A Crisis of Communication and Understanding
It is becoming evident that the fundamental language and perspective of Christianity is quite dissonant from the language(s) and perspective(s) of many of those within greater society. Many times we feel as if we are speaking a different language from those among us! Indeed, it seems that if we are going to have something meaningful to communicate to our fellow man we are going to have to re-orient his thinking in some way or another.
This fundamental insight has been lost on “Christendom” at large. On one side of the “spectrum” we have groups who rather explicitly shun or move away from their historic underpinnings, and on the other side, we have groups railing against the effects that this paradigm shift have engendered.
It is not as if this all happened at once; in fact, one can trace the pattern for at least the past few hundred years. It has taken many forms. An evident one involves science: as the seventeenth century moved into the eighteenth, scientists for all kinds of reasons moved away from positions of faith, and over time, as religious influence has waned, science and the scientific endeavor have taken its place in the eyes of many. Whereas many were once content to use Christianity (or some other supernatural system) to guide the way they saw their world we now have plenty of people who use science as the prism through which they understand everything. This is not to say that science has no value, for in its own realm it can serve humanity wonderfully. But while science can provide insights that may help inform philosophy, ethics, theology, and the like, philosophy, ethics, and theology ought to also inform science, as opposed to making science and scientific inquiry the Absolute it was never designed to be.
Much could also be said about the divinization of reason and rational thinking. It seems almost public heresy anymore to question the status of Reason as the Ultimate Guide for all things. Skepticism also has become one of the standards of the modern age, but curiously, few seem willing to doubt their doubts, or question the reasonableness of reason as the standard.
It is evident that the belief in the supernatural was anathema to many in society from the Enlightenment until recently, and even though postmodernism has returned in a sense to the supernatural, it eschews any form of the supernatural most would deem “traditional,” especially New Testament Christianity.
Meanwhile, relativism and “tolerance” and a questioning of any and all standards except the ones we implicitly assume are standard procedure. Something as simple as thesis and antithesis, that A and not-A cannot be both true at the same time, is now questioned. There is no mutually agreed upon standard for much of anything, let alone belief in a personal God who is our Creator and to Whom we are subject. This is all compounded by an astounding ignorance of the Bible both as a cultural standard and as a religious text.
In such a climate it is not surprising that many who still hold to Christianity in some way or another would want to protest. Many want things to be like they were at some hazily defined moment in the past, back when people at least seemed to be more moral. Yet Ecclesiastes 7:10 applies. We have not been called to live in 1840s America or 1910s America or even 1950s America; we are called to live as Christians in early 21st century America.
But what we do have to come to terms with is that we cannot expect to communicate with many of our fellow human beings like we would in previous eras and expect a lot of success.
The Restoration Movement grew exponentially in the middle of 19th century America when entertainment choices were few, hymn singings were a popular way of passing an evening, and people learned how to read by reading the Bible. People accepted that there was right and wrong, even if they were doing wrong. Most people with whom you would speak would already share much of the same ideology as you would, and therefore you had common ground upon which to begin a conversation. In such a climate we can understand why the issues were focused on the specific forms of disagreement with the wider denominational world: issues like church organization and governance, baptism, frequency and nature of the Lord’s Supper, and other assembly matters. Issues of the assembly deserved focus because you could assume that the people with whom you were speaking shared the general outlines of a “Christian” worldview, and “everyone” knew that all good citizens should conduct themselves as good “Christian men” and “Christian women.”
That was then. This is now.
Today we have very little of that foundation left intact. We cannot assume that the people with whom we come into contact believe in God. We cannot even assume that they believe that there is an objective standard delineating right from wrong. There is no certainty that they are even open to the belief that there are forces beyond themselves, and they may never have been challenged to look at the world beyond the lenses of materialism and physical perception.
Yet the statistics show that the vast majority of Americans do believe in God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, and even heaven and hell. Nevertheless, we cannot assume that people really understand much of any of these things. We cannot assume that by believing in God that they believe in God the Creator to whom all the creation is subject (cf. Genesis 1:1-2:4, Romans 9:20-24). They may profess belief in the Bible, but we cannot know how much they really know about its teachings; and, for that matter, how many times they may know its teachings but declare some of them to be wrong or not true for themselves. They may say that they believe that Jesus is the Christ but they certainly may not understand the consequences of such a view: Jesus Christ is God the Son and the Son of God, the Son of David, the only Way to God, and presently Lord of all to whom everyone will subject themselves, willingly or otherwise (Romans 1:1-5, John 14:16, Philippians 2:5-11). In short, even among those who profess Jesus, we cannot be sure whether they have culturally conditioned beliefs or have truly grounded themselves in the perspective of God in Christ (cf. Colossians 2:1-11).
This may sound distressing, but what it is trying to get us to understand is that we do truly live in a “post-Christian” era. The twenty-first century has returned to being like the first two centuries of the faith in many ways. We can complain about it and get distressed about or we can try to figure out what can be done about it. And there is much to do.
I believe that these understandings lead to at least two important insights in regards to evangelism in the 21st century. The first is that our defense of the faith must be buttressed with a good offense. In many of the American resources for Christian apologetics that I have seen the evidence is marshaled in ways not unlike a basketball team attempting to maintain a 15 point lead on their opposition in the last quarter of the game: a mostly defensive posture that attempts to persuade without doing any fundamental damage to the worldview of the person we are trying to persuade. The problem is, of course, that if we get too defensive, we lose without much hope of gain.
An instructive example is Minucius Felix’s Octavius, a treatise written around the end of the second century, relating how Minucius’ friend Octavius converted a mutual friend Caecilius out of paganism. The dialogue begins with Caecilius’ argument against Christianity, full of inaccuracies about Christianity but a relatively robust presentation of the standard pagan argument of the day. When confronted with this argument Octavius does not start by merely clarifying what Caecilius has misunderstood about Christianity but by metaphorically going for the kill. Octavius uses the words of the Greeks themselves to demonstrate the existence of One Creator God, demonstrates the weakness, fallacies, and foibles of the Greek pantheon, demonstrating the ridiculousness of the belief system, and then he sets Caecilius straight about his exaggerations about Christianity. Octavius had to tear down in order to build up.
We cannot mince words or thoughts here: as always, the Christian faith confesses views fundamentally opposed to the ways of the world in our culture and society (1 John 2:13-16). If we believe that we can just go out and teach Jesus without any attempt to challenge the prevailing assumptions of people, we should not be surprised when our evangelism efforts are not very successful, and when they are successful, that the people converted often fail to develop the type of faith the Bible demands.
We must do this with gentleness and respect, for certain (cf. 1 Peter 3:15), remembering that the people with whom we speak are not the enemy (Ephesians 6:12), but it must be done. One cannot have a mind to believe that Jesus is the Christ while still believing that many paths lead to God. One cannot be ready to cling to what is good and to abhor what is evil while believing that good and evil have no absolute basis in reality. One cannot profess belief in God while being wedded to an anti-supernatural view of our universe. Even though this may be offensive to much of what passes for “liberal” Christianity, there are times when we must call a spade a spade and recognize that far too many groups professing Jesus have compromised with the world in matters of truth and righteousness and that we must make a contrary stand not just for the truth of God as revealed through Jesus Christ but in the belief that there is a God, that He is alive and active and powerful, that Jesus of Nazareth truly existed as God in the flesh, truly died, and was truly and actually raised by God in the flesh in power on the third day, that all of these things are historical reality, just as presented by the church in the first century (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, 2 John 1:7-11). If people want to reject these statements as being true, they are certainly able to do so; but they are no longer being true to the Christian worldview and ideology as expressed in Scripture.
In order for the message of the Gospel to be heard properly there must be a recognition of disturbance in life: something is not right. Most people have never had their assumptions questioned or challenged. There is no doubt that many people, when so questioned, will retreat and would rather remain inconsistent than to come to grips with being wrong. But if we present the message of God in such a way that never leads anyone to question the way they have always been conditioned to see the world we should not expect to see much in the way of results. While it may be true that Christianity has never really been tried by most so as to be found lacking, too many people believe that Christianity has gone or should go the way of the dinosaur, Zeus, and animal sacrifices, and no amount of pleading without challenge will change that perception.
Therefore the presentation of the Gospel in the modern world must really be a two-edged sword: first challenging current assumptions, and then presenting a radical alternative. But there must be work done before we even get to that point.
If you noticed from the description of the Octavius, Caecilius the pagan was invited to give the first argument. I do not believe that this was merely coincidental or done out of respect; there is a definite advantage to this. By making the argument first, Caecilius lays his proverbial cards out on the table, and Octavius is then able to discern exactly what Caecilius believes and therefore what is the best way to go forward with his refutation and defense.
I fear that our evangelistic efforts may be hampered because of our forwardness. A large number of our evangelistic methods attempt to get to the point of the Bible study: the opportunity to open the Bible and to see what it says. This, in and of itself, is right and good and quite necessary (2 Timothy 3:16-17, Romans 1:16). But if we engage in such things without really knowing where the people with whom we are studying are coming from our efforts may be in vain.
There is a sense in which we today must engage in “pre-evangelism” in order to get to evangelism. There will always be a select few who are seeking and are willing to give the presenter of the Gospel the benefit of the doubt, and God be praised for such people. Nevertheless, a lot of the people with whom we come into contact are going to be more suspicious and leery. The adage of Dave Barry rests in their heads: people who want to share their religious convictions with you rarely want to hear yours. Even though it may not be intended there can be a patronizing air in a Bible study: we come to you with superior Biblical knowledge and insight, and we expect you to come to terms with it. Some people can handle that; many more cannot. Furthermore, if we engage in such a study without really knowing the person with whom we are having such a study, we are unlikely to know precisely what they believe, why they believe it, and therefore are robbed of the best way of promoting the Gospel. We may be guilty of focusing too heavily on common ground while entirely neglecting critical grounds of disagreement.
If there is one thing that is still true about people, however, it is that people enjoy talking about themselves. Perhaps as opposed to beginning with us or the Bible we should begin with them: who they are, what they have experienced in the past in terms of spirituality or religion, what they believe about God, Jesus, the Bible, salvation, eternity, and so on and so forth.
This has many benefits. First of all it demonstrates that we do care about the people with whom we want to study: we want to get to know them, and they are not just a number. If we gently prod regarding matters of inconsistency in their ideologies (and there will no doubt be matters of inconsistency), it may lead them to already reconsider how they look at the world. Many people may not believe in the truth and believe that they have a good argument against it, yet, when actually expected to make that argument, realize that in reality it is pretty weak. Finally, you know exactly where they stand, and thus are better able to present the Gospel, with both the challenge and the solution, in regards to exactly where the person is. One may have to clear a lot of philosophical ground to get to the point where the Gospel can be considered. Or one may be able to just focus on the distinctives of the church. Most will be somewhere in between.
If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that we are currently suffering a crisis of communication and understanding. Methods that used to do well at communicating the Gospel are not as successful anymore. We often struggle to have any form of meeting of the minds with many of our fellow humans. But we can take comfort from our brethren in times long past, for if Christians of the first few centuries of this era could turn Greeks and Romans saturated with paganism and immorality and get them to understand the futility of their ideology and the truth that is in Jesus Christ, we can do the same with the secularists and others in the twenty-first century. Let us work to communicate with our fellow man so as to present the Gospel of Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry