In the modern paradigm, evangelism was all about convincing people rationally that they were sinners and needed Jesus to save them from the penalty of their sins, or perhaps trying to prove that God exists. You can still see examples of this approach all over, exemplified especially in The Way of the Master, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron’s evangelism website. The tag line is "Seeking and Saving the Lost the Way Jesus Did," which is a tad misleading, because Jesus never engaged in any of the tactics they use. One ridiculous illustration of this
is a video where Ray Comfort tries to convince us that God must exist because bananas are so easy to eat. Again, I am not making this up. All this is evangelism for the old paradigm, unfortunately, and it simply doesn’t reach postmodern people. In fact, people post that video on YouTube because it’s funny, not because they suddenly became Christians when they realized God made the banana with a non-stick surface.
In the old paradigm, there is only one "door" to faith: realizing you’re a sinner and need a savior to "get to heaven when you die." If Christian faith is a house, modern evangelism says you’d better come in the "front door" of repentance, please. And wipe your feet. In the postmodern world, I think there are multiple doors to faith. Probably even some windows. In fact, I think those doors were there all along, it’s just that more and more people are realizing there’s more than one way into the house, and modern evangelism is feeling a bit panicky because they can’t guard all the entrances anymore. People are climbing in through windows and that just isn’t proper etiquette! Plus they’re getting the carpet dirty!
Now, I am not talking about a different theological "door" (Jesus is THE way – I’m not saying that following the Dalai Lama is just as good as following Jesus), but I am talking about different practical doors to faith. In the old paradigm, nothing mattered except that moment of "crossing the threshold" (which was seen as "asking Jesus into your heart", a phrase found nowhere in the Bible). Until they reach that point, people are considered outsiders, and treated as such. But in postmodern evangelism, any move toward God matters, and many times the line between insiders and outsiders can’t be strictly defined.
For example, what if someone has a revelation of their responsibility toward creation before they have a revelation of their own sinfulness? Do we have a way to invite these people into an exploration of why they feel this responsibility? Or what if before someone becomes a bona fide follower of Jesus, they first realize that consumerism and materialism are lies? Do we have space for a person like that in our churches? Is there a way for them to interact with Christians on those issues without the pressure of "asking Jesus into their hearts"? What if, instead of training people in the four spiritual laws or some such method, we trained people to have spiritual conversations with others. What if we trained people in the overarching themes of the faith, so their ears perk up when someone has even the faintest glimpse of truth? When someone realizes that consumerism is a horrible way to live, are we able to talk with people about that, leading them gently toward faith, or do we quickly point out their "humanist" perspective and their lack of faith?
In postmodern evangelism, conversations are how you measure effectiveness. Conversions will come, to be sure. There still is a "threshold" to be crossed, into the new humanity. But that is primarily the Holy Spirit’s work. We can point the way, and lead people along a path, but reciting magic words isn’t going to save anybody. It’s when we believe and confess, and the believing part is God’s work. Too many times our methods get in the way of that work, I think.
So we’re going to need to be open to people coming toward faith from all kinds of different angles, and we’re going to have to create space for these very diverse and strange people (to us) to explore Christianity as it relates to whatever glimpse of truth God has given them. The "doors" toward faith in and following of Jesus Christ in the postmodern world are wonderfully diverse; the simple recognition of the transcendence of beauty (beauty speaks of that which is beyond), the ache and longing for justice, the quest for deep spirituality, the enjoyment of life’s pleasures, the need for authentic relationships, and yes, even the good old recognition of brokenness and the need for Someone Else to make it better.
Really it’s a question of what it actually looks like for a missional community to allow people to belong before they believe. It’s allowing someone to climb into the house through the window with
their muddy shoes, and gently guiding them toward the good manners of using the front door and wiping their feet. But we don’t close the window after that, we keep it open for others who are looking for a way into faith and meaning in life. In fact, we throw open all the windows and doors, we even create a few new doors where there was only a wall. We prepare ourselves to deal with the mess and chaos of having people enter from all different directions, because I’d much rather deal with the chaos of too many than the stifling boredom of having nobody interested at all. Postmodern evangelism is going to have to prepare for a mess if it’s going to be effective in reaching people.
several of my friends and i have seen the the blurring of the “crossing the line.” this is helpful. this is a great summary of postmodern evangelism in contrast to modern.
Benjamin Sternke says
The other thing about “crossing the line” is that only God really knows when that happens. I see our job more as pointing people in the right direction, confident that eventually God will pull them across the line, and then even further.
Nigel James says
Ben-I guess I’m catching up on your blog a long way behind other people but I’ve just been reading bits of it and been tremendously provoked and inspired- and it’s 11.30pm in the UK.
I’ll try to check you out regularly, and look forward to seeing you when I’m in Fort Wayne in October.
Ben Sternke says
Glad you stopped by, Nigel! And let’s make sure we catch up in October. Hope things are going well.