In the last post I talked about the central question in talking about postmodern Christianity is how to discern the line between what is changeable and unchangeable in Christianity.
To borrow an analogy from Mark Driscoll, a model that might help guide us in discerning that line is to think about it in terms of what parts of Christianity do you hold in an open hand and what parts do you hold in a closed fist. In one hand you have timeless truths of Christianity (Who created man, what is the fall, who is Jesus, what happened on the cross, to name a few examples) and in the other hand you have the way that you communicate those truths.
There are three options:
1. Two closed fists. Neither the timeless truths nor the methods of communication change.
2. Two open hands. Both sides are flexible. Both the truths themselves and the ministry of them are things subject to change with the changing winds of culture, time, geography, demography, etc.
3. One open hand, one closed fist. Here the timeless truths go in the closed fist and the timely ministry methods go in the open hand.
I am convinced that the third option is the calling of the Bible. It is also the most difficult, as John Stott said, “…it is comparatively easy to be faithful if we do not care about being contemporary, and it is easy to be contemporary if we do not bother to be faithful. It is the search for a combination of truth and relevance that is exacting.” This is our challenge: to faithfully preach an unchanging gospel to a changing culture. The first two options only lead to different errors, and the Bible has sharp critiques for both of them. I want to address the Biblical challenge to the first and second option, beginning with number one.
To those who live with two closed hands the challenge of the Bible is to open the hand of timely methods and truly endeavor to speak the gospel to our generation in forms it will understand. Jesus did not live with two closed hands. He held onto the timeless truths more truly than anyone ever has, but he lived with the other hand open. The most obvious evidence of this is the incarnation. As Jerram Barrs said in his class Apologetics and Outreach, “Jesus did not shout from heaven.” Christ became a man and entered into our fallen, broken world. He entered into a culture and spoke its language, learned its values and customs. He came and dwelled among the people he was sent to. He knew the hearts of his hearers and spoke to the unique stories of every individual he came in contact with. We see the same philosophy of incarnation in the ministry of Paul, who wrote “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22) Paul was an educated Jew and when he was among educated Jews his knowledge of their culture shone. His sermons are filled with quotations of the scriptures they had spent hours memorizing and praying over. His appeal to Christ was founded in the prophecies and promises they knew and he showed how the hope for a Messiah which their culture was built around was fulfilled in Jesus. In different audiences his messages change. The gospel he preaches does not change, but the way he preaches does. In Acts 17 we see him in Athens speaking to educated Pagans after a long day of walking in the marketplace in Athens and looking at their objects of worship. You can’t find a quotation of scripture in the sermon he gives to them. But he does quote the poets they loved. He references their local folklore. He shows his familiarity with their philosophical debates. He builds a bridge to Christ from the things that they hold dear. Paul was not selling out by preaching in this way; he was being a good missionary.
Why is it that if we send a missionary overseas and he or she adopts the culture of the mission field in order to communicate, we applaud, but we are not willing to do so at home? What is the difference between missionaries overseas and those at home? There is no difference. We must send missionaries into postmodern culture and teach them to be good missionaries in the same way that Jesus and Paul were. The alternative is irrelevancy. The world will not stop changing, and because of that it is silly to expect to continue to be able to communicate if we live with two closed hands. It is not enough to be “not of” the world, for Christ also called the Church to be in the world. Christ has not left us freedom to close ranks and close the second hand and withdraw from the world. We are to be salt and light. The Church must send missionaries into our postmodern culture. Wherever those missionaries go they must learn the unique landscape of the culture they are in, learn its sins and what parts of the truth it retains, and preach the gospel in the areas where it is under attack. They must, as Christ and Paul did, seek to remove every unnecessary barrier to the gospel. There are enough barriers to the gospel when preaching in a fallen world already without us adding our own.
It is a matter of compassion. There are real people out there in that changing world who are carried along in the current of the culture like sheep without a shepherd. These are people God made and loves and cares for. They desperately need the gospel and the Church must find them and enter their world. The Church must know them and tell them the truth in a language they understand.
Adoniram Judson was a missionary in Burma and faithfully worked for long, hard years to translate the Bible into Burmese. He experienced a higher cost for that faithfulness than most of us will ever be asked to pay. When the work was done people began to come to him from all over Burma and the neighboring countries because they had heard that there was a man who “had the words of God.” If we want our culture to come to the Church seeking the words of God then we also must be translators.
The Church must become a people with one hand firmly grasping the timeless truths of the gospel and the other hand reaching out to take hold of a culture which so desperately needs those truths.