The morning’s second plenary session will feature Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He will speak on “The Supremacy of Christ and the Gospel in a Postmodern World.” He will talk about how we do evangelism, how we communicate the gospel, in a postmodern world. It will be, in some ways, more a lecture than a sermon.
The postmodern world presents a crisis to us. The Western world is now a mission field, but a post-Christian mission field. In some ways our culture is inoculated against Christianity just as the body becomes inoculated against disease so that we can say Western culture has a distorted memory of Christianity. What won’t work anymore, by and large, is a campaign, a program, or a gospel presentation. Before now, people knew about Jesus but needed to be told they needed a personal Savior. They were told that they needed to be told to do what they already knew. They had, in many ways, Christians minds but not Christian hearts. There are still pockets of people who are “Christ-haunted,” having a cultural memory that includes Christianity. They are conservative, traditional in their values. There are places where churches can still be built with the old-style evangelism. But these areas are rare. More commonly we find that many of the evangelistic magic bullets that used to work have now passed. Billy Graham, just fifty years ago, championed crusade evangelism and brought it to high efficiency, but now it is obvious that this is not the wave of the future. There were many programs (Evangelism Explosion, etc) that taught a percentage of people in a church how to share their faith, but these now produce little fruit. By the time we get to the nineties, the evangelism magic bullet was the seeker service and it now seems fair to say that twentysomethings are already turning away from this kind of service. The only magic bullet people continue to look to is the Alpha program. This format is a huge improvement and is right for our time because it is communal and involves a process rather than event. But too often people use Alpha like a program and it does not work as it was intended.
The gospel has to recapture us and we need to recapture the gospel or evangelism will not work anymore. In a postmodern culture you have three problems: the truth problem (all truth claims are constraining), the guilt problem (all old evangelism programs assume a consciousness of guilt) and the meaning problem (postmoderns don’t believe that text and words can accurately get ideas across).
Six points for doing evangelism in a postmodern world
These principles will be rooted in the narrative of Jonah.
Gospel theologizing – Jonah 1:1 – the word of the Lord came to Jonah saying “Go to Ninevah and preach.” For a long time, Keller understood the gospel as being the elementary basics of what people need to know to be Christians. Theology was the advanced stuff. But this is not accurate. In a postmodern society, all theology must be nothing less than an exposition of the gospel. Any theology has to be based on the gospel and be an exposition of it. In a postmodern society where everyone is against abstract speculation, we cannot get away without theology that is not an exposition of the gospel. We need to bring theology to bear on the gospel. “I haven’t seen a gospel presentation that really addresses postmodern people.” The older presentations were great on systematical theology (God, Man, Christ, Faith) but there was no story. It has systematic theology but no biblical theology. The basic narrative arch of creation, fall, redemption, restoration is absent. The older presentations were very individualistic and almost consumeristic. The lordship of Christ over all of life is not part of the gospel presentations. Go to the emerging church or post-liberal church and all of the emphasis is on the kingdom. All the emphasis, therefore, is on the fact that we had a world we wanted, we’ve lost it, and now Jesus has created a people and brought the kingdom and you need to be part of this kingdom. There is an emphasis on the corporate and on the kingdom. Sadly, with such an emphasis you can also lose substitutionary atonement and other important principles. In the end, it brings a kind of liberal legalism. It is going to take all our best theological thinking to develop user-friendly gospel presentations that merge systematic and biblical theology so people can grasp the gospel easily. There cannot be easy programs.
Gospel realizing – At the end of Jonah 2 when Jonah is in the belly of the fish he says, “Salvation is of the Lord.” Why is Jonah, the prophet, saying this as if it was a new idea? In some ways this was a new idea to him. If you think you really, really understand the gospel, you don’t. Gospel theologizing isn’t near enough if we are going to change the world. There has to be a lifelong process of realizing the wonder of the gospel. Religion gives you control which is why it’s so popular. Religion is “I obey, therefore I’m accepted.” The gospel is “I’m accepted, therefore I obey.”
Gospel urbanizing – Jonah is continually called (three times) to go to the “great city” of Ninevah. The whole book is God saying “should I not love this great city?” How can you not love such a mass of lost people? If the cities are secular and the countryside is Christian, where is the culture going? It’s going in the wrong direction, for culture moves from city to country. Protestants are not well represented in the cities. The city is a strategic place in many ways. It is so crucial that if we don’t urbanize the gospel and have vital gospel communities in the major cities, we won’t reach the world for Christ.
Gospel communication – There are four stages to bring people through who know nothing about the gospel: intelligibility, credibility, plausibility, intimacy. Intelligibility is what Carson refers to as worldview evangelism. People will misunderstand us if we do evangelism using the old programs. People need to clearly perceive what you are giving them for they read Christian language through their worldviews. What is true for people at one time, may not be true at another. Credibility is the area of “apologetics,” the area of defeaters which are areas that, if true, make belief impossible. In the old Westernized Christian culture, there were not a great number of defeaters. Now, however, there are a lot of them. There are common sense beliefs people believe which prove that Christianity cannot be true. Keller believes in presuppositional apologetics at this stage. Plausibility is where people get really nervous. You’ve shown what the non-negotiables are, but now you are getting into other people’s concepts, hopes and aspirations and true to connect with them. In plausibility you can show how the hopes of their own hearts, the struggles of their cultures, will only be resolved in Jesus Christ.
Gospel formation – The gospel needs to form us deep down, usually through experiences that bring us down. We need to be humbled as Jonah was humbled.
Gospel incarnation – Jonah is a setup for Jeremiah 29. The Jews have been living in their nation state in which everyone was a believer and God was getting them ready for another time. God commanded them to move into a pagan city to work for the peace and prosperity of the city. Early in the book of Jonah, Jonah is asleep in the boat and there is a storm. Jonah is roused by the sailors and they tell him to call on his God. They are saying (as the world to the believer) “You don’t love us, do you? Do something that helps us all!” Jonah went to the city but didn’t love the city. Likewise, we don’t love the postmodern world in the way we should. Faith is a gift and it is crucial for us to talk assuredly about faith and truth, but unbelievers must know that we know what it is like not to believe. Does the postmodern world know our love for them? Are we the kind of churches that the world does not rebuke? Do they know we love them or do they have the right to rebuke us? How do we get that kind of courage and love? There was another man who slept through a storm. Jesus was also asleep and the disciples, like the sailors are terrified. Jesus does a miracle and, like Jonah, is sacrificed. But Jesus is thrown into the real storm.
We don’t need evangelism programs, but a revival, and that only happens through prayer. Dr. Keller ended with a question: Are we insulting God by our low expectations for evangelism in our cities?