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How Long Is the Bridge to Postmoderns? (Part 4)

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

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

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? The next articles in this series provide some suggestions.

Preaching to the Postmodern Mind

Using a metaphor supplied by Millard Erickson, preachers should ask, "How can we lead a deconstructed horse to water?" Various options present themselves:

Patient instruction in the truth is crucial since a postmodern audience is "ignostic"—lacking knowledge of God.

1. Deconstruct the water since this is the only kind of water such a horse will drink; that is, concede objective truth, a referential theory of language, and absolute morals. Deny the existence of metanarratives. Give the horse what it wants: epistemological and moral relativism. Do not merely translate the message, but transform it.

2. Deconstruct the horse. Show the horse that it is impossible to live consistently as a true postmodernist.For example, push the horse to see that its insistence on tolerance as a universal good undermines its insistence that there are no universals. Push the horse to recognize that it uses rational categories of thought such as the law of non-contradiction to argue that thought is not rational. Show it that political correctness can become a new kind of authoritarianism. Demonstrate that the horse believes and lives more than its premises allow. Offer the biblical story instead, a metanarrative with the most explanatory potential of any worldview.

3. Use deconstructed rope. Maintain the message but adapt the form of the leading—the communication methods.

Clearly the first option is untenable for biblical preachers, but a milder version deserves careful consideration. The deconstructionists have persuasively demonstrated that perspectives do count, that knowledge is partial, and that communication is difficult. Preachers should grant this and communicate the same to their listeners. Such a stance will actually increase the persuasiveness of the message since skeptics grant more credence to cases that admit and address their own weaknesses than to dogmatic assertions. Options two and three have much to commend them. I explore them below by discussing the content and the form of preaching.

Patiently Instruct: The Content of Our Message

Biblical preachers must adhere to the concept of truth and the possibility of genuine communication. I can see no way to avoid a referential theory of language and belief in authorial intent while maintaining an evangelical hermeneutic. Such a stance need not blind us to communication breakdown and differing interpretations—these are unassailable facts—but communication is sufficient for us to make our ways through this world, encounter one another, and understand the will of God revealed in the written and incarnate Word. We are responsible to believe and obey him.

Part of maintaining our adherence to the truth demands that we not reduce Christianity to the lowest common denominator of pragmatism. The faith once delivered to the saints is more than a self-help course in marriage enrichment or ego enhancement. To be sure, the faith offers equipment for living, but this is a natural product of right thinking that itself is a natural product of doctrinal teaching. But insistence on truth is not easy when communicating to the postmodern mind that conceives of truth as a tool for personal fulfillment.

C. S. Lewis comments: "One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience's mind the question of truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the issue 'True-or False' into stuff about a good society, or morals, or the incomes of Bishops, or the Spanish Inquisition....You have to keep forcing them back, again back, to the real point."

Francis Schaeffer concurs: "As we get ready to tell the person God's answer to his or her need, we must make sure that the individual understands that we are talking about real truth, not about something vaguely religious which seems to work psychologically. We must make sure that he understands that we are talking about real guilt before God, and we are not offering him merely relief for his guilt-feelings. We must make sure that he understands that we are talking to him about history, and that the death of Jesus was not just an ideal or a symbol but a fact of space and time....Until he understands the importance of these things, he is not ready to become a Christian."

Patient instruction in the truth is crucial since a postmodern audience is "ignostic"—lacking knowledge of God.The audience is likely composed of "a diversity of listeners: people who constantly hear other voices and priorities, seekers, children, believers, doubters, and cultured despisers. As a result of the pluralism of our society, the preacher may never assume that the congregation has already been converted."

We should not assume that our listeners, even if they are baptized church members, fully understand and embrace the Christian metanarrative; therefore, preachers should skillfully illustrate what they mean and patiently demonstrate how they have reached their conclusions. The use of two-sided arguments, where the persuader shows his or her knowledge of opposing viewpoints, is powerful with an audience jaded by media and skeptical of simplistic answers. Indeed, an entire series can function as a two-sided argument.

For example, my church preached a series directed to seekers called "The Unhappy Truths of the Christian Life" (He wants me to forgive whom? He wants my money?...) The series stated plainly that discipleship costs. Another series for seekers taught the doctrine of God with the arresting title, "God: Your Worst Nightmare" (He is holy. He is angry.). To reach postmodern people, preachers need to slow down, perhaps using a series rather than a single sermon to deal with a topic. We must fully articulate assertions, fully support exhortations, and not promise too much.

Preachers do not need to fear that patient instruction will bore the already committed. One of the key functions of preaching is simply reminding.Christians not only "love to tell the story," they also love to hear it told well, and they need to hear it told well.

In December of 2002 I heard a sermon fromJohn 1 that exemplifies this point. The sermon was on the incarnation, with the central idea being "The Christmas story is a riches to rags story." This reminder, presented with conviction and joy, penetrated even the hearts of the seminary professors among us (the acid test of any sermon)! The sermon edified all who heard it. Biblical preachers tell and re-tell the story. This is our calling. We should not fear patient teaching of biblical doctrine.

The final section of this series deals with deconstructing our rope—the form of our sermons. How we lead people to biblical truth is one of the crucial variables in preaching to the postmodern mind.

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] Erickson, Postmodernizing the Faith,151-154.

2 See the debate between John Searle and Jacques Derrida summarized in Erickson, Postmodernizing the Faith,156. Searle wrote a response to an article by Derrida which criticizes several of his ideas. Derrida responded that Searle had misunderstood him. Even deconstructionists intuitively believe in authorial intention.

3 Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (1968), rpt. in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, vol. 1 Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1984), 103-107.

4 Lewis, God in the Dock, 101.

5 Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, 139.

6 Dieter Zander, "The Evolution of Gen X Ministry," Re:generation Quarterly, 5/3 (Fall, 1999): 16-19.

7 Thompson, Preaching Like Paul, 60.

8 Thompson, Preaching Like Paul, 141.

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

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