The mention of the word “postmodernism” evokes the notion of pluralism, where anything goes, since the concept of truth becomes relative. This then poses a real challenge to the Christian “one-way” method of salvation, where the Bible clearly provides evidence of Jesus asserting, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes [to God] to the father, except through me” (John 14:6). Later on, the Apostle Peter echoes these words without apology: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). These absolutes of the Christian message suffered in the advent of modernistic worldview and now suffer more from postmodernism. The question that begs an answer is: What does postmodernism mean for evangelism today? We must begin our discussion with a historical survey that will trace the winding path through which postmodernism has come to us. This will then lead to the question of evangelism in a postmodern world.
This worldview dominated the medieval times until the 1798 French Revolution. In this worldview, the “Western world” believed in the supernatural. The existence of God was taken for granted and the spirit world was taken as a fact. The spiritual world, which existed beyond the five senses, controlled the happenings of the physical world. Biblical Christianity was readily accepted during this premodern era. Church dogma was also readily accepted and evangelism came in the form of proclamation (cf. 1 John 1:3, 5). People were expected to believe the truth of the Bible without question.
Premodern era values began to be undermined by the advent of the first Renaissance followed by the Reformation. The real threat to premodernism was, however, the Enlightenment era. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, philosophers like René Descartes and Immanuel Kant began to question the source of authority. What had been taken for granted as the source of authority—Church and the scriptures—was put to the test. The philosophers sought to free humanity from the bondage of superstition and bring them to the land of religious freedom. In this land, rational inquiry, empirical evidence and scientific discovery were of cardinal importance. The tables of religion were overturned and in their place human reasoning was enthroned. Some found it easier to become deists and to think of God as one who created the world and the universe and then walked away. Here God could exist and be worshipped, but human reasoning was still the final authority.
The question that begs an answer is: What does postmodernism mean for evangelism today?
Modernity, however, came crumbling down after humanity's reason and discovery brought with it the two very deadly world wars of 1914-1919 and 1939-1945. Many people perished and many more were displaced. Human reasoning had failed to bring the desired success that was propagated by its proponents. The death nail came down at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (so it is argued) since Marxism had tried to put into action the tenets of the Enlightenment.
With the demise of modernism, a new worldview was born. Postmodernism takes its name from modernism and supposes its death by the prefix “post.” According to Gary Gilley, “If the optimistic projections of the last two hundred years of the best efforts of reason, science and technology has failed; and if the tenets of premodernism with its foundation of revelatory truth is preposterous, then all that is left is the pessimism of nothingness, emptiness and uncertainty.”1
Gilley quotes Kruger who says that “postmodernity, in contrast to modernity, rejects any notion of objective truth and insists that the only absolute in the universe is that there are no absolutes. Tolerance is the supreme virtue and exclusivity the supreme vice. Truth is not grounded in reality or in any sort of authoritative ‘text,’ but is simply constructed by the mind of the individual.”
Thus, the postmodernism worldview rejects universal truth. This rejection was ushered in by existentialism philosophy clearly articulated in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea. Truth is seen as being personal. It is not something that one searches and finds; rather, it is something that one creates. The implication here is that one’s truth cannot be taken as universal and hence can be rejected.
Jim Leffel captures the spirit of the age of postmodernism aptly: “Today, Christianity is widely rejected, not because it was critically examined and found wanting, but merely because it claims to be true. Increasingly, American academics regard claims to objective and universal truth as intolerant and uninformed.”2
This poses a challenge to evangelism, since in it one seeks to convert another. How can one attempt to convert someone to Christianity seeing that each person is entitled to his or her own beliefs? To evangelise then would be viewed as religious intolerance, or as Leffel puts it: “Attempting to convert is unacceptable because it implies standing in judgment over others' beliefs.” A survey carried out in America showed that the majority of people think that all religions pray to the same god and therefore no one is really lost. This thinking has entered into the Church through the back door and hence there is no commitment to evangelise among many evangelicals.
The challenge of postmodernism culture must be dealt with at the congregational level by igniting the spirit of evangelism among believers.
The challenge of postmodernism culture must be dealt with at the congregational level by igniting the spirit of evangelism among believers. Romans 10:14-17 is a wake-up call to believers to evangelise. The message of the gospel must be heard in order to bring the desired effect of conversion. The seed, the word of God, needs to be scattered by someone (cf. Luke 8:5ff). The harvest need not be aware of its readiness; it is the farmer who knows when to harvest. In the same way, the Church must pray for the owner of the harvest to raise up harvesters even in these days of postmodernism where truth is supposedly rejected and religious freedom advocated.
Methods of Evangelism3
In the mid-twentieth century, various methods were devised to evangelise humankind. The Four Spiritual Laws represent the evangelical’s response to the modernism worldview in evangelism. The problems these Laws encounter in the postmodern worldview is their proclamation nature which is rooted in scripture. The postmodern worldview rejects absolute truth and therefore cannot be reached by such declarations alone. However, this does not negate the Four Spiritual Laws, since they still find their place alongside other methods.
We must adjust our methods of evangelism if we are to reach the young people today. The older people are still sympathetic to the gospel, but the young ones live in a culture that is bent toward accommodation. All faiths are taken to be personal and hence are seen as being superior to the others. The following are seven methods that can address the so-called “Generation X.”
1. Felt needs evangelism. Although the postmodern worldview rejects absolute truth and advocates for wide choices in religion, there remains an open door in the hearts of many. People are looking for solutions to meet their problems and the gospel that comes to meet that need will find room in many hearts today. Like Jesus, it is important for evangelists to propagate the gospel through the open door of felt needs. Jesus always reached the hearts of the people by meeting their felt needs, whether they were physical, social, emotional or spiritual. If the evangelist knows God, knows self and knows the people, he or she will be an effective communicator of the gospel.
Examples of felt needs evangelism include running specific seminars to meet physical issues. These can include health issues forums, social forums, woman issues or wholeness seminars. Such seminars can then integrate Bible teaching in a non-threatening way, using the rest of the methods discussed below. People are searching for answers to their felt needs and as we meet those needs the fundamental needs will be filled as well.
2. Parables. The age-old parable method employed by Jesus in the first century finds attraction in the postmodern context in the sense that it is non-threatening and at the same time allows the listener to draw a conclusion. Parables offer the listener an opportunity for active participation.
3. Cartoons. Cartoons represent a non-threatening medium because although they include human voices, they are not human. They do not present another person’s truth—just a cartoon’s truth. Children enjoy cartoons and such a method will attract them to the gospel. Research has shown that most people come to faith before the age of eighteen and cartoon evangelism has the opportunity to capture a whole generation. (Editors Note: Read “Christian Comics? It’s No Laughing Matter!” from the July 2006 issue of Lausanne World Pulse.)
4. Testimonies. Personal testimony has more value than a dry message and people will not argue as much against a testimony. A testimony is a powerful tool since in it one shares personal experience. Jesus always sent people away to share their experiences with others. Indeed, the first disciples were to be simply witnesses (Acts 1:8). In the same way, we are called to be witnesses of our experience with Jesus.
5. Chat rooms. Internet chat rooms are very important mediums of evangelism for the postmodern generation. A team of dedicated chat room evangelists can reach the young people online with the gospel through this means.
6. Email evangelism. The danger of junk email might make this method unlikely, however, there are people out there who might be willing to read a catchy message in their email inbox. The entry point could be for Christians to reach their non-believing friends since it might be easier for them to communicate the gospel this way. This will also be a polite way to follow-up with people who may have visited a church or spoken with an evangelist. Again, various topics of interest or friendship evangelism can be conducted through email.
The Church could also invest in developing Internet-based solutions much in the same way as yahoo and hotmail, where gospel pop-ups would be displayed for evangelistic purposes. (Editors Note: The April 2006 issue of Lausanne World Pulse featured articles on a number of ways the Internet is being used for evangelism.)
7. Screensavers evangelism. Designing interesting screensavers for evangelism is another non-threatening method of evangelism. There is a need to design interesting and eye-catching screensavers since many people spend their time in front of their computers.
Reaching the Postmodern Generation
Below is a comparison4 of postmodern evangelistic methods versus previous modern methods.
|Postmodern methods||Modern methods|
|Multiple encounters||Single encounters|
|Dialogical gospel story||Monological gospel story|
|Gospel story||Gospel presentation|
|Story then proposition||Proposition then story|
|Asking good questions||Giving lots of information|
|Community integration||Individual isolation|
|Guided tours||Ticket sales|
|More earthly benefits||Less earthly benefits|
|Relational validation||Evidentiary validation|
|More time seed planting||More time harvesting|
Postmodernism calls for a subtler mode of evangelism. No church can turn back the clock to premodern times. The declaration of “thus says the Lord” must be clothed in an attractive coat. Bearing in mind that although the core of the gospel does not change, the method must suit the context. If there was ever a time to contextualise theology, this is the time. The Church must understand the times that postmoderns are living in and seek God’s help in meeting the challenge of communicating the gospel to them.
1. Gary Gilley. 2002. “Postmodernism—Part 1.” September/October, 8:7. See also D.A. Carson. 2003. “The Dangers & Delights of POSTMODERNISM” in Modern Reformation Magazine. July/August 12:4.
2. Jim Leffel. “Postmodernism: The ‘Spirit of the Age.’”
3. Most of these methods are adopted from the Web Evangelism Guide.
4. McRaney, Will. “Sharing Christ with Post-Moderns.”