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Communicating the Gospel in a secular postmodern culture
Andrew Halloway was formerly an editor for CPO, Worthing, UK. and CWR, who among other things produce the daily notes EDWJ/Every Day Light, also available by email from Crosswalk. He is currently a freelance writer. CPO produces evangelistic leaflets, tracts, booklets and overprinted invitation cards for church events. They have always based their ministry on two vital principles:
- that evangelistic literature should be as modern, lively and graphically well-designed as secular material.
- that editorial content should relate to the things that people are interested in, and only then offer, in a non-preachy accessible style, the Christian angle.
These two essential communication principles are equally important in online evangelism. Andrew kindly shares his view of these principles.
As secular culture has moved further and further away from Christianity, it has become increasingly necessary to change the traditional evangelistic approach in order to communicate the Gospel. On the whole, we can't earn an opportunity to be taken seriously when talking about Jesus or God until we have connected with people on issues they are already interested in. We have to earn the right to be heard.
In the not too distant past, there was a time when most of those who weren’t card-carrying Christians at least had an understanding of the claims of Christianity, and assented to its view of the world and its morality, even if they didn't have an active faith themselves.
The situation is now completely different: Christian values are competing with a vast array of other competing values, and people are either ignorant of the basics of Christianity or misunderstand them. In the West we have reverted to a pagan culture which is comparable with the first-century Gentile Romano/Greek world that the first Christians found themselves in. Jesus’ own ministry was to the House of Israel, and though he had a few significant ‘evangelistic’ encounters with Gentiles, he never left the environs of Judea, Galilee, Samaria and Decapolis. In contrast, he commanded his disciples to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. That meant that his disciples would have to tackle evangelism in a different way to preaching the Gospel in the Jewish monotheistic context they had been used to. However, much of Acts features the apostles going to Jewish communities in the pagan world before reaching out beyond that. Therefore, there aren’t too many examples in the Bible of how the Early Church evangelized the Gentile world, but we know from history that they certainly succeeded. However, the Apostle Paul’s sermon at Athens on ‘the unknown God’ is perhaps the best example we have of the kind of evangelism that we now have to engage in, in our own post-Christian culture.
We can see two important points from Paul’s Athenian speech:
- Paul started where the Athenians ‘were at’. He took one of their own beliefs/interests and used it as a starting place to explain the Gospel – a bridge from their world to the Gospel.
- He also went to where the cultural leaders were – the Areopagus – rather than asking them to come to the Jewish synagogue.
To take an example, one of our most successful genres of evangelistic literature has been sport-related – successful not only in terms of numbers of items being used, but in terms of reaching people with no or little previous interest in Christianity. Our recent World Cup booklet contained 75% purely football interest articles, with only 25% Christian content. It was a gift that was useful to the football fan, met their interests, and genuinely celebrated football with them. At the same time, it used their interests to introduce them to people involved in football – but who also have a Christian faith, and then to explain why.
The most successful use of the booklet was when churches put on football ‘clinics’, showed World Cup games on big screens and invited fans to watch with them, or arranged other football related events. In that way, Christians were entering their world, their territory, instead of expecting them to come into the Christian ‘world’ of normal church in the first instance. Another example would be our tract about the film Titanic. Capitalizing on the success of that film, the tract explained the story of someone who was actually on the Titanic in real life, and how that Christian gave his life to save another. The similarity with Christ giving his life to save us was then explored. This again was very successfully used by churches. Our posters too have taken media interest subjects and used them to spark thought about Christianity, whether that be major movies, well-known TV adverts, or whatever.
For the Internet, the parallels are obvious. A site about Christianity will only attract those already searching or interested in faith. For those whose interests lie elsewhere, Christians should be developing web-sites that connect with those interests, and then bring in the relevance of Christianity to those interests.
There will be accusations that we are ‘tricking’ people – but is it dishonest? People are free to leave a site and surf somewhere else if they get turned off. It is no different to an advertiser using your interests to make you want their product, except in our case only the Holy Spirit can really activate interest in our product – we just have to provide the bridge for people to walk across.
Of course, this isn’t the only method of evangelism that works, but it is one that becomes increasingly important as antagonism to ‘traditional religion’ grows in our society.
Paul famously became ‘all things to all men in order to reach some’ – we must do the same, without compromising the message. Jesus’ two parables about banquets (Matt. 22 and Luke 14) involved people being invited to a banquet, who didn’t come. So the host told his servants to ‘go out’ into the streets and bring the outcasts in, rather than those who might have been expected to want to come. In the same way, we must go out of our Christian sub-culture and into the prevailing culture to meet people where they are at, ‘on the street’, with an invitation to a banquet of life.
To ensure that we can make good bridges, not ones that will fall down, we need to be as familiar as possible with contemporary culture. There̵s nothing worse than trying to be ’trendy’ and failing because you’re ‘out of date’. The need is to keep your finger on the pulse of what interests the target group you are trying to reach. It’s so easy to get so wrapped up in Christian activities and terminology that we lose our ability to communicate to non-Christians. Surveys show that many new Christians lose their circle of non-Christian friends, yet we know that the most successful evangelism is friendship evangelism!
Keeping up-to-date with current affairs is essential for finding relevant subjects for creating bridge-building evangelistic material. Much political and social news has a moral dimension which presents opportunities to bring in the Christian message, and to which the Christian faith has the ultimate answers. But it mustn’t just be a ‘the Bible says’ type approach because we are dealing with a post-Biblical generation that respects no authority, least of all traditional religious authority. We need to demonstrate the wisdom of a particular teaching from the Bible before presenting the source itself. The skill of apologetics is needed like never before!
It is essential to keep in touch by maintaining non-Christian friendships, but also to immerse ourselves in the secular media – reading newspapers, magazines, watching TV and films, and increasingly, surfing the Net, etc.
At CPO I kept an up-to-date file on a range of moral/social/ethical subjects from current affairs, plus testimonies from well-known people, quotations from secular people that may prove a Christian point (little do they know!), plus files on a range of current ‘hot‚ issues like genetics, the environment, Internet, or whatever seems to be making the news regularly, so that when a need to write on something like this occurs in the future I already have some relevant source material. On a personal note, outside of work I also periodically write a ‘Christian comment’ in a local newspaper, which keeps me looking out for what people are interested in, so I can then write on a topical subject.
This requires effort and time, and sometimes what we have to watch or read may not be what we enjoy, it may be distasteful and not exactly filling our minds with ‘whatever is noble, whatever is pure’ etc. So we have to keep our critical faculties open, and be careful not to absorb secular values ourselves, whilst attempting to understand and stay familiar with them. But one thing is certain – if we don't do this, we will end up being unable to relate to non-Christians.
related pages within the Bridge the gap & Using culture menu links
recommended books on culture, including free downloads
valuable online videos about web ministry