Witness, or technically "evangelism," has a bad rap in society today. And for believers who do try to witness, many tell me its hard. Perhaps harder than we've ever experienced it before.
Why is that?
The world has changed.
For LOTR nerds, yes I hear echoes of Galadriel's words, too, "The world has changed... Much that once was is lost...." And for the rest of us, I hear the echo of something said following 9/11. Some pundit quipped that it was the day everything changed. This was quickly and insightfully followed up with a better thought: It was the day we realized everything had already changed. The world as we knew it was already gone, we just hadn't realized it until that moment.
In many of our sanctuaries, pews and heads, we're only beginning to wake up to the fact that the world has definitely already changed. Despite cries for revival, good ole time religion, turning back the clock, etc., none of these will work.
Because the world has changed.
That doesn't mean witness is dead. Rather, it means that our old styles of witness are dead. The message is eternal, but it is constantly in need of contemporary clothing. And we like those old clothing styles. They're comfortable. Familiar. Easily slipped into.
Tim Keller, Martin Lloyd Jones and others have outlined this change:
- In the 50s, Billy Graham - among others - "perfected" crusade evangelism.
- In the 60s, 70s and 80s we moved to personal (programmatic) evangelism.
- In the 90s we moved to seeker services. But that still requires seekers.
- In the 21st C, we largely don't even have seekers in churches. So now what?
Those evangelistic styles developed in the Modern era don't work today in our Post-Modern era. Why not? Here Tim Keller helps us understand with three problems presented by our current social milieu. This is a quick summary of just these points; to see the full 75-minute presentation of this entire topic, go here.
1. The "Truth" Problem, wherein all truth claims are perceived as constraints and exclusivism, and these are vehemently rejected. In our Postmodern world, no one gets to make exclusive claims (though, yes, you and I might recognize that that claim just made is in itself an exclusive claim).
2. The "Guilt" Problem, wherein old evangelistic programs were built upon the assumption of an awareness of guilt: We're broken people who don't measure up to some ultimate standard. Yet Postmodernism is a rejection of all ultimate standards. People don't have a sense of guilt any longer, because that sense of guilt was built upon a general revelation of the gospel in Western society.
3. The "Meaning" Problem, wherein claims to ultimate Truth in the Bible are rejected, because, in Postmodernism, words and texts don't really contain meaning. Why not? Everything is a matter of personal interpretation. No one gets to claim what any text, including the Bible, means because no one gets to make any definitive claims about its meaning and interpretation.
So how do we witness effectively in the 21st Century?
Keller, among others, again helps point the way: There is at least one good aspect to Postmodernism. They're seeking community. They're looking for relationships. Because in them we're seeking for authenticity. And, in authentic relationships, we find our common brokenness and humility. And, as Christ followers, we can not only share authentically our brokenness and humility, but also how we've found help and hope in the grace of Jesus Christ.
Years ago, returning from overseas, I heard a quote that at first I held at arms length and questioned: "The key to evangelism today is hospitality." The further we go in this Postmodern world, the more I'm finding that to be true.
How are you loving your neighbour as yourself? For therein we find the fulfilment of our relationship with God, too. [And, if that thought makes you hold it out at arm's length and question it, see these passages: Mark 12:31 & Galatians 5:14.]