Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Why Postmodernism and the Emerging Church threaten Missions and World Evangelism

Why Postmodernism and the Emerging Church threaten Missions and World Evangelism

Many Christians view Postmodernism and the Emerging Church movement as a somewhat intellectual issue or otherwise the domain of young high-tech bloggers and not really relevant to the issues facing the core objectives of the church. In this article I argue why acceptance of postmodernism in the church threatens to undermine the task of world evangelism in the areas of: the meaning of the gospel; our right to proclaim the gospel; our response to persecution for evangelism; postmodernists misunderstanding of the gospel; and our approach for presenting the gospel.

Postmodernism is not a faraway threat. It has already deeply infiltrated the Evangelical Church, influenced the way we do church especially amongst the youth and especially the American church – but since the American church is often a centre of influence for the rest of the world, through publishing and, high profile speakers – many in South Africa are following the trend. The ‘Emerging Church’ is the formal expression of these beliefs. But informally, millions of Christians who don’t identify themselves as ‘emerging church’ already believe the same things.

How is Postmodernism influencing missions and evangelism? Ask the average Christian to stop a stranger in the street and explain the gospel, and firstly he will probably struggle to present it clearly. Secondly, he will probably question whether he has a right to stop a stranger in the street to explain the gospel. Both of these responses are influenced by postmodernism.

Firstly, it has changed the way most Christian youth view the meaning and purpose of the gospel – our core message. The traditional biblical gospel is that we have all sinned against God and are thus under his wrath and so deserve to burn in hell for eternity. But the good news is that Jesus has died and suffered in our place and if we believe this, repent of our sins and confess him as Lord, then he will save us and give us eternal life. But now we have a variety of alternative gospels based on postmodernism. An example of a new gospel is this: We all have problems which upset us and make us unhappy. Christianity offers a better alternative lifestyle and to do so, we should believe in Jesus and follow his example. If we do we will have a much more successful, happy and fulfilling life. There are many other variations on this example postmodern gospel. Basically, the gospel becomes user-friendly and here to help us. What is missing? The cross, hell, sin, repentance, eternal life. Sin, if mentioned at all is seen in terms of the harm it does to us, rather than the offence against God. The differences between the traditional biblical gospel and the new postmodern gospels are massive. Needless to say, if Christians are missing out the ‘politically incorrect’ parts in their presentation of the gospel, they are not presenting the true gospel and this is unlikely to result in many true conversions.

Secondly, Postmodernism has shifted the approach to evangelism and missions. The traditional approach to evangelism, used to be a confrontation with absolute truth and a demand to repent of sin against God (see the example of Acts 2). Now before Postmodernism arrived, the seeker-sensitive church movement began looking for ways of attracting people to come to church without offending them. This is a legitimate approach to evangelism and has resulted in some salvations. Nevertheless, there are problems. Firstly, if this is used as the only approach to evangelism, then a lot of people who are not interested in church are never going to hear the gospel. Secondly, if the gospel message itself is softened to avoid offending non-Christians then the problems mentioned in the previous paragraph arise. But now Postmodernism and the Emerging Church have taken another step away from traditional evangelism. They advocate instead the ‘conversational’ approach of dialogue. In other words, just talk to people to try to find common points of agreement and try to both understand eachother and maybe some might convert – if they don’t then you will have maybe done some other good such as promoting world peace. Christianity is then presented as an alternative lifestyle of the individual rather than absolute truth. It becomes another ‘choice’. Thus the presentation of the gospel is progressively weakened by the approach used. Traditional Christianity presented the Jesus as ‘The Way’, ‘The Truth’, ‘The life’. Postmodernism presents Jesus as ‘A Way’, ‘A Truth, ‘A Life’. The difference is massive. No more demand for repentance from the sin of rebellion against God. Just a conversation about personal religious beliefs. This is happening on a global scale as Emergent church leaders seek dialogue with other religious leaders – and sometimes some of their seeker-sensitive friends have joined them. It also happens on the local scale where Christians just ‘converse’ about religion instead of trying to convert their unsaved neighbours. Now there is nothing wrong with conversation as a prelude to evangelism, but often ‘dialogue’ substitutes for genuine ‘evangelism’. A risk is that Christians can be giving missions money to charitable works and ‘missions’ led by postmodernists, who are not using the money to present the gospel at all, but simply to do good works and engage in fruitless ‘dialogue’.

Thirdly, Postmodernists don’t see an automatic right and duty to preach the gospel to all creation (Matthew 28). Rather, they believe one has to ‘earn’ the right to present the gospel to someone without offending them by first doing good works and building relationships to present a good image of Christianity and avoid offending them. Now there is nothing wrong with doing good works and building relationships to help win people, but if we have to first ‘earn’ our credibility in these ways, then will we ever have done enough to earn the right to speak? The result is that Christians are timid and afraid to present the gospel, because like trying to earn God’s approval, we are always insecure. No. We tell people the gospel for their good because the Lord commanded us to. He has given us authority to do so – we do not need to earn it or get anyone else’s permission to do so.

Fourthly, Postmodernism is affecting Christians attitudes towards other Christians being persecuted for preaching the gospel. Since they are themselves unwilling to suffer for their faith or even present the gospel to their close friends, they find it hard to understand why Christians in other countries are willing to endure jail and torture in Islamic and Communist countries for breaking the law to preach the gospel. Therefore they fail to lobby governments such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia to stop such persecution. Persecuting government officials can happily visit and trade with free countries in the west without being confronted with their human rights abuse by Christians in the free countries. This new postmodern attitude to persecution means that the gospel can be restricted by ideologically opposed governments with impunity.

Fifthly, Postmodernism has changed the way that unconverted people interpret the gospel in Postmodern countries, such as North America, Europe and the educated class in South Africa. When Modernism was popular, people generally derided the gospel as ‘unscientific’ or ‘backward’ and did not want to hear it. Now with Postmodernism, they are quite happy to listen, but re-interpret the gospel through a postmodern lens. They view the presentation of the gospel as just an account of someone’s personal preference and experiences – not a challenge to repent of sin against a Holy God. Therefore we have to emphasise and repeat those aspects of the gospel which are politically incorrect until they hopefully get the idea that this is THE TRUTH, THE ONLY WAY no ‘a truth’, or ‘a way’. We have to emphasise that the gospel is absolute and the only truth. Sadly, I believe that much media presentation of the gospel is wrongly interpreted by the listeners and thus they miss it.

Modernism/Liberalism gutted the missions efforts of the mainline Protestant Churches in the 1920’s and 30’s. Postmodernism and the Emerging Church threaten to do the same to modern missions. Therefore as part of the task of world evangelism and missions, the ideology of postmodernism and the Emerging church must be fought and defeated at home.

3 comments:

tallskinnykiwi said...

can you point to any examples of this?

timvictor said...

I'm with tall skinny there and add the following (see http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=2419328874&topic=5913):

Philip,

Have you done much mission? Have you read much missiology, particularly that focused on cross-cultural mission. I highly recommend that you read David Bosch's Transforming Mission. I'll loan you my copy if necessary.

1) Where you see alternative gospels I see an expansion of the meaning of sin and the experience of salvation that is more holistic
2) What 'evangelism' and 'mission' looks like has shifted throughout history. I'm not sure you understand the role of 'conversation between people' over the role of 'preaching at people'. Both serve their purpose in their proper place. Remember that the church at Antioch was born and the capital of Christianity shifted from Jerusalem as a result of conversation!
3) Respect between people is important. Where people respect each other they may speak deeper and more intimately.
4) On what basis do you claim that postmod Christians are unwilling to suffer for the gospel and have not been doing so? Is lobbying the sum total of the yardstick you're going to use to measure this issue?
5) I personally experience postmoderns as being open to experiencing the Holy Spirit - something a number of Christians aren't willing to do!

Amanda said...

Toets. Mag mens hier in Afrikaans skryf of verkies u Engels?