Doing Missions in a Post-Modern, Post-Christian World
© By Peter Law
The spirit of our age has undergone a monumental transformation in the last two decades. From the swirling vapors of change has emerged a society that thinks, acts, and interprets life in a manner vastly different from the immediate past generation. Objective truth has been abandoned by the new secularists, having fallen victim to an overwhelming disillusionment with previously held morés’. Secularism has given birth to a new ideology, ushering-in a new way of viewing God, of understanding the world and determining right from wrong. Time-honored absolutes are dismissed in preference of convenience, devaluing human life and legalizing the tools of its destruction. What has happened to bring about this change? How are we to understand it? And how should we respond as stewards entrusted with the greatest single message for time and eternity?
How are We to Understand it?
A brief glance back over our historic shoulder may help. Writing one hundred years ago William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army made the following prediction. He stated, “I consider that the chief dangers which confront the coming century will be religion without the Holy Spirit, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God and heaven without hell.” 1 Booth’s statement has proven insightful and accurate in the light of events since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.2 His prediction has become our reality. Modernism is now obsolete, replaced by another equally secular philosophy, post-modernism. Modernism supported human control over nature. Post-modernism “exalts nature at the expense of human beings.” 3 Modernism denied the supernatural, favoring a rational view of life. Post-modernism embraces the supernatural but denies the existence of truth. Modernism made the claim that Christianity is not true and chose scientific knowledge over God. Post-modernism rejects the claims of Christianity because they are asserted to be truth and because Christians are viewed as people who believe they have the only truth.
The tide has turned. In its wake, a new stage is set, upon which philosophical and ideological battles are being waged, both in society and in the Church. What once served to measure and evaluate right thinking and living is now overshadowed by another set of standards devoid of foundation. Biblical truth has been nudged aside in favor of human experience, and biblical orthodoxy is manipulated to accommodate changing societal values. Biblical doctrine is being replaced by a certain “conversation” emanating from the cultural marketplace, and adherence to a systematic way of understanding and explaining God and His world has given way to an obsession with mystical phenomenon. Most evident from any observation of our media-saturated lives is the fact that moral obligation and conviction has surrendered before its intimidating foe, relativism. God is redefined according to the image and specifications set by twenty-first century men and women, and truth viewed as relative. Theology is exchanged for therapy and therapeutic discourse; sin redefined as indiscretion, and a rising generation is being persuaded to build their hopes and eternal future upon shifting, sinking sand.
Referring to postmodernism, Gene Veith explains, “The average person would be shocked by its creed: Truth, meaning, and individual identity do not exist. These are social constructs. Human life has no more value than animal or plant life. All social relationships, all institutions, all moral values are expressions and masks of the primal will to power. Alarmingly, these ideas have gripped the nation’s [secular] universities, which turn out today’s lawyers, judges, writers, journalists, teachers, and other culture-shapers. Through society’s influencers, postmodernist ideas have seeped into films, television, art, literature, politics and without his knowing it, into the head of the average person on the street.” 4 And perhaps most disturbing of all is the fact that this prevailing cultural trend applies not only within society in general, but within the Christian community as well. Emergent churches and aspirants of new approaches to “doing” church are seeking to “find God in the other” 5 (divergent, non-Christian religious expressions), attempting to redefine the Trinity in whimsical human forms and advocating a variety of edgy, unbiblical theologies. 6
Efforts to deconstruct the traditional biblical faith of our fathers will lead ultimately to universalism, which erodes all relevance of the Gospel, embracing every faith and every creed as a suitable path to the redemptive grace of God. Yet while debate continues to whirl in the murky waters of man-drenched thinking, the Word of God is wielding a mighty global victory in the hearts of men and women who, though not yet privy to the heady-debates of floundering Western thought, remain famished, desperate for its liberating truths. Furthermore, despite the mental meanderings of those bent upon discounting or re-writing the Christian message, this Gospel has never ceased to be relevant. It remains powerful to unshackle a life chained in sin and to restore the lost to Christ. For this very reason the Gospel of the kingdom will be preached to every tribe, tongue and nation as a witness to the life-changing truths of God’s eternal Word. His Church will be built; Jesus promised it would. And in harmony with the global purposes of God we have been given our commission to go. But what can we do in light of the charge to effectively fulfill this God-given mission in our current context? As those committed to God’s kingdom call to the nations, where do we begin when faced with the challenges of our post-modern, post-Christian world?
What Can We Do?
Like us, the psalmist encountered a prevailing culture and inquired, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” 7 His question remains pertinent to our day. In a post-modern society which sets all traditionally held culture-shaping foundations aside in support of a belief that our faith and values can be re-created from an individual’s personal interpretation of who and what God is, we do well to ask the same question. Morphing God into whatever suits the individuals’ fancy is little different from what led to the diversified collection of gods currently worshipped at shrines on Asian city streets, in villages scattered across near vertical hillsides in Nepal and within Bhutanese and Indian temples. What is thought to be new and inventive is in reality mere pseudo-innovation – a modern day version of centuries old teaching, only now being discovered by post-modern exponents in search of ways to by-pass or undermine Christianity. When the foundations are being destroyed, we have a choice – either to acquiesce or to boldly reassert all biblical underpinnings of the Christian faith. Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus affirms the foundation upon which our faith is firmly established, and asserts that we may confidently stand strong, “…having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.” 8 The foundation is sure. It can sustain the winds of skeptical enquiry and inventive attempts to dislodge its under-girding truths. We are fastened to the Rock that cannot move, and we remain convinced of the Gospel’s relevance and power to transform lives totally. Our task is to take and to tell this liberating news to all who will listen, at home and abroad. In his letter to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul provides us with our starting point when he counsels, “And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awaken out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.” 9 As those called to take this unchanging message of the cross to a languishing world, we must understand the changing trends of our times, continue to stand firm in the truths of scripture and boldly proclaim this truth in those places where they have never, ever heard.
We Can Boldly Proclaim the Truth – in the West and in the East – Though times have changed, the message has not –
A confused world longs for the truth. Our calling is to take it to them. “Go therefore into all the world…”10 Jesus commanded us, placing His commission solidly in our court of stewardship and responsibility. Knowing His promise to never desert us in this task, we go in obedience to the un-reached – here at home and abroad – to the millions who agonize through daily rituals bent on appeasing those gods that keep them in constant fear. In the West, where “sophisticated” deities hold sway over the hearts and minds of men and women controlled by fluctuations in the stock market, an insatiable desire for success, or the pursuit of an elusive happiness. And in the East, where flamboyant deities demand servile obedience from intimidated worshippers, threatening reprisals against acts of non-compliance with the will of the gods.
Some churches in the West have sought to reach their post-modern communities by changing the message of the gospel, modifying the content of teaching and removing all or most traditions from worship. Such attempts are aimed at making it more acceptable to the people they are trying to bring to church. However, post-modern westerners are often more inclined to crave traditions they consider themselves deprived of while growing up in modern society and may indeed resist their exclusion. Men and women are inclined to listen when the teaching is not compromised and vetted, and when lives lived before them are uncommonly genuine. There is no mistaking a radically changed life and no denying the impact of a heart filled with genuine Christian compassion. The example of someone given exclusively to Christ and His kingdom service speaks volumes for the cause of Christ before an observant, seeking world. A changed life is the result of action taken by the Spirit of God in response to repentant, obedient faith. People notice and are still drawn to what is real and unaffected. God’s Word never alters, regardless of the readiness of men and women to listen. It is still “living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart,” 11 both in the West and in those parts of the East where biblical foundations have not been laid.
Bipin sat opposite me at the table. His large dark eyes glistened with interest as he listened. Leaning ever forward in anticipation of what was coming, he followed the conversation with deliberate precision. Suddenly, a huge white smile broke generously over his young handsome face, revealing his joy at what he had just heard. It was as if a light flooded-in when the blind rolled-up and he saw for the very first time. This bright young Hindu man, hungry for the truth, gratefully embraced the gospel of God’s grace when he finally understood Christ’s sacrifice on his behalf. That for which his searching soul had consistently craved now looked him squarely in the face, and he marveled at God’s immeasurable benevolence. I left Bipin for several minutes and by the time I returned he had already explained the whole gospel, including all the explanatory diagrams I had sketched for him to a stranger he met in the hotel foyer. For this young man and many just like him, the gospel message has power to utterly transform; liberating their lives from the vicious dictates of the same gods many in the West now seek in their ignorance. Abishek came at the invitation of his friend Rakesh who brought him to the home where I was staying. Rakesh had spoken with me earlier that day about his desire to reach his Hindu friends with the gospel. We sat and quickly moved to the purpose of their visit. Abishek was a devout follower of the Hindu god Kali, reputed to be the worst among the myriad of Hindu gods, demanding human blood. Each of Abishek’s fingers was adorned with a ring, mostly crystals of various colors, worn as part of his religious practice. He had never heard the good news of God’s saving grace in the Gospel. He listened intently to the truth, acknowledged his sin before God and humbly bowed in repentance and faith, trusting Christ. Neither man had ever heard the gospel before.
In numerous Southern and Central Asian countries, anti-conversion laws are in place. Their governments are beginning to promote the traditional religions of the people rigorously and to resist efforts by Christians to witness, making it illegal to evangelize and proselytize. Yet where the message of the Gospel is boldly proclaimed, God is actively building His Church. With the apostles Peter and John – threatened, beaten and imprisoned for speaking and teaching in the Name of Jesus – our response echoes that which these Spirit-empowered servants of Christ gave the Sanhedrin all those years ago: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” … “We ought to obey God rather than men.”12 A bold proclamation of the Gospel still carries with it the promise of God to bear eternal fruit for the kingdom.
We Can Create a Dilemma – Prompting an Explanation – Though cultures differ, the message remains cross-cultural –
As I waited with a missionary friend on a busy Middle-Eastern city street, we discussed aspects of the Muslim faith and possible ways to effectively reach Islamic worshippers with the Gospel of Christ. Eyad, himself Middle-Eastern, related an experience that spoke directly to our topic of discussion. While serving in the army, Eyad’s superior officer, a dedicated Muslim who faithfully prayed five times a day and regularly attended the mosque, ordered Eyad to answer a phone call and lie for him. Eyad would not do it. This made the officer very angry. He went into a rampage for a period of time but later calmed. During the weeks that followed, the officer grew more thoughtful and eventually respected Eyad for his stance. By clearly demonstrating a higher ethic before his superior officer, Eyad had created a serious dilemma for him, the answer to which this Muslim man would almost certainly seek most diligently if he were sincere in his desire to honor God.
Our taxi arrived, we negotiated the price and climbed-in. Eyad spoke briefly to the driver. I introduced myself and asked his name. We exchanged pleasantries, and then he asked where I was from. I told him I was originally from Australia but now lived in the United States. Immediately he became more animated and with excitement in his voice proceeded to tell me that he had lived for the past five years in New Zealand. I asked him how he liked it and how he liked the people of New Zealand. His response was truly extraordinary! It confirmed absolutely everything we had just been discussing while standing by the roadway. He said with an air of bewilderment, “They don’t know how to lie! They have a higher ethic!” I asked, “To what do you attribute that interesting fact?” He was pensive for a few moments, and then replied sincerely, “I really don’t know.”
A dense, dark cloud of satanic oppression hovers ominously over the Middle Eastern landscape, smothering the hope of those longing for a taste of fresh spiritual air and blinding the eyes of those bound by the dictates of Islam. Confused by an apparent contradiction between their own creed and practice, such as was evident in Eyad’s refusal to lie, perceptive adherents to Muslim doctrines find themselves floundering for an adequate explanation. “How,” they ask, “can you explain the moral caliber displayed so consistently by infidels in the face of life’s ethical challenges?” “How is it that the infidel, who is purported to be far removed from God and His standards of morality, behaves at a higher ethical level than I, a Muslim? If I, the righteous Muslim am 100% right, how can it be that the infidel is living more righteously than I?” This is a sincere quandary for the serious Muslim and requires an adequate explanation. Not only so, it confirms the reports that God is using the example of Christians’ lives as one means by which to bring Muslims to faith in Jesus Christ. The same holds true in the West. A consistent example of Christ-likeness, faith and integrity before an observant world can provide opportunities for explanations that may well wield lasting impact for the kingdom.
We Can Go – to Where No-one Else is Going – Though geographically diverse, all peoples need the message –
Clouds of powdered dust engulfed our vehicle as we slowly forged a bumpy path across the rugged dirt field toward S-Block, one of Delhi’s ubiquitous slums. Our Nepali-born driver Chabilal proceeded cautiously in an effort to avoid hitting any of the numerous “sacred” Brahman cattle that dogged our path along the way – a constant factor to which I had quickly become accustomed since arriving in India. Through the omnipresent haze, I could see groups of children seeking entertainment, perhaps “treasure” amidst the piles of putrid rubbish scattered at various locations athwart the landscape. Chabilal brought the car to a stop just outside a walled compound housing part of the sprawling, miserable slum, an environment to which its inhabitants are condemned by virtue of birth into their social caste. On the other side of the wall a group of men sat playing some kind of game while others went about early morning chores in readiness for a long day of arduous work on nearby construction sites. Several of the men looked-up with a casual glance at our arrival then quickly returned their attention to the task at hand. A small, bare-bottomed child ran toward me, stopped, squatted and defecated on the ground, then ran off in the opposite direction under the care of a slightly older sibling, to play. Some yards away, another boy, perhaps seven years of age, patiently awaited the shocking blast of cold water his father was about to pour over him in an effort to dissolve a portion of the dirt. He stood erect, bravely endured the ordeal, not once but twice then watched, shivering, as his father, girded with some kind of flimsy shawl, proceeded to subject himself to the same, very public ritual. This daily routine precedes all other activities, readying family members for their assigned duties either in the slum or on the job.
These men, women and children, locked-in to their caste and locked-out of the Gospel, will spend their lives in tiny rectangular spaces erected alongside construction sites. There, in that shrunken world of limited existence, the women give birth to their babies, raise their children, depart for and return from work each day. They will continue the unrelenting cycle until death; so too the men. Tuvan villagers cling to the edge of civilization, eek-out a living on the bleak plains and slopes of stark Siberian terrain and live in fear of their idols. Nepalese families, hidden away in remote mountain villages, survive one day at a time, cowering under the controlling dictates of evil spirits. Middle-Eastern Bedouins and inhabitants of Central Asia live under the dictates of Islamic law, ignorant of the saving grace of God to deliver them from all bondage. Post-modern, post-Christian westerners live, move and have their being amidst the sophistication of technically advanced environments. Clutching at the wind, they bow before the narcissistic gods of materialism and self-absorption, in hope of realizing their culturally imposed dreams and expectations. In an effort to re-shape God into a design of their own making, they paint on Him a face that resembles their own, hoping for a tolerant deity who overlooks sin. While they remain outside of Christ, they remain dead in sin and in need of His saving grace. We are called to understand our culture and to reach our generation with the Gospel message of salvation. That, we can do right here at home. But there is a very wide world without Christ waiting to hear.
Walking through Katmandu’s Patan district, I watched as a man entered into a shrine. He proceeded to enact the regular ritual of rubbing his head on the Buddha’s stomach, lighting a number of candles, lingering for a few minutes then ringing the obligatory bell as he departed. I moved among boisterous gangs of youths who made their way through Nepali streets during the Hindu Festival of Holi – a celebration of one Hindu god’s victory over others – spraying red and yellow dye on each other and on those they encountered along the way. In Tuva, Siberia I stood and observed groups of people approach a large Buddhist prayer wheel constructed in the center of the city of Kazil opposite a lingering statue of Lenin. A steady flow of faithful worshippers streamed to the site – one woman with her grandchild; another with a friend. Students in groups and lone individuals came in a constant stream of faithful worshippers. Together they grasped hold of the handles and walked around with the revolving wheel as one might walk alongside a carousel as it turns, hoping against hope that their effort to spin the wheel would gain them lasting favor, build karma and hasten the delivery of each prayer to its destination. Desperate for inward peace and anxious to secure an eternal future for themselves and their families, people the world over grasp at whatever vestige of hope for deliverance they can find.
Christ died for the lost. Someone needs to reach them as a courier of His grace – an ambassador of His kingdom – whose beautiful feet bring them the good news of redemption.
Over seventy percent of all missionaries sent out into the world today are going to countries where the Gospel has been faithfully preached for generations. We need to go where no-one else is going – to where the people have not heard and have no means of hearing. Animistic peoples in remote regions of the world live in ignorance of the truth that can set them free. All they need is for someone to go who is willing, able and equipped with the message.
Are you willing to be that someone?
1. Booth spoke these words in a public speech given in 1899. 2. For further discussion on this topic, see Thomas C. Oden, Two Worlds: Notes on the death of Modernity in Russia and America (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p. 32. 3. Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Crossway Books, 1994), p. 74. 4. ibid., Veith. Veith’s book, is very helpful in outlining the progression from Modern to Post-modern times. He chronicles those changes that have occurred in our culture and comments on the implications for the Church. 5. “Finding God in the Other” is a chapter in the new book, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope. The chapter is written by Samir Selmanovik, Pastor, Faith House, Manhattan. 6. For further reading on the emergent and emerging church, see http://www.christianbook.com/emergent 7. Psalm 11:3 8. Ephesians 2:20 9. Romans 13:11 10. Mark 16:15 11. Hebrews 4:12 12. Acts 4:19b, 20 and 5:29b