Evangelizing a Postmodern World

By Randy Sawyer

For most of human history, a person rarely came in contact with someone from outside his culture. The average person had no idea there were other cultural realities, other claims to ultimate truth, other absolute beings asserted. On those rare occasions when different cultures interacted, reconciling those differences was usually pretty simple.

One asked, “Who is right and who is wrong?” The question was, of course, easy to answer—“I am right and you are wrong. I will conquer you if I have to, or convert you if I can.”

The Situation We Face

We now live and work with different cultures every day, and we are faced with varied claims to truth. Further, it is considered politically incorrect for one group to suggest their belief system to be the final authority, and even worse to attempt to convert others to that worldview.

One predominant characteristic of today’s postmodern mindset is that truth claims are not universal but cultural, derived from one’s time and space connections. Since no one group has a monopoly on truth, we are encouraged celebrate diversity and, through tolerance, seek to co-exist in peace.

America has always been a multicultural society, described historically as the “melting pot.” Immigrants from all over the world with varied cultural diversity were blended into one people. The very name, “United States,” and the motto, “e pluribus unum,” identified the intention of our founding fathers to join all peoples into one republic.

Individualism was highly valued, and immigrants were allowed, even encouraged, to express their ethnic heritage. Yet the diverse groups were homogenized into a uniform people, all answering to the label American. The emphasis was on uniqueness but unity. Post-modernism, on the other hand, celebrates uniqueness and insists upon disunity.

No longer is it simply American, but Anglo-American, Afro-American, Native-American, Hispanic-American or Asian-American. The prevailing rule is that each group must be free to express itself according to its values and beliefs. We must not invade the space occupied by another. We must certainly not seek to evangelize others.

The Strategy We Need

The greatest question facing the church today is how to fulfill the great commission in this cultural diversity and religious pluralism. In an essay titled “Evangelism in a Postmodern World,” James Emory White provided an analysis of our dilemma and offered suggestions for a postmodern strategy of evangelism. White suggested an imagery scale of one to 10, with one representing the person who is far from Christ and 10 symbolizing that individual “in Christ.”

He then mused that the average person we might have encountered in our evangelistic efforts in the 1950s was most likely at least a seven on the scale. That is, most possessed at least some knowledge of scripture, were convinced of absolute truth, had a sense of morality and were prone to attend church now and again.

However, he observed that the person we approach today in our evangelistic efforts is likely a two on the scale. This means the average person is ignorant of scripture, questions the existence of ultimate truth, lives in a self-contained world where personal morals are not to be forced upon others and seldom attends church. The methods of the 1950s, therefore, must be revised if we are to make an impact in a postmodern society. What is appropriate methodology then for evangelism in a postmodern world?

Thoroughly Scriptural

First, our strategy must be thoroughly scriptural. Biblical literacy appears to be at an all-time low in the Western world. The truth claims of God’s self-revelation must be presented to counter-balance society’s propensity toward relativism.

Paul instructed Timothy to “preach the word,” “give attention to reading and doctrine,” and “to be instant in season, out of season.” He then clearly stated that the need for such a biblical ministry was predicated on the fact that in the latter times “men shall not endure sound doctrine.” Paul’s prescription for a sick society was to faithfully minister the Word.

Culturally Relevant

Second, our strategy for evangelism in a postmodern age must be culturally relevant. White observed, “Effective churches will attempt to convey the message of the Gospel in a manner that is understandable to contemporary culture.” The key is “bridging the gap.”

Translating the gospel into the forms of contemporary culture has been in the vanguard of every effective evangelistic movement, beginning with Christ and the apostles, through the reformation, into the great revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries. Further, contextualizing the gospel has always been the challenge as missionaries confront different cultures. The gospel must be translated into the context of a given age. We must, therefore, retain the integrity of the message while reshaping the format of the presentation.

Appropriately Relational

Third, effective evangelism in a postmodern era will be relational. Rather than allowing ourselves to be isolated from culture, we must be insulated from the world’s values while seeking to infiltrate to “make disciples.” Christ ate with “publicans and sinners,” providing an appropriate example of what it means to befriend a sinner without becoming a sinner. He targeted individuals and extended the Kingdom one relationship at a time.

Likewise, Paul “became all things to all men” as he traversed the Mediterranean world in Christ’s name. Compare Paul’s presentation before the synagogue with his message before the learned Athenians. Notice his observance of long-standing Jewish rituals, even after his conversion to Christ. He clearly sought to know the cultural background of his audience in order to shape his ministry among them accordingly.

Process Driven

Fourth, we must view our task in terms of “process” rather than “event.” It will take a great deal of time and effort to move an individual from a three on the scale to an eight. With scriptural illiteracy so high, pluralism the unquestioned policy, and relativism the universal philosophy, we must be willing to establish relationships and gradually move people along the scale.

This is not to decry confrontation evangelism, because we do not know how far along an individual may be. But as a general rule postmodern times require process evangelism.

As we lovingly befriend individuals within our sphere of influence and faithfully model and proclaim the evangelical message, we are promised that the Spirit will use the Word to cut through the cultural surface and transform hearts for the kingdom.

About the Writer:Dr. Randy Sawyer has been Pastor of First Free Will Baptist Church in Gastonia, NC, for many years. The article is adapted from the October 2003 issue of ContactMagazine.