Cultural Barriers to Preaching
A Universal Barrier
How do people in your congregation react to the preaching of the gospel Sunday by Sunday? When the Apostle Peter preached some people many were "greatly disturbed" and "astonished" (Acts 4:2, 13); Stephen preached to the Sanhedrin and they "were furious and gnashed their teeth" (Acts 7:54); the Apostle Paul preached in the open air to a crowd in Jerusalem and they "raised their voices and ... were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air" (Acts 22:22-23). These were striking, violent, even extreme reactions – but they illustrate that the gospel can be extremely distasteful to some.
It has never been easy to get across to people the good news about the Lord Jesus. There have always been people who have closed their ears to the gospel, who don't want to know. The most basic reason for this is sin. Sin hardens people's hearts so that the seed of the Word of God remains on the surface to be snatched away by the devil; it blocks their ears so they cannot hear the call to believe; blinds their eyes so they cannot see the light of the glory of Christ; shrouds their minds in darkness so they prefer the mists of error rather than the clarity of the truth. These people find the preaching of the gospel offensive. It grates on them. What to those who believe is a "fragrance of life" to those who will not believe is "the smell of death" (2 Corinthians 2:16).
However, our own day and age has its unique barriers to the gospel message. Living, as we do, in a global culture, these barriers are not peculiar to New Zealand. You will find them in most of the Western world. They are part of what social analysts are calling "postmodernism". This term describes the characteristics of our contemporary situation. It is described as postmodern in contrast to the modern period. The latter is the period from the eighteenth century Enlightenment through to the 1960's. 1 During this time people had great confidence in their ability to solve the problems of the world, especially through the use of human reason and the application of science. This was a time of great optimism. Evolution became the dominant theory of man's origins and supported belief in the continuing progress of mankind.
Events of the twentieth century, however, undermined our confidence in the powers of the human mind. World War I was followed by the Great Depression which in turn was followed by the Second World War. The 1950's were a time of rebuilding, but the following decade saw massive changes take place. Young people in the 1960's rejected the culture of the Enlightenment and threw off the shackles of their parents with a vengeance. This had been building up for a while but this decade saw the lid blow off. Many of the values and assumptions held in previous generations were discarded. There was a general rejection of reason and science in favour of a more romantic approach and a call to go "back to nature".
Today we live post-60's which is really to say we live postmodern, although many of the features of modernity live on. But what does this really mean? And what implications does this have for preaching the gospel today? There are many aspects to postmodernism, but let me highlight three which are key features of our New Zealand situation. The first is secularism.
Secularism describes a state where people are completely irreligious – they have no real interest in any form of religious experience. The world, for a secularist, can be explained by purely natural things. Rather than being an open system (i.e. open to God and the supernatural) the world is a closed system (there are no supernatural influences). Secular people do not believe in a supernatural world; they do not believe in God, miracles, revelation or any outside intervention or, if they do, their belief doesn't make any practical difference to their lives. For all intents and purposes, God does not exist. They may not be atheists philosophically, but they are practically. Secularism is a situation in which God is either absent or irrelevant.
This creates an obvious barrier to the gospel. If God is absent or irrelevant then why bother about Him at all? Secular people can safely ignore God because He has no practical impact on their lives. As far as they are concerned He is totally irrelevant both in the immediate and in the long term.
However, to some extent, this is changing. Having tried to find satisfaction in things some are now beginning to realise there must be more to life than just accumulating toys. People sense an emptiness in their lives, a spiritual longing, a restlessness. As a result we are seeing a growing spiritual awareness.
The problem now is that people are looking for spiritual meaning in the wrong places! Instead of turning to the Lord they are side-tracked into the New Age movement, Eastern Mysticism, and Islam. Have a look at the weekly TV Guide and you will find about five pages advertising such wonders as Psychic readings, Marilyn's Guiding Line, Live Tarot Readings, Clairvoyant Helpline, Horoscope Reading, Crystal Vision Tarot, Numerology Readings, Crystal Ball Readings, and Visions Personal, Positive and Compassionate! The New Zealand Advertiser (Issue 129) carried a full page add for a Tarot game with the assurance that if you posted it "You will receive, by return mail, the exact answer to the question that is worrying you so much." All this growing interest in religious experience confirms the observation of the Roman Catholic theologian, G K Chesterton, that a culture that no longer believes in God will believe everything.
How will we respond to this? Negatively we must continue to remind people that satisfaction and happiness are not to be found in gathering possessions and that there is more to life than what we can buy and sell, or touch, taste and see. Positively we must encourage the growing spiritual awareness that is taking place today. Men and women today may be more willing to consider the truth of the Christian faith because they are not locked into a naturalistic mindset. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes tells us that God has "set eternity in the hearts of men" (Ecclesiastes 5:11). God has made us as spiritual beings. We were created to relate to God; we will search for God or for some replacement of Him. Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee." Our task is to point people to the Lord Jesus and the rest they can find in Him.
This growing spiritual awareness represents a great opportunity for the Christian faith; yet it also presents a great challenge. As far as the "average" NZder is concerned the Christian faith is only one religious alternative among many. There is a smorgasbord of options to choose from and, for them, one is as valid as the next. This leads us into the characteristic of pluralism.
Pluralism may be defined as "a social condition in which numerous different religious, ethnic, and cultural groups live together in one nation under one government." 2 It is a relatively new phenomena. Since the time of Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313 AD) the Christian faith enjoyed a privileged status in the Western world. This has been described as the era of Christendom or Constantinianism (try pronouncing that one!) 1400 years later the Enlightenment began to push the Christian faith to the fringes of life. Eventually this created a vacuum which has been filled with pluralism. "Pluralisation sees to it that there is no sacred canopy, only millions of small tents; no global umbrella, only a bewildering range of pocket umbrellas for those who may care to have one." 3 Our current situation has been compared to a smorgasbord luncheon with its great variety of foods, to "a carnival with a never ending array of side-shows" 4, and to a shopping mall with its huge range of boutiques and specialist stores. Pluralism goes beyond diversity of cultures and traditions, in that it not only allows for a great range of thought and practice, but also affirms such diversity as a good thing. All views are to be tolerated, accepted, even welcomed.
In a post modern pluralist society "tolerance becomes the cardinal virtue... The postmodernist sins are "being judgmental," "Being narrow-minded," "Thinking that you have the only truth," and "trying to enforce your values on anyone else."5 Pluralism asserts that "no position has the right to declare another position wrong." 6
Again this creates quite a barrier for the proclamation of the gospel. For we preach an exclusive message. Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) The apostles declared, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven, given to men, by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12)
Pluralists who promote tolerance become very intolerant when we declare this message. To them we are going against the grain; swimming against the tide. When the Christian faith is presented, pluralists become extremely defensive and antagonistic. Paul Holmes is a good illustration of this hostility towards Christianity.7
How should we respond in this climate? We should recognise that the church has been in this position in the first century. In its beginning Christianity was only one view amongst many; one truth claim amidst the huge diversity of the gods of the Greeks and Romans; one religion in a pluralist and pagan culture. Today we find ourselves in this situation again.
Yet there is one important difference between the 1st and 20th century-pagans in the first century heard the Christian gospel for the first time; Jesus had come, suffered, died, risen and ascended and the apostles proclaimed this brand new truth. Our situation today is that the gospel has been heard and rejected. This is a post Christian culture in which the Christian faith has been deliberately discarded. Leslie Newbegin points out that "its paganism, having been born out of the rejection of Christianity, is far more resistant to the gospel than the pre-Christian paganism."8 This doesn't mean we should give up – not at all! The Apostle Paul was so "eager to preach the gospel" also to those at Rome 9, the capital of the pagan and pluralist empire of his day; in the same way we must be eager to preach the gospel to our own culture, recognising that the Lord can change hearts. This gospel must be preached without compromise. There must be no accommodation to the general tolerance of our culture. Christ must be preached as Lord and we must call people to submit to Him.
This means we must continue to uphold the truth. In a pluralist culture it is the truth that suffers because it is regarded as being divisive; the emphasis is on the general, not the particular, on behaviour rather than belief.
This brings us to another important characteristic of our postmodern situation – the loss of truth.
The Loss of Truth
This characteristic is closely linked to those above: Secularism discards Christian truth because it regards God and His word as irrelevant to life. Pluralism devalues Christian truth by regarding it as one truth among many.
Again this is a major shift from the view of truth held during the time of Christendom. Then the Biblical story was regarded as authoritative – it gave meaning to life and made sense of human existence and history.
Not so any more. The Bible is regarded as a human book rather than God's Word; as containing errors and mistakes rather than infallible; as bound by the culture of its time rather than being timeless truth.
The prevailing thinking today is that it is impossible to really know the truth. Truth is as you see it; it is subjective, it is conditioned by your own perspective. No one can claim to have the truth because everyone makes up their own truth. Postmodernism rejects the idea of absolute truth and, along with that, objective ethical standards.
The consequences of this are obvious: All is at sea, everything is up for grabs, there can be no truth or error, right or wrong, fact or fiction. No one can tell anyone they are wrong because the truth is as you see it. No one can tell anyone else what to do or how to live because there is no ultimate standard; nothing to peg people back to.
Furthermore, the whole concept of truth has become irrelevant for many. People no longer want to know, "Is this true"; instead they ask, "Does it work?" Here, of course, is another barrier to the presentation of the gospel. What hearing can The Truth have in a society that questions the whole concept of truth? How can we call people to a standard when everything is relative?
I ask these questions to highlight the difficulty, but the answer lies in the questions themselves. Where truth is questioned it is all the more important to give a clear call to Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life. When there are no longer standards it is vital that we point people to the law of God and the absolutes He lays down.
Postmodernity has erected significant barriers to the gospel. But there have always been barriers to Christ and His word. What we must do is define them (as we have tried to do), understand how they work, and then aim the truth of the Scriptures directly at them.
I am not suggesting that we can overcome these barriers with our own ability or theology or apologetic. Only the Holy Spirit can throw down the obstacles sinful people set up. Only He can soften the heart, enlighten the mind and turn the will. Yet we also have a responsibility to present the gospel as clearly as we can, speaking to the issues of this day and age. We must be wise in our presentation of the gospel, aiming to communicate as effectively as possible, trying to get to where people are at, all the time praying that the Holy Spirit will use our words to bring about a conversion of mind and life in the lives of individuals and our society.