Postmodern Apologetics & Evangelism
In the Western Church it has been a staple diet of Church newspapers, conferences and academic studies that we now live in a postmodern age. There is a sense in which the whole postmodern thing can be overplayed in the whole church. It is not my intention to give yet another definition of postmodernism. The beautiful thing about postmodernism is that it is supposed to defy definition. However, it is essential to understand that the main and crucial idea of postmodernism is that there is no meta-narrative — no big story that explains everything. In addition to this we are supposed to be living in the post postmodern era where no ideologies matter. But is that true? Do ideologies no longer matter? In comfortable middle class materialistic areas of society that may be partially true but is it really the case that Islam does not matter, or Christianity, or Communism, or Socialism or Capitalism? One of the current difficulties in Western Europe is trying to understand why people would ‘believe’ to such an extent that they would be prepared to kill and be killed.
In postmodernism, institutions are suspect, the present is dominant and there is no master story — no meta-narrative. The lack of the long-term view makes style and image the most important things. In our Christianity we have to take this view on — “Such a-historicism coincides nicely with both postmodern epistemological doubt and a consumerist focus on immediate gratification: Who cares what some people might say about the past? Let’s focus on what we can do and get now. Christianity, however depends fundamentally upon caring about what happened in the past, particularly in the career of Jesus, and what the Bible says about it, so apologists must consider how to respond to this a-historicism so dominant in our culture.” (John Stackhouse)
However, although post modernism is an influential, if not the most influential philosophy of Western society, there are still considerable numbers of people who are traditional, or modern. Postmodernism is very limited. It does impact lots of people and is a significant factor in much that we see but it is not the meta-narrative that so many evangelicals now seem to think that it is. Richard Dawkins — in his latest book, The Devil’s Chaplain — ridicules it. No one really lives as a consistent postmodernist. But still it sells a lot of books and sounds good. Another caveat I would add is that there is nothing new under the sun. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.
It is not my intention to give you a detailed analysis of where we are in our society. Firstly because you can get that elsewhere. Secondly because it is constantly changing and thirdly because my theme is not so much asking where we are, but the more practical one of asking what we can do. Nonetheless perhaps you would allow me to make a few general observations about the current situation in our various societies.
Apathy: We are not persecuted. People just do not care. When we invite people to church it is not usually a hostile reaction we get but rather one of complete puzzlement as to why they would want to go. We live to some degree in an apathetic society — where many do not care about the ‘big questions’ and even if they do regard religion as something personal, that is your choice but really has nothing for them. We have a comedy show in Britain called the Royles. This consists of a family of couch potatoes who sit and watch TV and make usually trivial conversation in between cups of tea and biscuits. Try evangelizing them. Let me tie in a particular Christian aspect to this. It is simply this — most North Americans and many Europeans believe that they are Christians already and this reinforces their apathy to spiritual things. There is no sense of need, no urgency, no lostness, no awareness of the eternal.
Anxiety: Michael Moore in his film, ‘Bowling for Columbine’, argues that America is a nation governed by fear. His film is a polemic and as such is overstated, and doubtless many of us would not agree with the politics, but he does have a point. President Bush recently declared that the US should be a nation that is not afraid. I don’t know whether Moore is right or not, but what he says is certainly true of many people in Britain today. There is fear. That is of course part of the human condition — did not Jesus after all come to free those who all their lives are held in slavery by their fear of death? That has always been the case but I think postmodernism with its removal of certainties is something which has increased the fears of many people. We are more superstitious, frightened, concerned, worried. It is important to bear that in mind when seeking to communicate the Gospel.
Alienation: There is a sense of not belonging. We all want to belong. But if there are no meta-narratives — if there are no big ideas — then who are we? Where do we belong? Some people feel increasingly alienated from their environment. Again, in seeking to evangelise and church plant — this sense of not belonging must be taken into account.
Anger: This in turn leads to anger. Now that may sound a direct contradiction of the apathy point. But the truth is that there are many different stories and many different people and you are not going to get one meta-narrative that fits them all — except of course the gospel. The only thing that fits all human beings is that we are all made in God’s image, and we are all sinners in need of having that image restored. Whilst there is apathy amongst many there is also a great deal of anger. I think the American Rapper Eminem was correct when he said that there were a million like him. What is his appeal? Not just his rapping skill combined with catchy snippets of tunes, backed up by good marketing. His appeal is beyond that. He is a very angry young man — mixed up, horrible in some ways and yet a lot of postmodern young people can identify with the anger. It is something that drives and motivates and inspires and destroys. And again how do we reach and identify with the angry young men? Not by the weak, insipid and too nice Christianity which ignores the tough questions and the hard challenges.
These then are at least some of the people we are talking about and talking to — apathetic, anxious, alienated and angry.
How Do They Cope?
The pleasure principle: Hedonism rules. Friday is coming. Let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. There is no doubt that we live in an ethic of excess where material gratification is considered to be the key. In the USA in 2000 30% of new homes exceeded 2,400 sq. ft. in floor space compared with 18% in 1986. None of this is new. Other countries are also powerfully consumerist. How do you preach a Jesus who says that we cannot serve both God and Mammon, when our whole society seems to be based upon Mammon? As Stackhouse puts it,
To regard everything and everyone simply as commodities that might be selected for one’s own enjoyment is an attitude manifest throughout history especially by the powerful. Consumerism as a widespread cultural phenomena is simply most obvious and advanced in societies that are most prosperous and individualized, and thus it is most obvious and advanced in our own.
There is now an outbreak of status anxiety — with economic slowdown causing frustration for those who seek to achieve status by the acquisition of goods.
There are many people who question this materialism. Let us be careful not to write them all off as anti-globalisation nuts or tree huggers. There are some serious, committed, thoughtful people whom we need to listen to and to connect with on this issue. And these people are not impressed by Christians who talk about commitment to Christ but seem to do a pretty good job of serving mammon as well.
Today sensual gratification is a primary goal. It is what we live for. And America’s affluent environment indulges our insatiable appetites for pleasure. We seek to enjoy more than our sensuous hearts could possibly desire.Jon Johnston, Will Evangelicalism survive its own popularity?
Again we need to bear this in mind in our outreach. Who claim to be the most popular evangelists having the largest impact? Benny Hinn, Reinhard Bonnke, Joyce Meyer and other prosperity gospel preachers. But as reformed, Biblical Christians we have a different standard. Forget the blasphemy of health and wealth teaching. How about ‘Come, die?’ How about the rich young ruler? We should not seek to make church attractive in such a way that we then dare not proclaim the radical message of the gospel. What is the point of inviting people in on false pretences? Incidentally this consumerist mentality to churches must be challenged — the notion that we go church shopping — often with little respect to denominations, theology or principle.
The power principle: It gives people a sense of meaning to have power. That is a source of so much sexual abuse, emotional abuse. People like to have power. It is a temptation as old as the garden of Eden. And again we need to proclaim the Bible’s teaching on this and model it within our own congregations and relationships. Christians and especially Christian ministers on power trips are a contradiction in terms.
The peace principle: People want peace. There are people who genuinely want world peace (and again this is not something that we should just dismiss or mock). But not just that — peace in their own lives, relationships, work. Give me peace. Peace, peace when there is no peace for the wicked, says the Lord. People are looking for internal peace, and they do often associate that with religion and with the various self help therapies. “Countless Christians worry more about losing their self-esteem than about losing their souls.” We need to bring people to the Prince of Peace.
The pain principle: This is tied in with peace. Apart from a very few people, most want to be free from pain. You drink to take away the pain — physical and emotional. We live in a painful world and yet the lie of our 21st-century affluent philosophy is that we not only can, but we have the right to live without pain. And so we avoid pain and seek to live within our own comfort, painless zones. This makes it very hard to bring the gospel to people who will instantly shy away from anything that is going to cause them pain. And the gospel does. It is a pain that heals but it is there — the Word of God is like a sword. God wounds in order to bind up. The Spirit comes to convict of sin, righteousness and the judgment to come. We don’t like that we shy away from it — much as we would shy away from the dentist.
In one sense none of this is new. It may be that the decline of modernism and the rise of postmodernism or post-postmodernism accentuates some of these things more than others (and doubtless you could add many more) but the truth is that all of this is in the Bible. We may not be able to keep abreast of all the latest trends in philosophical thought but one thing is clear if we keep in touch with the Bible, if our blood flows ‘Bibline’ (in Spurgeon’s famous words), then we will find that the Bible reaches parts that other books cannot reach and that we ourselves are administering healing without necessarily knowing all that we are doing!
I do not wish to deprecate the study and understanding of what is happening in our world, but the best way to reach people is to teach the scriptures — even when we are not sure exactly where they stand. We would save ourselves a lot of time, money and angst if we did so.
Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean. Giving a bible study/training session at one mission we were told by one lady, “as Evangelism Explosion has taught us — God is love”. One of my colleagues murmured, “I think the apostle John got there first!”
Whilst preparing for this I read several books on reaching postmoderns — some were excellent, some infuriating and some quite simply ridiculous. In one of these books a great deal of effort, research and statistics were used in order to come to the astounding conclusion that people need other people and that it is better to believe in community rather than just individuals. A conclusion that we could have just as easily come to by reading the Bible and considering why the Lord gave us the church. We cannot determine ‘church’ by what is ‘in’ or not in the prevailing culture. Right now we are being told to use the psalms — because they are so postmodern. Well — we do use them — not just because they are emotional, nor just because they reflect the inner thoughts of Christ, nor just because they fit with the postmodern paradigm. We use them because they are biblical and we are not surprised that they work. Yes — tell people we are singing these 3,000 year old words accapella — that’s cool. But whether it is ‘cool’ or not does not ultimately matter. We do what is biblical.
Does it Matter How?
There are those who say that as long as we tell the gospel, it does not matter how we evangelise. There are two lines of half truths which have been used to justify this attitude. The first is to use Paul’s argument that to the Jews I became as a Jew. The argument then runs that we can do anything we like to bring the gospel to people — the only thing that matters is that we do bring the gospel to them. The second argument is to cite DL Moody’s defence when criticized for some of his methods ‘I prefer the way I evangelise to the way that you do not’ — a citation I have often used. However, that does not make it right. It is not the case that we are left with only two choices, unbiblical evangelism or no evangelism at all. Yet that is what we often think. It does matter what we do and how we reach out. And in particular it matters that our evangelism is biblical.
My main contention here is that evangelism is primarily church based. This is not to say that ‘personal evangelism’ is unimportant. The Church is after all made up of persons. Nor is it to deny the validity of the role of the wandering evangelist — but he is still to be a church evangelist, accountable to the church and with a desire and willingness to set up and to serve churches. But the Church itself is the basic and best way to reach out with the gospel. This is, of course, being increasingly recognized — whether it is Tim Keller pointing out that new churches equal new Christians, or some of our postmodern apologists suggesting that community is a key to outreach. And again they are reflecting the Bible. The notion of the individual evangelist answerable to no-one except God is profoundly unbiblical, as is the notion of the para-church organization answerable to no church. Because of the sinful divisions of the church of Christ there is a role for such organizations, but it should be limited, small and specialist.
It is here that we have, as Reformed Christians, a very helpful insight in terms of practical outreach. We have, or at least ought to have, a high ecclesiology. We need to stop excusing the church and/or ignoring her in evangelism and apologetics. The Church is key. There is very little positive thinking on this. In D A Carson’s excellent symposium — Telling the Truth — there is a chapter on church based evangelism which hardly mentions the church and ecclesiology.
Now it is not my intention to give a full discourse on ecclesiology but let me stress three biblical aspects which the church really needs to touch the post modern button.
Reality: We live in a plastic age which too often breeds plastic Christians. There is a sense of unreality and surrealism about so much of what we do. What people want is something real. This is beyond sincerity — ‘Oh, he does that sincere thing so well!’ What they want is something real, something that is not made up, artificial or put on. We really need to bear this is mind in our outreach. Are you for real? So often we are playing games, playing a role, adopting a strategy — there is precious little reality about it.
Radicalism: This is closely tied into the reality thing. We need to go back to the roots. Cracker Barrel goes back to the good old days of mama’s home cooking. Of course it is not real, it is as manufactured and false as McDonalds, but there is still this search for roots. Christians have to be really radical — taking everything back to the Scriptures — letting the Word of God be a sword which divides, exposes, reveals. That can be painful, but it works. In this sense it is almost the opposite of the seeker friendly church — “Come and die” is hardly the message of the seeker friendly church. This is particularly true of conversion where too often we treat it as something far less radical than the Bible does. We want people to have a comfortable transition from darkness into light. But Christian conversion changes everything. We have a new outlook on everything, a new attitude and motivation and a new relationship to everyone. Some may regard this radical approach as unpopular and not likely to win many people. My answer is twofold. Firstly, so what? If it is biblical we have to do it. If it is not biblical we have no right to do it. Secondly, it is not the case that it does not work. It is the very radicalness of Christianity which proves attractive to so many people and it is the incipient spinelessness of so much modern, commercial, market-driven Christianity which is driving people away.
Relationships: Relational evangelism is one of the buzz words that has been doing the round for some time now. People do need relationships, but again they need real ones. It is quite wrong to become friends with someone in order to ‘bring them to Christ’. It is manipulative, patronizing and unreal.
Take these three things together and what do we end up with? People must first of all have a real, radical relationship with Jesus Christ. The heart of all evangelism and apologetics stems from that. One book even suggests that as part of the ‘belonging before believing’ pattern, we could encourage non-Christians to be involved in evangelism! How deceitful and false is that?
Then we must have the same real, radical relationship with the Lord’s people in his church. Again that is crucial. The ultimate apologetic is the apologetic of the Church and the love that Christians have for one another. It should be transparent but not showy. “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another.” People may be superficially impressed by our large buildings, our choirs, our wealth, our eloquence (although they may just as easily be put off by them). But the world is not stupid — they know that these are just superficial, and they want to know the real story — what goes on underneath the surface. They are deeply cynical and all our protestations of love and peace will be only words, unless they see reality in our lives and our relationships with one another. They do not believe us — they know that an elder is just as likely to commit adultery as anyone else. We need a recovery of the practice of open, loving and biblical church discipline.
That is also true of our relationships with those outside the Church. They too need to be real and radical.
What is Happening in Reformed Churches just Now? Where are We?
There is of course a mixture of good and bad. There are those churches who are just not really being biblical in this respect. Their whole focus is based on maintaining their church. In Scotland in the Free Church we have many people who consider that if they have a manse, a building and a minister then that is sufficient. Kirk Sessions are there to maintain. In the USA I have come across churches where the leadership perceive themselves as being in a management role whose primary purpose is to maintain the assets of the congregation — particularly physical assets. Even when evangelism is considered in these situations it is considered more as a means to maintaining the church (get more people in) rather than as a means of glorifying God and bringing people into his kingdom. This is how we often end up with the abomination of churches targeting particular groups of people. Why is that an abomination? Because we are to target everyone, not one select group ‘whom God has laid on our hearts’ or whom we see as being crucial to maintaining the church. It becomes itself an absurdity when missionary organizations and churches place greater value on the millionaire’s tithe than they do on the widow’s mite. Another perceived problem is that Reformed churches often have a reputation for ‘fishing’ in other churches (teaching people the ‘way of God more perfectly’) and do little to evangelise the unchurched, the secular or the pagan.
There is a disturbing view that theology does not really matter in mission. The important thing is to get people into the church and then we can teach them theology. The idea being that theology is somehow an extracurricular activity. Bring them to Jesus first. But which Jesus? Theology is crucial. And theology must be precise. The use of language is crucial in post modern Christian apologetics. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Some people don’t care about historical evidence. They ask so what? Others believe anything, so Jesus rising from the dead is no big deal. Others are secularist and will look for any alternative explanation possible. We need to understand how our neighbours are thinking and be able to apply theology to them.
The use of the excuse of postmodernism to justify unbiblical practices and evangelism. Let me contrast two books for you. Metzger’s — Tell the Truth — which has just been republished and, also published by IVP, Richardson’s Evangelism outside the Box. Metzger’s can be recommended unequivocally. Indeed it is one book I would encourage all my elders to have. Richardson’s indicates the change that is occurring in reformed evangelism and it is not positive. There are of course good things and indeed some perceptive things. But in general the overall tone and ethos is somewhat sad. There is a theological ignorance as to what Calvinism and Arminianism are (one is it all depends on God, the other that it all depends on us). There is also an historical ignorance — for example “For the Celts Jesus was the fulfiller of Pagan religion rather the destroyer of pagan religion”! He continually uses the term — pre-Christian. The implication being that these are people who are going to become Christian. I prefer the biblical idea of lost, helpless, dead. Much less comfortable. Much more realistic. Much less patronizing. Richardson also points out and endorses the commonly accepted views that experience comes before explanation, belonging comes before believing and image comes before word. Other aspects of the book I will interact with later.
Seeker friendly services. I am sure you are all familiar with the model of Willowcreek. There is of course some common sense and some things to learn from Willow Creek — but I would suggest that we should only do so in the context of Biblical ecclesiology. Of course it is a good idea to go to where people are, to bring them the gospel and to engage in dialectic discourse, using the arts and so on. But to replace the worship of God with this is entirely wrong. The notion that we have big celebratory events or gigs on the Lord’s Day and then we teach people doctrine in small groups is one that is gaining alarming precedence. I even read in the Rutherford House Journal one Church of Scotland minister arguing that teaching should not now take place through public preaching. That route is the route of multi-media entertainment. It is the route of highly theatrical, complex and liturgical worship. There is a place for this — but not in the public worship of God’s people and not under the guise of making our congregations seeker friendly for non-Christians. It fails the criteria of being radical and it does not really work — often bringing people into the church on the false premise that it is all like this. Redeemer Church in New York has a higher percentage of non-Christians attending than Willow Creek. Tim Keller gets more non-Christians to his traditional classical style morning service than he does to the jazz service in the evening. Whatever the rights and wrongs of different styles of worship, sometimes we introduce different things with evangelism as either the excuse or the motive, whereas to be honest it is often Christians who look for these kind of things — either under the mistaken assumption that it will prove more acceptable to non-Christians, or more often with the notion that it will be good for us.
Evangelism training programmes. This may have worked in the modern era but I would argue that they are largely a waste of time and money in the post-modern era. Postmoderns are averse to programmes. I am a postmodern. We too often hide behind programmes. It reminds me of a farm labourer with 30 years experience who was one day told by his boss that a new manager was coming. This was a young man who had just completed his agricultural degree and was ready to begin. He was arrogant, inexperienced and a disaster. He set up a structure and a system which looked great in theory but it did not work. He needed to listen to the experienced man who knew his animals and then combine his technological experience with that. Too often in what we call evangelism, we take people, train them, and then tell them that they are now experts in outreach. It is just not true. It is not real. It is not radical and it most certainly is not about relationships. I think of one young girl who wrote and told me that God had called her into Christian leadership in Scotland to train the leaders. There was no humility. No fruit of the Spirit.
Christianity is not a program. Evangelism is not something that we can be trained to do. Let’s teach people the Word and let them loose. The trouble is we have hidden the Word behind a mess of language, concepts and training which have done little but obscure the basic simplicity of the radical NT concept of evangelism and simply living and telling the gospel. Which is not to say that there is no place for training, but is has to be done in context and must never be non-theological and act as a substitute for real Christian experience and real Christian life. Let me put it another way: the best way for us to evangelise is to get our people thrilled about Jesus Christ. One hat that I wear is that of Chaplain to Dundee Football Club. A couple of years ago they made it to the Scottish Cup Final. I did not need to go on a training course so that I could learn to celebrate or learn how to share that with others. The same when my wife-to-be said ‘yes’ to my proposal of marriage or when our children were born. We just tell. And even if you do not have a clue as to what I am talking about the very excitement and reality of it will communicate to you. Having said that, there are resources that we can use which will help us as we seek to communicate something of the thrill of the Gospel — the best of these in my view is Christianity Explored — because it is Biblical, allows adaptation and is in effect a ten times better Alpha.
Friendship evangelism. This is currently in vogue. Even to the extent of dating evangelism. Flirty Fishing. But also the deliberate practice of strategic consumerism. This is not buying things because of social justice, but rather going to particular shops in order to evangelise. Now in one sense we are all for making contact, but surely it should be real, not artificial. I am here to buy this bread in your shop because you are my local shop, I like you, your bread is good. Surely that is a far more real and wholesome relationship than to be in the shop because you just want to evangelise them by showing how nice you are?
Personal — Contact, Connect and Communicate
How can we have relationships with people who are outside our circle? How can we have long term relationships with people who move on so much? By getting involved in our local communities — not just taking an occasional excursion into enemy territory to salve our consciences. But we should rather “live such good lives amongst the pagans that they would glorify God”. The trouble is that sometimes we have created Christian ghettos where we have our own communities where everything is christianized and as a result we find it very difficult to reach out — firstly we are too busy running our church programs (including the outreach ones) and so we have no time for understanding our relationships with non-Christians. Time here is a crucial factor. We need to think of our stewardship of time. You cannot build bridges without time. Can I suggest that a lot of our evangelism is wasted because of bad stewardship of time? And of course what is key here is a personal walk with God. We are to walk a life worthy of the Lord. McCheyne’s great dictum was, “My people’s greatest need is my own holiness”. Linda Zagzebski said, “The experience of knowing holy people is still the most important evidence to me of Christianity”. A key aspect of this is surely humility. Christians should never give the impression of being know-it-alls.
We need to encourage our people in this. These are days of great openness and opportunity — not for canned, artificial presentations of the Gospel, but for open conversation. There is a level playing field — philosophically. You can begin anywhere you like, with any presuppositions that you want and spin out the world view you want. It is open house. There is an open market and we need to get in there and our people need to be in there.
This is also true in regard to their lifestyle and works. C. S. Lewis said in God in the Dock:
I believe that any Christian who is qualified to write a good popular book on any science may do much more by this than by any directly apologetic work. The difficulty we are up against is this. We can make people attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our Faith is not likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.
The same goes for other fields as well. It is the apologetic of quality, of the Reformed world view and of the effects that flow from that. The apologetic of good works.
And secondly, when we do make contact with people we do not often connect or communicate because, not only do we not speak their language, but we tend to equate the gospel (or at least they do) with our whole Christian sub-culture. So that becoming a Christian seems like exchanging one type of rock music for another, one type of book for another, one type of politics for another. This ghetto, by the way, is often restricted to domestic and cultural issues, it does not apply to the business world where we can very often mix it with the rest of them!
The key here is simply this: let us preach Jesus, not church membership, or our own sub-culture. But let us bring everything back to him. This was the starting point for the apostles — Jesus is alive.
Apologists therefore will want to focus upon the claims Christians have made about Jesus, rather than abstractions about religion, theism or even Christianity. The particular claims about Jesus lie at the heart of the matter.Stackhouse
In terms of personal outreach we need to deal with both the emotional and the intellectual. We need to press people as to their own responsibility. We cannot make decisions for people, but we can encourage them to see that God requires them to repent and believe. It is a worrying trend that even Reformed Christians are beginning to go down this route of almost leaving repentance out — or at least de-emphasizing it to the extent that it becomes almost peripheral. There is a worrying trend sometimes in apologetics to act almost as if we can persuade people by intellectual argument into the kingdom. It is a tool that helps, but we need constantly to bear in mind that Christian apologetics cannot convince anyone to become a Christian because as Stackhouse puts it “argument cannot produce affection”. And conversion is radical, requiring a change of heart and affection.
In terms of apologetics let me again quote Stackhouse whose insight on this is excellent. He argues that we do not undertake apologetics “in the hope of convincing someone by overwhelming him or her with the superiority of the Christian religion. Instead, we do so in the hope of presenting our neighbour with a clear enough picture of the Christian religion that the Holy Spirit can find it useful to employ in his dialogue with the neighbour’s heart.” In this regard let us encourage our people to use the Bible. Not in the sense of quoting scriptures like a machine gun but rather in simply encouraging people to read the Bible and to give it to others to read. Why is it that we think it would be better to give someone a tract or a book explaining the Bible rather than getting them to read the Word itself? I think of one man who recently came to our church and found the book of Job speaking to him — or another who thought the Gospel of Mark was ‘OK but only half as good as that Ecclesiastes’!
The other key aspect to this is prayer.
No learning can make up for the failure to pray. No earnestness, no diligence, no study, no gifts will supply its lack. Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is greater still.E.M. Bounds
Christianity Explored is the best course for outreach, in my opinion, partly because it stresses this need for prayer. The conversation that really counts is not the conversation between ourselves and our friend, but the one between our friend and the Holy Spirit.
It is important to realize that there are the lost within the church, the lost who will visit the church and the lost who will never visit the church. With the first we must continue to proclaim the gospel, love them and regularly pray for them. I would also suggest that regular pastoral visitation is crucial. With the second we do the same but we also try and give them occasions to visit the church — supper evenings, music nights etc. And with the third we go to them. With them all there must be the powerful apologetic of the love that Christians have for one another.
What about the view that is increasingly being put forward of belonging before believing? There is a sense in which we accept that. Our adherents belong before believing. We all belong to the human race or one particular area. There is even a sense in which we can see people having some kind of identity with our church, but we must not go beyond that.
Non-believers do not belong. In my tradition when we celebrate communion we come forward to ‘the table’. Some do not like this — thinking that it is too exclusive. Good. It should be. It is exclusive. Only the Lord’s people should be at the Lord’s table. No, you are not welcome to take this. Why? Because you do not belong! You are welcome to belong, but you must first of all realize that you do not belong.
In fact let us turn that on its head. Let us stress the wonder of belonging to Christ and the fact that that is synonymous with belonging to his church. Let us take back baptism as an initiatory and conversion rite. Let us reject absolutely the unbiblical nonsense of pronouncing people Christians, after they have made a profession of faith and yet they never come to church, they are never incorporated into the body of Christ.
Despite all that I have said, I would still advocate that any local Kirk Session should have a strategy for outreach and evangelism, with the above caveats in mind. It is after all a truism of postmodern outreach that we do things in teams. Two by two!
There is rightly an enthusiasm for church planting. I struggle with the current jargon of CPM’s (Church Planting Movements). Planting one church is hard enough. Get on with that and see what happens. One word of caution. The beauty of a church plant is not that it allows you the freedom to go along with the culture or to show how trendy and cool you are, but rather that you have the freedom to start afresh, seeking to be biblical, unhindered by years of accumulated unbiblical traditions.
Is it right to have ethnic churches, I mean churches which are white, black, Dutch, Scottish and so on? It may fit church growth theory, but I think that it is wrong on two counts. Firstly it is unbiblical. Can you imagine Paul setting up apartheid churches in Corinth or in Rome? Secondly, it’s wrong because in post-modern terms a multi-ethnic church is a powerful apologetic. Our churches should reflect the unity of the people of God and the diversity of the community around us. We are multi-ethnic. We are not a group of people who worship a dead white male and who are lead by dead white males. I have no difficulty in pointing out that Jesus was not white. In my own congregation I am happy to have people of different backgrounds, skin colours and politics.
And think about the Reformed Church — we do not buy into that “Christianity is Western” nonsense, so loved by the relativist liberals. We are multi-ethnic. Speaking of which let me say something about language. We are sometimes far too negative in our use of language — reinforcing the stereotypes of our listeners. Why preach against multi-culturalism? We are the ultimate multi-cultural group — many tribes, languages, peoples and tongues. We need to recapture the language and use it properly. I would argue for multi-culturalism, tolerance and all the buzz words of the liberal postmodern — including liberal! Why? Because these words have a positive meaning. When you say we are against the liberals you mean that you are against those who do not accept the Word of God. But when a liberal hears you say that, he hears you saying that you are against those who are open minded and tolerant.
We do need to think about how we can build bridges and how we can help our people connect with the communities we are in. It is not just going to happen. Evangelism is often equated with door to door. There is a role for door to door work — but we need to think about it. We have recently been involved in a door to door survey in a town to the north of my home city, Dundee. It has been very helpful and useful. But think about it from the perspective of the people who are the recipients. How would we think if this was being done to us? For example it is kind of ‘in’ in some circles just now to have people do ‘evangelism’ by going round to tidy up someone’s yard. What would you feel about that? I would ask ‘why?’ What if I got the honest answer: “Actually it is because we read in a book that this is the best way to reach out to you and show Gods love”? In other words what I am arguing for is a requirement for sensitivity, especially in this pluralistic age, not the attitude of a Christian missionary group in Edinburgh who sent young girls in shorts and t-shirts to hand out tracts stating that Jesus was the Son of God to young Muslim men entering the mosque!
Building Based Evangelism
Come to church — we mean it literally. We are used to our building. We are comfortable with it. But are they? Where would the unchurched feel comfortable? Should we want them to feel comfortable? Having said that, we need to again recognize the centrality of the church as the people of God in apologetics. In fact the biggest single limiting factor in apologetics and outreach in the West is simply the dreadful state of the churches. Which is why reformation, ecclesiology and spiritual renewal are essential for effective evangelism.
Richardson argues that because pre-Christian people will not listen to expository preaching we should find ways to make the Bible more interactive, foster dialogue and experiential learning and help people to enter into the Scriptures imaginatively. No. It is about God speaking. It is about God communicating and this is the way he has chosen. Whether it be medieval mystery plays or 21st century interactive media, we have no right to take away from the plain and simple preaching of the word of God. It is my contention that it is not non-Christians who have difficulty with the whole concept of communication through the preached word — but rather some Christians. I think of one young man who came to our services. He got up one morning and ‘felt’ like going to church. After walking out of the nearest charismatic church (because it did not ‘feel’ like church) he came to St Peters. Why did he stay? Because it ‘felt’ like church (and this from someone with no church background) and because as he put it — ‘I need to hear the Word’. Incidentally he came to the evening service and not to the morning one. Why? The morning was his lie-in time. Others may have awkward shift patterns. There may be reasons why we do not have evening services, but I suspect that it has little to do with reaching out, and could have a great deal to do with self indulgence and laziness — the golf course, or people say it is family time. Am I missing something? Is Church not the ultimate family time? The problem with the evening service is when Christians will not come to it. Apart from anything else that is apologetically a disaster. If the gospel is such good news how come Christians can only manage to endure one service? The world just does not buy that. One lady who had been recently converted asked me, ‘How could I go the whole week without hearing the Word of God?’ If we claim it is our bread of life, our meat, our light, our guidance etc why do we not want it? And is there not something wrong when we cannot get people to come and hear the word on the Lord’s Day evening, but they will come if there is something lighter — more music — a bit more entertainment?
Furthermore, we have often added so many extra things that they take away from the Word. We try to create a sense of reverence, so we add liturgy and formality. We try to create a sense of joy and informality, so we add a praise band. Nor must we excuse bad preaching. If you take away all the adornments what are you left with?
In preaching we also need to remember the reality, relationship and radical trip (that includes relevance). We are not there to entertain people or to focus on ourselves. Richardson suggests that we need to tell humorous self-deprecating anecdotes about ourselves to get post modern people to trust us — “they don’t trust people with an agenda”. But that is just plain deceit. We do have an agenda. He is just suggesting that we cover it up! “Post modern people are drawn to people who are willing to look foolish” This is the kind of nonsense that gets Christianity a bad name. Firstly we have to stop letting the world dictate our agenda, and secondly it is just not true. Post modern people are just as dismissive of stupidity as anyone else — to disguise it as religious is a double crime. I recall a group of students doing a praise march round the old quad in Edinburgh University — much to the amusement of the Dons and lawyers. Cringe value!
Professor Donald Macleod of the Free Church College puts it beautifully:
To many of our people, such doctrines as the Trinity, the incarnation and the atonement are closed books. The need is not for the exposition of simple themes, laced with anecdotes and seasoned with histrionics, but for the lucid exposition of the riches of revelation. Each Lord’s Day congregations should be led to the point where they cry, ‘O the Depth!’ And if they are not — if we have robbed the gospel of the great elements of mystery and wonder and depth and paradox — then we have failed in our mission and cheated our people. Men may laugh. They may gnash their teeth. But the only message we have a right to preach is one so astonishing that angels desire to look into it and so profound that they have to stoop to do so.
A minister who recently visited Scotland declared that the reason that the Church in Scotland had declined was because it had failed to keep up with the culture — particularly in worship. And when I contrasted the church he had visited — a small number of people, singing psalms and struggling to get people into church (and fairly dead) — with the one he now pastors — excellent orchestra, a choir bigger than the other whole congregation, a beautiful multi-million dollar building, numerous programmes and so on, it was hard not to think that he had a point! However I have my doubts. Firstly, I am certain that the church in Scotland did not decline because it failed to keep up with the culture — in fact it could be argued precisely the opposite — it was because the church tried to keep up with the culture that it declined. If the church does that, then we will always be playing catch up — we will always be out of date.
Secondly, I am not convinced that the paradigm for NT worship is to be either our culture or the OT temple. If we create worship to suit one culture, are we not in danger of creating numerous different churches and even dividing the body of Christ? Whilst there are cultural aspects which almost inevitably will come across — dress and so on — is it not the case that there are scriptural principles which can be applied in all situations? Here again the Reformed distinctives can be very helpful in this. Surely our worship is to be simple, scriptural and spiritual. It is to be real. Is the elaborate, orchestrated, choreographed service ‘real’? Does it appear real to post moderns or does it not appear to be more of a show? How can you go to two services in the same church where everything is the same — even the ‘spontaneous’ asides and the tears! Where is there room for the Spirit to move? I am not saying this does not happen, but I am suggesting that the more additions we bring into public worship the more likely we are to obscure the heart of the matter. There is something liberating about having nothing to hide behind.
Let me ask a question about worship here. I have noticed a trend, almost as a reaction to ‘contemporary’ worship, towards a more liturgical and Anglican style. By the way could anyone tell me what is wrong with being contemporary? Surely we should seek to be so? There is no justification for being deliberately archaic. Our worship should be contemporary. That does not mean that we have to go the route of a certain style. I suspect we could argue back and forward the merits of this, but please allow me to say that as a Scot I find it strange that on the one hand there are those who laud the sacrifice of the Covenanters in the 16th century and yet on the other consider it ‘Reformed’ and Presbyterian to introduce a liturgy which these men were dying to prevent happening! Be that as it may — and they could have been wrong — I am not convinced that the attempt to introduce reverence in this way necessarily works and I doubt very much if it has any particular appeal to post-moderns. It comes across as ‘religious’.
I would be prepared to argue for (but not to die for!) what I will coin as Postmodern, Puritan Praise. Not Pentecostal. Not Prelatic. What does that involve? Preaching, Prayer and Psalms. I am not disputing that we can sing other things, but I am suggesting that the Psalms are particularly postmodern. They are old. They are poetic. They are full of emotion and they are full of the emotional life of Christ. Furthermore they are ecumenical. Not part of western culture. But universal to the Church of God.
In respect of worship in postmodern culture the most important thing is not so much what is done but rather that it is done well. Tim Keller talks of Mrs. Brown who plays the piano (badly) and the old hymn tunes. The congregations know her, know the tunes and love her and therefore are able to forgive her bad playing. But Joe Bloggs comes in and he does not know nor love either her or the tunes. All he hears is bad music. That is inexcusable.
In Biblical terms we are concerned with what is done and we are also concerned that it is done well. Simple, Spiritual and Scriptural.
One final thought about the local church and doctrine. If you need to wear a badge, a t-shirt or a Geneva gown saying you are reformed then there is something wrong. What I mean is this. Our being reformed is something that is in the background. It permeates everything that we do — not because we like the party label but because it is Biblical. We are teaching our people the Bible. And we can do so without ever mentioning Calvin or Reformed. In Church planting I think it is quite wrong to lay a stress on our distinctives and attack others. Let’s just preach the word — sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura, semper reformanda — that is Reformed.
It is here that we as Presbyterian and Reformed should have an advantage. Surely we can see that we are not just concerned about our own individual congregations? The chaos theory of church growth. The ripple effect. Again we run into the danger here of accepting that the term Reformed Church planting is almost seen as an oxymoron. Do we not first of all let people go and start a church, convert people and then we can come and teach the way of God more perfectly? Apart from the sheer arrogance of such an approach we are absolutely failing to recognize the riches in our Reformed heritage in this respect and we are being completely unbiblical. What is the point of Calvinistic theology and Arminian methodology?
The church must lead these things — and not just leave it up to individuals or missionary organizations. And we must be far more radical than we are. Why is it that we find some areas with lots of churches (often suburban middle class areas) whilst others are left bereft. Why do we plant churches in wealthy suburban areas and yet have little strategic outreach for many other poorer areas — unless it is the sop of the occasional inner city outreach? Our presbyteries need to be more proactive in this regard.
We are part of the body of Christ throughout the world. Our mission as such is international. The equation of Christianity with a narrow minded nationalism or cultural parochialism is something that we must avoid. But we must also avoid the romanticisation of missionaries and overseas mission. We too often let people go to the mission field whom we would never use in our own church. Much money is wasted on foreign mission, it is largely uncontrolled by the church and is left to special interests. We need to be much more discerning, proactive, theological, Biblical and church based in our overseas mission.
Why is it that we tolerate things in overseas mission that we would not tolerate anywhere else? We need to stop demanding success as the criteria. And we must be more realistic about what we expect. I was amazed to read an advert in a Reformed theological college when I was visiting which informed us that Evangelism Explosion in Eastern Europe was so successful that it worked out at $1 per soul saved. That is an abomination.
Another bad practice in much current mission is the notion of ‘follow the money’. Go where the success is. How often do we hear people confidently telling us that they know the Holy Spirit is working in China but not amongst the Muslims? I have heard ministers state quite seriously that you will get more converts for your money in China and Africa than Europe so that is where the money and the missionaries should be going. Let me suggest this as an alternative strategy. The key needs for South America, Africa and China are probably not mercy ministries (essential though they are), or evangelists (the Africans and the Chinese seem to be pretty good at that themselves). They certainly do not need the various cultural aberrations and denominational divisions imported from the West. But the greatest thing we can humbly offer is centuries of Bible teaching and history. Let us send theologians and Bible teachers, not those who regard theology as an almost unnecessary diversion.
We need to network a lot more in this respect — not build our own little empires — there is already far too much of that. But rather we need to follow the example of our forefathers. McCheyne and the other Scottish evangelicals were regularly informed of what was going on in the US. How is it that with all the mass media today we are so little informed? We pray so little for one another.
We need to own works and we need to go for long term strategic goals. The ICRC needs to think in terms of Europe as one entity and try and establish strategic bridgeheads. Can we co-operate with MTW and other like minded Reformed brethren to help plant new churches in Scandinavia, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe?
We need the Dutch, the Americans, Koreans, Africans, the Scots, the Irish and the English to work together on this. Rather than set up yet another organisation we should work through established church bodies and groups such as the ICRC. The idea is of genuine partnership — not control, not domination. (I am not arguing that there is no place for individual extra-denominational bodies, just simply that it is passing strange that we, as Reformed Christians, seem to have so bought into the individualistic model and have left ecclesiology behind).
The above are some thoughts and suggestions. I guess I want to believe that evangelism and church planting is part of the Reformed understanding of scripture. And I want to argue that it is not a peripheral part in which our theology and worship has only a limited scope, but rather it is precisely that theology, government and worship which is the means the Lord uses to build up his church, bring sinners to himself and glory to his name — whether in a postmodern, modern, traditional or whatever culture and age we happen to live in.