uncritical assimilation of postmodern philosophy to seep into the gospel message itself.
Rather than speak a clear gospel message, more radical emergents turn to messages with uncertainty, ambiguity, novelty, mystery, and latitudinarianism masked as “tolerance.” They do not want a closed arrangement of truth tied together by facts and logic. Some call for an open theology with room for obscurity. I am not arguing here that messages directed at postmodern types should communicate in a style other than their genre; my concern is solely with what they do to the message.
Gutting the message of its clarity and certainty stands in polar opposite to such passages as Acts 20:28–31 that speak of protecting the church from error in message. Postmodern Christianity holds the message with skeptical negligence and prompts the question as to why we would campaign at all for a message that does not have the crucified Christ at its center. But, then again, that itself is a rigid boundary!
The secular postmodern view is that if nobody is right, then everyone is right. This is pluralistic relativism. Emergent leaders are reluctant to accept this conclusion, but they have not resolved this problem to my knowledge.
Many postconservatives mischaracterize proclamation as a hard, “in-your-face” presentation, as though evangelicals have an “us against them” mentality and are ready to bang the gospel over the heads of their listeners and grab them by their lapels. This obviously is an unfair depiction of how evangelicals actually carry out evangelism. Most evangelicals exercise contextualization in their methods of presenting the gospel.
Some emergents try to set up a dual gospel (both a corporate gospel and an individual gospel); that is, they want to preach a social gospel of the kingdom as well as a gospel to the individual.275 However, the gospel of the kingdom relates to the nation Israel, to her future as a nation. It has nothing to do with present social justice that seeks to right the ills of national entities. This is a misleading modality that confuses how a person truly comes to Christ and how God will ultimately deal with the world structure.
Experience Over Truth
Some emergent church thinkers leave rational, systematic thought and logic for experience. This thinking prefers the mystical and spiritual rather than the evidential and fact-based approach. They are high on culture and minimalist on gospel communication. They believe that those under thirty years of age are profoundly spiritual and are interested in religious experience, even mystical experience. They fancy the personal and relational sense of the supernatural. By attraction to mystery, emergents deduce that baby busters and mosaics (those born between 1984 and 2002, who embrace postmodern thinking and are comfortable with contradiction and non-linear thinking) are opposed to the seeker church model (which is oriented to baby boomers). The seeker church meets “felt needs” but the emergent church meets “spiritual experience.” Emer- gents covet the transcendent, and their church services are designed to give them that experience.
Some emergents go so far as to make Scripture only one of the participants in communication of the gospel; because members of the Christian community have an equal role to play through the preaching event, the Bible becomes only one contributor in the communication process.
Yet others simply minimize the gospel so as to mute clear statements of Scripture, even the gospel message itself. Erwin Raphael McManus, pastor of Mosaic Church in Los Angeles, California, mutes the gospel message by obfuscating the message. He thinks that postmoderns do not care about knowledge or truth.
Communicators of Christianity such as McManus trifle with truth, doctrine, and clarity of the gospel message because they employ a tone of uncertainty about God’s declarations. God’s Word and gospel knowledge are always pertinent to any presentation of the gospel.
Attempts to trim truth from the postmodern mind have the opposite effect. Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German theologian, warns about those who muddy God’s Word:
The absolutely worst way to respond to the challenge of secularism is to adapt to secular standards in language, thought, and way of life. If members of a secularist society turn to religion at all, they do so because they are looking for something other than what that culture already provides. It is counter-productive to offer them religion in a secular mode that is carefully trimmed in order not to offend their secular sensibilities.276
We can see concession to postmodernism’s sense of uncertainty about truth in this statement by McManus:
Are we searching for truth? For God? For clarity? For Life? Together let’s abandon the well-worn path of search for truth in the midst of information and even reason. The journey is filled with mystery, uncertainty, wonder, and adventure. To hear the voice and follow is to know him and find little need to know everything else.277
Later McManus speaks to his uncertain view of truth:
We must never allow ourselves to be deluded by our own sense of accuracy or rightness. Whatever the culture, era, or generation, it is essential that we examine our practices, rituals, dogmas, and traditions and measure them against God’s intent as communicated through the Scriptures (italics mine).278
Does this sense of “rightness” carry over to confidence about the gospel itself? Assault on certainty is at the heart of the way some address the issue of post-modernism. This is completely inconsistent with the way God commanded the church to present the gospel; after proper contextualization, God expects us to declare his answer with certitude. At the heart of biblical propositional communication is knowledge that needs to be conveyed. The gospel always conveys truth, and truth requires propositional statements. It is God’s method that the Holy Spirit works with the propositions of the gospel message to transform people in Christ.
In postmodern postconservativism, there is a shift away from thinking in generational approaches to ministry and toward grappling with postmodern thought, to the point that the message is lost in the process. Postmodern culture has become so pervasive in the extreme form of emergent methodology that it no longer has a biblical message. As D. A. Carson writes,
At the heart of the emerging reformation lies a perception of a major change in culture. Is there at least some danger that what is being advocated is not so much a new kind of Christian in a new emerging church, but a church that is so submerging itself in the culture that it risks hopeless compromise?279 (italics mine)
There is no doubt that the church today has to address a radically new culture; Paul wrestled with cultural issues in Antioch and in Athens. However, this does not mean that culture should dominate our thinking as a non-negotiable authority. The gospel cannot be embodied in culture in an unqualified fashion without affecting the message, fear of obsolescence notwithstanding. This is precisely what led pariah liberalism into apostasy. The disaster that fell on the church in the past century was incalculable. Obviously there are discontinuities between then and now, yet postconservativism is a new pariah itself on evangelicalism and evangelism. We need an unadulterated gospel that is biblically driven, not culturally driven, because the gospel is true regardless of culture.
When the gospel resonates with the sound of culture, we lose the gospel in a vague message and the church becomes assimilated by the message of culture; the gospel becomes entrapped in culture. The radical emergent church does not blatantly deny the gospel but rather distorts, downplays, and recasts the gospel for culture. There is little unequivocal presentation of the substitutionary death of Christ. Equivocation of truth ends in captivity to culture. Christians cannot divorce themselves from culture, but at the same time, they cannot let their message absorb culture. Taking cues from culture is not the same as refusing to proclaim a clear message to a given culture. Our methods should indeed clearly contextualize with the culture of our day.
Because defining culture is far more than taking signals from prevailing thought patterns, there is nothing more relevant for our times than the changeless message and living out that message within culture. Jesus was under no illusion about how his message would affect culture. He warned his disciples not to be surprised if the world would reject and persecute them for their message. People will reject the truth for being the gospel no matter how we culturally contextualize it. That is inescapable. If we do not make the content of the gospel presentation central, we put an evangelistic movement in danger.
Cultural pluralism disavows exclusive truth. With the shriveled sense of truth underlying evangelical life and practice, evangelicalism has little remaining that will withstand this onslaught. Theology remains on the outer edges of church life, and objective truth has been dislodged from the center.
Dialogue versus Proclamation
Postconservatives prefer dialogue over didactics. The didactic message never changes; culture changes. Postconservative dialectical belief demands dialogue over teaching or communication of fixed truth. The Greek word for examine (συζητέω) means “to seek, to examine together” (Acts 17:2). The Greek word for discuss (διαλέγομαι) means “to speak through, to ponder” (Acts 20:11). Thus, indeed, there is a process, or journey, in these terms. However, there is a vast difference between the meaning of these words and how the emergent church views them. Biblical dialogue always directed the message toward a particular end; it was not endless conversation, narrative, or story. In Acts 17 Paul argued that the Messiah suffered on the cross and rose again, and this was his pre-established conclusion for his dialogue. The Greek word “proclaim” (κηρύσσω) means “to announce like a herald,” carrying the idea of authority behind the message (Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; Romans 10:14, 15; 1 Corinthians 1:21, 22; 2 Timothy 4:2). The Greek word “teach” (διδάσκω) carries the idea of propositional teaching; that is, it is systematic in an organized fashion, presenting knowledge and principles of God’s Word (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 1:13, 14; 2:2). This word for didactics, with its various cognates, is the key term in the three pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). Acts uses this term for communicating the gospel message itself (Acts 5:42). This is doctrine-oriented preaching, propositional preaching. Emergent preachers do not essentially operate within the borders of these words because some of them mute the message and strip it of its content. Most emergent leaders claim fidelity to Scripture but, after they filter the Bible through postmodernism deconstruction, what remains is something unrecognizable from what the Word of God says. On the other hand, the Bible declares with certainty thousands of propositional thoughts.
It is not enough to tell people that God loves them or that they can find that idea by looking within themselves. The heart of the gospel is not solely that God loves people but that God loves them by sending his son to die for their sins. If they never get that message, then there is no gospel presentation. There is nothing more paramount than this when presenting the gospel: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2, italics mine).
People left to themselves do not have the right judgment to come to God (Romans 1:32), and they carry personal revolt against the light of truth (Romans 2:14, 15). They reject divine revelation, much less some subjective idea of God within themselves. Sin warped their capacity to know God. They are not able to ascertain God’s propositions reliably: “But the natural [pseukekos: having only a soul but no spiritual capacity] man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14, italics mine).
Exchanging propositional statements of Scripture for doubt and mystery is at the base of this fallacy, which holds that because we cannot know anything for sure, we must embrace mystery. This is why thoroughgoing emergents do not define doctrinal boundaries but prefer a creedless Christianity that puts ethics and ethos above doctrine.
Propositional Truth versus Mysticism
Erwin McManus juxtaposes Scripture with something more important to him: connection with a living God devoid of the Bible:
The real issue facing the church is not essentially about methodology [I agree] or even the preserving of the message [I disagree—this is a major issue of the church]; the real issue is why the church is so unaffected by the transforming presence of the living God.280
How, pray tell, do we know about this “living God” without Scripture? We cannot know about the love of God in the general revelation of creation. McManus tries to establish some form of living revelation in the person of God apart from the written Word when he says that “Jesus lives in every time and place in human history. He both makes himself known and manifests himself through the body of Christ.”281 True, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, but that is not the same as contemporary connection to the person of God without the Bible. He continues:
We should give up our role as preservationists [his previous definition of those who go back to the Bible for primary belief]—the church was never intended to be the Jewish version of the mummification of God. God is not lost in the past; he is active in the present.282
The idea of connecting to a present voice of God apart from propositional revelation is to confuse understanding the principles of the Word of God, applicable to any generation anywhere, with false experiential engagement with God in the present, separate from biblical truth. In not accepting the principle and application of Scripture, McManus sets up a false dichotomy by placing Scripture in opposition to what he sees as the current voice from God.
McManus introduces mysticism as a way to connect to God because his theory rests on a low view of the adequacy of Scripture. He establishes his thinking on the “voice of God”: “Well, I build my life not on the Word of God, but on the voice of God”283 (italics mine). He does not believe that the content of Scripture is the best way to approach people. His idea is the postmodern philosophy of telling personal stories “through the Scriptures.” This method puts forth Scripture as advice-giving material rather than truth to be proclaimed.
Therefore, his attitude toward Scripture leads him into mysticism. McManus says, “The emerging demands of a pluralistic society informed by Eastern and not Western culture challenges us to create dramatically different expressions of our faith.”284 No doubt we need to change “expressions of our faith,” but he does so by stepping into the falsity of mysticism. He believes that an “elemental essence” will reach a generation without belief in biblical content (propositions of Scripture) and that somehow this will “open the eyes of the world to the reality of God evident in all of creation.”285 But it is the gospel message itself, not a subjective or mystical experience, that “is the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). McManus joins together the ideas of truth as the personal and the mystical.286 Propositions represent truth or falsehood. Irrationalism talks of inner meaning without propositions. Non-propositional inner meaning has no meaning at all. Knowledge always consists of propositions, of predicates related to subjects. There is no basis for revelation as non-propositional, personal truth.
There is a direct correlation between mysticism and experience. Some post-modern evangelicals falsely view the old paradigm as claiming that, if you have the right teaching, you will experience God. Their new paradigm is that if you experience God, you will have the right belief. This is a movement in search of experience, not truth. Experience based on experience is a mirage. There is a proper place for experience, but that is only under the principles of the Word.
McManus wants to exchange reason (doctrine) for mysticism. In an interview with Relevant Magazine, McManus explained the “core” of his book The Barbarian Way: “So, I think Barbarian Way was my attempt to say, ‘Look, underneath what looks like invention, innovation and creativity is really a core mysticism that hears from God, and what is fuelling this is something really ancient’”287 (italics mine).
Again, in The Barbarian Way he writes: “We may find ourselves uncomfortable with this reality; but the faith of the Scriptures is a mystical faith. It leads us beyond the material into an invisible reality We are mystic warriors who use weapons not of this world”288 (italics mine).
Mysticism dominates emergent thought. Overemphasis on experience in theology and “what works for me” in ethics is the underlying fallacy that drives mysticism. Subjective religion or religious consciousness becomes the source and standard for religious ideas. This is faith without doctrine, a faith that cuts its ties with its object. All that is left is a body of subjective opinions in which one is as good as another. All that remains is window dressing and externals.
If we leave it to the subjective, how do we know whether our mysticism is from God or is demonic? Maybe it exclusively rests in the psychological. Without information from God giving boundaries to our experience, we end in no-man’s land. Apart from cognitive information, we cannot know that it is God who speaks. All subjective, experiential approaches to God lead to skepticism and away from valid knowledge of God.
The Bible is essentially propositional revelation formed in cognitive truths by sentences. Scriptures are a body of information expressed in propositions. Thus, the Bible is propositional revelation about God’s truth. This self-disclosure reveals God’s person and work, his thinking itself; this is supernatural information. This knowledge is far more important than subjective human experience. All extra-verbal communication from God in the Bible belongs only to revelation (closing of the canon).
McManus’s “voice of God” speaking in mysticism is very dangerous, especially with his minimalist approach to Scripture and the gospel. Believing we interpret the voice of God by what we experience or feel, his view devolves into unadulterated subjectivism.
Implications for Evangelistic Ministry
If evangelistic ministries push in the direction of postmodern evangelicals (who demean doctrine and minimize truth and the gospel), where is the protection against heresy, the anchor for doctrinal stability, and the guide to sound interpretation of Scripture? Where is the clarity and certainty of the gospel? If we marginalize, neglect, or reject truth, this will lead to a vacuous ministry at best and an organization that enters into error at worst. This is why truth-friendly emergent leaders, who do not minimize or negate truth, hesitate to identify with the more radical emergent church of postconservatives.
Do ministries want to identify with those who carry enormous skepticism over whether the biblical text and words accurately convey meaning? If we buy into the idea that all texts are constructions of meaning, we negate our message, or at least the power of the gospel. In the end, emergent thinking jettisons truth, doctrine, and gospel. Gospel presentations become more about cultural norms used to transport the message than about the gospel content itself. In the end, we lessen the gospel. This is what missiologists call “nominalism”; the norms surrounding the gospel take the place of the gospel itself. Biblically, the gospel never changes. The creed of being without a creed ultimately becomes self-defeating.
This is why postconservatives emphasize “authenticity.” Authenticity to them means that we do not have sure answers about truth. They put priority on doubt, differences, and difficulties. This is contrary to the heart of Christianity, with its clear denotations of truth. We cannot revise a faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). No one quibbles with the idea that we are to live out our faith in an authentic way. Either we find authenticity in the Word or we do not. Either the Bible is authentic (that is, true in its propositions, not subject to revision) and we need to be transformed, or the Bible is not authentic—in which case we should cast it off on the garbage heap of falsity. It is also imperative that we live out the principles of the Word authentically.
To place emphasis on the construction of meanings of our own choosing causes us to dilute the gospel in a strikingly subjective appropriation. It is a short step from the constructability of meaning to the constructability of truth itself. This has far-reaching implications on presentations of the gospel. Emergents are more anxious to affirm what culture affirms, but in doing so they change the gospel from a message to a way of life. This changes the truth of the gospel itself and is a repeat of the liberal Friedrich Schleiermacher’s attempt to save the Bible from the Enlightenment by conflating description with prescription; he abandoned doctrine for metaphysics and read the gospel off the cultural milieu. Among postconservatives there is little answerability to either the Bible or tradition, as Mark Devine points out in Evangelicals Engaging Emergent:
The ease with which some Emergents equivocate on an array of traditional readings of Scripture and either question the use of doctrine or abandon doctrine altogether is astounding Emergent thinkers are much more likely to argue that our actual comprehension of the gospel itself must change in a postmodern world. Thus, the Synoptic Gospels and parenetic passages come to rule the hermeneutical roost, while the apostle Paul with all his head-heavy theologizing becomes marginalized, and objective views of the atonement are displaced with subjective ones.289
Doctrine-friendly emergents are growing unreceptive to the doctrine-wary movement because, although they agree that communication to culture affects the conveyance of meaning, they want to reach their culture effectively with the true gospel. Ministries that equivocate truth will lose one of their great- est assets—the confidence of the general evangelical community that they are faithful to the gospel and trustworthy in its methods.
A wonderful feature of dynamic evangelistic ministries has been direct evangelism. Are these ministries now going to develop a new kind of “patience” before they present the gospel? The gospel delayed is the gospel denied. By insisting on building a context of idiosyncratic personal spirituality before they present the gospel, they introduce unnecessary complications into evangelism. Pre- evangelism is important, but pre-evangelism without direct appeal to the gospel at some urgent point is pointless. The gospel in its least common denominator is not culture, spirituality, or morality; it is acceptance of the finished and saving death of Christ for our sins. Unduly delayed evangelism will take the urgency, felicity, and movement out of spreading the good news.
There is no mandate in Scripture to be politically or culturally correct. Acquiescing to the world system without Christian distinctives undermines the power of the gospel. We cannot tolerate diversity to the point that we are not distinct or “peculiar,” as 1 Peter says. We need not fear rejection of the gospel message by the crowd.
Ministries must test both the message and method by Scripture. Neither the Bible nor its content is some arcane book of mystery. The gospel is patently clear. We do not need to displace the text of Scripture with “story” (not that story is without validity). God’s revealed truth is objective in the sense that truth is a correspondence, or a matching up, of a proposition with how things are in reality, regardless of whether anyone believes that proposition to be true. Although Christianity is more than proposition, it is not less. As Devine again says, “Emergent talk of narrative, authenticity, story, and mystery often seems to involve radical forms of retreat and reductionism vis-à-vis anything recognizable as historic, biblically grounded Christianity.”290
Do forceful evangelistic ministries want their staff to be spineless communicators of the gospel message without boldness to proclaim the truth of the gospel itself? Will these ministries abandon presentation of the claims of Christ in propositional form? Will they avoid event presentation of the gospel altogether? Will they enter relationship building to the point where they only vaguely present the gospel somewhere, somehow down the line?
The biblical approach to evangelism is always proactive first, not reactive first. Contextualization without proclamation voids God’s message. Evangelism is never less than proclamation of the propositions that Jesus died in the place of our sins and that by faith in his work we have forgiveness of sins.
The postconservative approach to evangelism is not to persuade people to believe promises from God but to befriend people to join a Christian community. Because they assume that there is little certainty in what we believe, they ask people to come to dialogue. For them, there is no need to choose between belief systems. However, the biblical approach is to use words, and words or propositions divide; propositions challenge people to choose. The Thessalonians proclaimed words from God to such a point that the apostles did not have to “say” anything: “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything” (1 Thessalonians 1:8 esv).
There is an imperative to “say” something about the gospel to effectively pres- ent our message. All rejection of propositional preaching with certainty is against the many passages challenging us to proclaim a clear message.
The Bible says that the world is in darkness and under the “dominion of Satan” (Acts 26:15–20; John 3:19). No unilateral understanding by the non-Christian can come to knowledge of truth without proclamation of the gospel in words (1 Corinthians 2:14). Satanic deception preempts the postconservative methodology because non-Christians do not seek God due to the darkness of their hearts (John 3:19). Truth set forth in the conviction of the Holy Spirit and by words of the gospel frees people from darkness in their hearts (John 8:31, 32).
The postconservative movement eviscerates the dynamic of evangelism because it rips the heart out of burning conviction to share the gospel. No longer do postconservatives have confidence in the message, believe in hell, or know for sure that one stands vindicated before God eternally. The essence of the post-modern movement is the negation of certainty, yet it is certainty that is the catalyst for flaming conviction to present the gospel.
Dean Kelley, an official of the liberal National Council of Churches and a United Methodist minister, wrote the book Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.291 His answer is that they believe the Bible and the gospel with conviction. The more truth people believe, the more commitment they have to evangelism in their church, and the more congregants are willing to give and serve sacrificially for what they believe about God’s Word. But today, more- radical emergent leaders simply invite their people to casually connect to their religious communities. By this principle they build their approach to postmoderns, which is in part a concession to relativism. No wonder their people are allergic to sharing the message.
Liberals tried to accommodate their message to the prevailing philosophy of a previous day. They yielded to modernism’s idea that the self was the starting point for finding truth—man is the measure of man. This led to anti-supernaturalism, rejection of miracles, and an undermining of the Bible itself. The institutions of the church became so doctrinally corrupt that evangelicals left these organizations in massive numbers and formed their own ministries. When liberalism infected the church in the later part of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, church attendance dwindled to a few faithful souls huddled together in hollow, large church caverns. A biblical, vibrant church then rose out of the ashes of the corrupted apostate institutions and denominations of liberalism. It is patent that churches with conviction about truth grow, and those with weakened conviction decline. Conservative churches grew in numbers, sent missionaries, believed truths of the Bible with burning conviction, and advanced vibrant church life.
Postconservatives now follow the same trail as old liberalism. They are in a reversion from universal, objective truth to a personal view of truth (as we saw with McManus, earlier). They have low tolerance for anyone who claims to have the doctrinal truth or has deep conviction about truth.
Postconservatives believe that certainty about almost anything is futile pala- ver. They limit truth to communal or personal perception. All communication is limited, insular, and particular. They are left with personal preference and personal experience. This view of truth stands in stark contrast to a biblical worldview that pivots around the existence of a God who reveals himself in propositional revelation. The postconservative belief system has a serious, negative impact on aggressive evangelism.
Modernists place trust in objective philosophy and science, but postmoderns put significance on subjective understanding. Postmoderns ask whether “it is true for me” and care little about what “is true for you.” They hate judgment or conclusion about almost anything and view judgment as intolerance. Their only intolerance is intolerance itself; therefore, tolerance becomes an all-pervasive belief system. Postevangelicals sacrifice the true message of the gospel to meaningless pluralism.
Approaches to Postmoderns
Indeed postmodern cultural conditions make proclamation of truth difficult. However, rejection of exclusive trust in philosophy and science by non-Chris- tian postmoderns is an advantage for evangelism because it opens the possibility of supernatural truth as a valid option. Philosophy and science are no longer autonomous and self-sufficient to the postmodern as they were with the modernist. Postmodernism undermines the presupposition that scientific materialism is autonomous; there is, therefore, something more than pure mechanism. This affords a wonderful opportunity to present the supernatural claims of the Bible.
Robert Webber believes that postmodern people are “not persuaded to faith by reason as much as they are moved to faith by participation in God’s earthly community.”292 Community oriented “belief” is unadulterated ambivalencedevoid of truth. Of course postmoderns are offended by truth as people were in Jesus’ and Paul’s day. There is an offense in the gospel, but this is exactly postconservatives are trying to avoid. They can evade offense only by betrayal of truth. This presumes that somehow people will accept Christ by subjective experience rather than proclamation of the gospel. This muddles doctrine and mixes the objective gospel with subjective experience. A functional view of truth cannot perceive truth objectively but only subjectively.
Churches that offer spirituality without truth also betray the gospel. These churches reduce Christianity to idiosyncratic approaches and neglect powerful presentations of the Word. With this, we now have relationships without biblical principles for building relationships. These churches do not deem truth indispensable or effective in reaching postmoderns.
Another approach denies the need to change the method or the message to reach postmoderns. It says we can use the same methods used for reaching any other people at any other time. Thus, by simply presenting the message, people will come to Christ. Those who employ such an approach care nothing about how culture affects presentation of the gospel, but even the apostle Paul contextualized his method when approaching different people (1 Corinthians 9).
Postmoderns try to live without authority, so all that remains is their autonomous liberty whereby they must build their own construct for living. It is a disconnected and lonely philosophy without ultimate purpose or meaning. All that remains are communities of conflicting personal beliefs. Postmoderns place high value on freedom and want to live their lifestyles as they see fit without judgment or interference. They feel they have the right to hold any religious belief they choose. How then can biblical believers reach out to postmoderns if we accept their premises?
Surrendering the authority of biblical interpretation to individual subjective viewpoints will reduce God’s Word to the personal preferences of autonomous man. That will invariably lead to radical pluralism and denial of the objective truth of Scripture. It will neuter the idea of a demand for repentance (Acts 17:30). All truth is not equal. Neither is it a tyrannical claim independent of reason.
Postmodernism changed the ground of debate in ministry today. Because non- Christians have given up the pursuit of finding truth with a clear worldview, how can evangelicals present the gospel message to them? There is a profound sense of despair out there. However, this affords a unique opportunity to present our wonderful good news.
The Bible accepts the reality that the unbelieving will view mutually exclusive truth of Christianity as “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). This passage says that unbelievers deem the message, not the act of communication, as foolish. Jesus said that people would reject truth for vested interest in their dark lifestyles (John 3:19, 20). Christians should operate under no illusion that postmoderns will not hate them for claiming mutually exclusive truth (John 15:18; 16:2; 17:14). Many evangelicals would rather sacrifice truth for acceptance in society.
If we have enough gall to assert that Christ is the answer, that implies we are conveyors of truth. We cannot pretend that the Bible does not claim exclusive truth. Instead of flinching from God’s truth, we should have confidence in its power.
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12, 13)
If we use pure Socratic method, people cannot come to the didactic message of the Bible. We must introduce didactics or we will not be able to share a clear message from God. The proclamation of the truth of God’s message stands at the heart of evangelism.
Courage to be Different
Contrary to popular opinion, evangelicalism grows by fearless conviction about the gospel rather than by accommodating the message to culture. Postconservatives value syncretism rather than the courage to be different. This attempt to make disparate beliefs similar will take the passion out of sharing the gospel. Christianity cannot grow without clear differentiation. There can be no battle for truth or souls without it. In this day when Christians are afraid to take a stand on the certainty of what they believe, evangelism is in grave danger of losing momentum.
Most approaches to reach postmoderns are about methodology or acculturation, not content of the gospel. Without content to believe, all talk of methodology and culture is empty. Without a solid biblical message, postmodern postconservativism wanders about aimlessly. It has sold its birthright for a bowl of cultural strategy. A message of truth by its very nature is confrontational, albeit in a kind and civil way. It challenges the validity of other belief systems, and especially the belief system that truth is entirely a private matter. It asserts the reality of heresy and apostasy. It will confront the idea that what is true for one might not be true for another.
The Bible does not allow for local truth, truth to a particular situation or culture. Truth is more than private perception; it is communication of the gospel with sufficient clarity that people can understand it. Subjective non-Christian post- moderns will accept certainty moved on their hearts by the Holy Spirit.
The Bible is not subject to endless change in interpretation; its interpretation does not rest in the individual psyche but is objective to the interpreter. The Word of God corresponds to what is real. Confrontation against what is not true is essential for a mutually exclusive message, but how we deliver that message is another matter. It is important to challenge people from their volitionally positive side (1 Corinthians 9); we approach people on their approachable side.
Even with this, postmodernism is not a neutral belief system operating on an arrangement of preference. It is a belief based on anti-Christian ideas, ideas that presume we cannot come to final certainty about the gospel.
All belief systems, even postmodernism, have a worldview. That worldview is subject to challenge and to comparison with Christianity. If we submerge Christianity into postmodernism, where is its distinctiveness? Where is its message? Is our message certain enough, separate enough, to strike non-Christians as a message of objective truth? Christianity cannot concede to pagan thinking.
At the heart of evangelism is a conviction that one holds truth as over against other claims. If evangelicals move into pluralism to the point that they cannot assert a metanarrative, or final answer, then they have no adequate message for those without Christ. They are left to wallow in subjectivity and uncertainty. This has far-reaching implications for evangelism.
The Christian assignment is to move the unbeliever from the view that there is no final meaning but only continuous interpretation to a belief in absolute truth, and from the belief that the individual is the final arbiter of truth to understand- ing the objective truth of the Word. We need to help them see beyond their cynicism to witness normative truth. They must do that in order to see that the secular viewpoint has heavy-laden assumptions (presuppositions) and that those assumptions carry loss of truth, meaning, and worth. The idea that the self is constantly in flux and without point or purpose needs to be seen for what it is.
A Difficult Challenge
The most difficult challenge for evangelicals is our claim to exclusive truth. Postmoderns view such claims as oppression. At the heart of this problem is the autonomy of human beings who situate themselves as independent from an absolute God. Individuals deem themselves as final arbiters of truth. If that is so, they have no true place to stand.
Because postmoderns have a severe problem with certainty, they can know nothing for sure, making their despair protrude more than ever. Rejection of the Christian message is not an answer for those who desperately stand in need of truth; rather, acceptance of the Christian message is the answer for people who wallow in the despair of hopelessness. Although postmoderns are open to spirituality, it is a non-biblical spirituality that we can correct only by definitions from biblical propositions of truth.
The issue of message versus strategy is very difficult to balance. What is the justification for pre-evangelism? At what point does pre-evangelism come to assert an unambiguous message? All evangelism methodologies have some form of contextualization, but contextualization without message is a serious problem. If we have method without message or only a modest message, then we are not true to our mandate of preaching the gospel.
Passion for Souls
Passion for souls comes from passion for truth. Evangelical fervor to reach those without Christ minus passion for truth will ultimately diminish passion for souls. Bankruptcy of belief produces bankruptcy of passion. One area that unites evangelicals is the call to world evangelism. If this call to evangelism does not rest on the conviction of a valid gospel, then no other motivation will support that conviction.
Evangelistic organizations grow by deep conviction that the gospel is true. For a movement to establish momentum, there must be (1) a widespread conviction of belief among believers, (2) a universally held goal among them, and (3) an esprit de corps (passion about the wonder of the gospel) that catalyzes the goal. Because evangelicalism has lost its passion for the gospel message, it is losing its goal of world evangelism. The esprit must have more than just a desire to evangelize; there must be a compelling reason to evangelize. The evangelical movement is losing its core of conviction and is fragmenting into a plurality of convictions. Wells points to this loss of core conviction among evangelicals:
When we believe in nothing, we open the doors to believing anything. And the same is true within the precincts of Christian faith. As the body of common belief has shrunk and the importance has diminished within the evangelical world, there have arisen advocates for almost everything within the larger religious world. Who would have thought, for example, that Christianity Today would carry a proposal for the remaking of evangelical faith that scuttled one of the cardinal beliefs of the Protestant Reformation—justification by faith?293
Evangelical organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ (with its rallying cry of “building spiritual movements everywhere”) have made a huge, worldwide impact for the gospel. The reason for this is the burning conviction of their staff about the gospel. The catalyst for their evangelism is the conviction that they have the truth. This dynamic is not a tool such as The Four Spiritual Laws but rather the persuasion that Jesus is the only answer for eternal salvation, and it is the reason that tens of thousands have joined CCC staff. In other words, evangelicals trace their conviction to truth, not to tradition or personal experience or personal preference.