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How Long Is the Bridge to Postmoderns: (Part 5)

Take into account three changes in how people now think, and you can get a hearing.

This is the fifth article in a five-part series. To read previous articles in the series, click: part one, part two, part three, part four.

In the first three articles in this series, we noted some of the mental habits of our postmodern fellow countrymen. Painting with broad brushstrokes, we characterized the postmodern mind as skeptical of certainty, rejecting of moral absolutes, and on guard against control. That raises the critical question: How does one preach to a world whose mind is imbued with relativism and on guard against the subversions of rhetoric?

Breaking Down Walls: The Form of Our Message

Two metaphors suggest the direction I think we should go with sermon form: the coffee house and the interactive museum exhibit.Modernist communication media, dominated by print culture and oratory, was largely one-way communication as receivers read papers and listened to speeches. The media did not favor audience response. Postmodern communication, dominated by speed-of-light images and interactive technologies, occurring in a milieu of relativism and tribalism, is more holistic, sensory, immediate, and dialogic. It is more like a coffee house where friends chat face-to-face and share stories. A visit to the coffee house can suggest ways to deconstruct the rope (that is, adapt the form of how we "lead the horse to water." See part 4 of this series.).

A visit to the museum can do the same. The old exhibits prompt us to stare, read, and absorb lots of information. The new ones prompt us to interact with ideas and objects to experience lots of information. In the Museum of Science in Boston you can gaze at T-Rex and read his vital statistics, but you can also feed birds of prey, play virtual volleyball with light, and assign habits and abilities to fish in a virtual aquarium to influence their behavior. Learning from the coffee house and the museum, preaching to postmodern listeners should be personal, holistic, and interactive.

By "personal" I mean conversational and disclosive. Before the era of electronic amplification and transmission, public communication necessarily was loud and large. Projection was mandatory, and modernists were socialized to value communication to be oratorical. But the old days of oratory are gone. Today public communicators sit with us in our cars and living rooms via radio and television. Jamieson argues that FDR with his fireside chats was the first to recognize the change in the communication environment.Postmodernists are socialized to value communication that is natural and modulated.

We also expect it to be disclosive. Today public communication is more intimate than it was in past generations. Politicians speak of their dogs (Fala and Checkers), their wives (Nancy and Hillary), and their children (Amy and Chelsea). Furthermore, an important part of being disclosive is revealing emotion.As Shelley states, "The fact is, ordinary people listen for a preacher's feelings as much as his ideas, perhaps more. That is simply part of the power of the spoken word....In North America today people tend to listen for compassion and understanding; they are eager to listen to those who 'have been there'—where they are. So preaching cannot afford to be forced or faked; it cannot be imported from without. Preaching must be 'me.'"

Preachers should consider using self-disclosure in their sermons not only because audiences value it but also because the form helps communicate the theology of incarnation. Truth should never be merely abstract and propositional. It should be personal and operative. Following God's example in Christ, when seeking to bridge the gap, Christian communicators should embody their messages, not merely transmit them abstractly.

Preaching to postmodern listeners should be personal, holistic, and interactive.

As John Stott states, we expound God's words "as witnesses, as those who have come to a vital experience of this Word and Deed of God. We have heard His still, small voice through His Word. We have seen His redeeming Deed as having been done for us, and we have entered by faith into the immeasurable benefits of it. Our task is not to lecture about Jesus with philosophical detachment. We have become personally involved with Him."

Lewis suggests a specific benefit of using self-disclosure for the postmodern mind: "I cannot offer you a water-tight technique for awakening the sense of sin. I can only say that, in my experience, if one begins from the sin that has been one's own chief problem during the last week, one is very often surprised at the way this shaft goes home." Personal communication adapts to the postmodern mind by framing authority in a context of humility, emphasizing experience, and fostering dialogue.

At the coffee house, people converse. They dialogue. They don't make speeches. Since preaching is heralding, and since proclamation's natural form is monologue, preachers will need to stretch themselves to employ dialogue consciously in their preparation and delivery.

There is biblical precedent for doing so. Jesus was a master of dialogue, asking his listeners over 150 questions recorded in the Gospels, and Luke often describes Paul's proclamation with the term dialegomai—to discuss, reason, debate. The postmodern mind, suspicious of authority, skeptical of closure, and eager to grant all persons their say, responds well to conversation as a form for proclamation. It breaks down the subject-object dichotomy as the listener participates in his or her own persuasion.

I will say little here about story as a preaching form since that ground has been ploughed, spaded, furrowed, and ploughed again. In general, I agree with the advocates of narrative sermons. They help listeners, postmodern and otherwise, experience the message imaginatively and nonthreateningly. However, narrative is not the homiletical savior for postmoderns.Stories can be told poorly just as three points and a poem can be done poorly. One weakness of narrative preaching—lack of clarity—deserves special attention and should be overcome by making sure every sermon, including every narrative sermon, communicates a strong central idea derived from a biblical text.

Not only should sermons be personal, dialogic, and experiential, but the context of our preaching should also display these qualities. I refer to the general context of pastoral care as well as the immediate context of the worship service. Listeners will receive even an authoritative word if they know, respect, and like the communicator. Ethos still is the most powerful means of persuasion.Pastoral ministry—praying for listeners, counseling them, protecting them—is crucial in a postmodern context.

The second aspect of context, the worship service, is worthy of our most creative efforts. Whether employing liturgy or spontaneity, postmodern services will be most effective if they are participatory, affective, and multi-sensory creating a family-like environment and an atmosphere that "honors the mystery that most people feel is a normal part of their lives." Preached in such a context, even a sermon that is as dry as last year's birds nest will be heard and considered. Liberal use of testimony should be part of postmodern services since overhearing another person's story captures many of the qualities discussed in this essay.

The fields are white unto harvest. Postmodern listeners are open to the spiritual world and willing to grant us our say. May God give us wisdom to analyze and adapt to the postmodern mind, even as we trust him alone for spiritual fruit.

This article is an excerpt from Preaching to a Shifting Culture (Baker, 2004), edited by Scott M. Gibson. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright2004. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group (http://www.bakerbooks.com).


[1] Leonard Sweet, "Toward an Abductive Homiletic," unpub. speech delivered to the Evangelical Homiletics Society, Deerfield IL, Oct. 2002.

2 Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Eloquence in An Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking (New York: Oxford U P, 1988).

3 For a fuller discussion, see Jeffrey Arthurs, "The Place of Pathos in Preaching," Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 1/1 (Dec. 2001) : 1-10.

4 Bruce Shelley, "The BIG Idea and Biblical Theology's Grand Theme," in The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching: Connecting the Bible To People, Keith Willhite and Scott M. Gibson, eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 102. See also Dieter Zander, "Life After God? Understanding Generation X," WCA Monthly Newsletter 3/6 (Sept./Oct. 1995), 3-4.

5 For a fuller argument, see Andrew Gurevich and Jeffrey D. Arthurs, "Theological and Rhetorical Perspectives on Self-Disclosure in Preaching," Bibliotheca Sacra 157 (April-June 2000): 92-103.

6 John R. W. Stott, The Preacher's Portrait: Some New Testament Word Studies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 74.

7 Lewis, God in the Dock, 96.

8 For a fuller discussion, see Jeffrey D. Arthurs and Andrew Gurevich, "Proclamation Through Conversation: Dialogue as a Form for Preaching," Journal of the American Academy of Ministry 5 (Winter/Spring 1997): 35-45.

9 See Bryan Chapell, "When Narrative Is Not Enough," unpub. paper presented at the Evangelical Homiletics Society, (Nov. 1995); Richard Lischer, "The Limits of Story, Interpretation 38 (Jan. 1984): 26-38; and Thompson, Preaching Like Paul, 1-19.

10 Aristotle, The Rhetoric, 1356a.

11 Zander, "Evolution of Gen X Ministry," 19.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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