One Thought on Postmodern Evangelism

Rev. Scott J Simmons “became a Christian at an early age and grew up in the church. He graduated from James Madison University in 1991 with a degree in Geology, yet during that time in college, Scott began to sense a call to full-time ministry, particularly in the area of missions. After graduating college, Scott worked as a geologist and became very involved in a local church. He then went to Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, and graduated in 1997. For the next four years, Scott became a high school teacher at Chapelgate Christian Academy, a school operated by the church, where he taught Bible, consumer math, and New Testament Greek. Scott also worked in the Chapelgate mission department until he was called as an Assistant Pastor in 2001. He eventually became the Pastor of Missions here.

Scott is married to Sundee and has one son (Nathan, born 1996) and two daughters (Emily, born 1998, and Julianna, born 2005). Scott’s favorite activities are: photography, jazz, blues, independent and international music, good movies, conversation, and international foods. He is not particularly fond of cats.”

-taken from Chapelgate Presbyterian Staff page

Rev. Simmons writes an interesting work on Postmodern Evangelism found at: A Place for Truth

You can click the title to go to the original page, or click HERE

Postmodern Evangelism:

Being Postmodern without Being Postmodernistic

Rev. Scott J. Simmons

Terms like “postmodernism” are difficult to define, since part of the essence of postmodernism is the desire to avoid all forms of totalization (complete definition). Yet, if we are going to talk about things like “postmodern evangelism, we have to at least come up with a working understanding of our terms. So, please take the following as one guy’s perspective on postmodernism, with implications for evangelism to follow.

For the purposes of discussion, I think it very helpful to distinguish between “postmodernism” and “postmodernists” on the one hand, and “postmodernity” and “postmoderns” on the other.1

Postmodernism (Academic)

Postmodernism, for me, refers to the academic changes that have taken place to replace the philosophical values of Modernism (whether in the form of Rationalism2 or Romanticism3). Whereas modernism located truth within the self, to be discovered either through rational thought (rationalism, the enlightenment) or through emotion (romanticism), postmodernism has given up on the pursuit of truth in favor of constructing a “truth” that works for the individual.4

Postmodernism’s “Center”

The scholar often referred to as the father of postmodernism is a guy named Jacque Derrida. It’s impossible to describe his thought succinctly without oversimplification, but here goes. Derrida’s hermeneutic is called deconstructionism. He claims that all language is made up of signs-words that refer to concepts in our minds. We use these signs to refer to objects, actions or ideals in reality. However, how do we ever define these signs? Ultimately, he says, we only define them by differences with other signs. There’s no way to define signs by anything outside the sign system, and so actual meaning is deferred. There’s no center (God, rationality, etc.) that can anchor meaning in language. Derrida calls this differánce (a play on difference and defer)-meaning is endlessly deferred by they differences between signs. Consequently, seeking objective meaning in any text (text is broadened to include any form of human communication, including conversation) is futile. Instead, the interpreter must simply “play” with texts and use them as he sees fit. All we have are texts; we have nothing to anchor their meaning.5

There are two other authors comomonly spoken about with respect to postmodernism, Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish, but I won’t go into much detail here. Suffice it to say that in Stanley Fish’s radical readers’ response theory, interpretation ultimately has nothing to do with the texts themselves, but rather what the reader brings to the text in the context of the interpretive community of which he is a part.6 All these guys are considered “post-structural” (that is, in critique of the structuralism of late modernism, see Saussure), but are not all are saying the same thing.

Conservative” Postmodernism 7

I think it’s important for evangelicals to note that not all “postmodernists” are quite so radical. In fact, there are other forms of post-structural thinking that do not resort to deconstructionism or radical readers’ response theory. Some have called these thinkers “conservative readers’ response critics.” Many evangelicals (Kevin Vanhoozer, Anthony Thistleton, Richard Pratt, Tremper Longman, etc.) have found these guys quite helpful in developing their own hermeneutic. These critics are Paul Riceour, Hans Georg Gadamer and J. L. Austin. These scholars are perhaps the strongest critics of Derrida and Fish, and while there are things here with which evangelicals will disagree, much of what they say is quite helpful. In fact, Anthony Thistleton has (I think rightly) argued that Gadamer and Riceour provide for us a more thoroughgoing postmodernism than that provided by Derrida or Fish, and have done so in a far more constructive manner. In fact, this kind of postmodernism would even challenge the “definition” I gave above regarding truth being simply a useful and pragmatic construction.8

Stated briefly, Austin argues that language is not just an endless play of sign differences. Language is also made up of speech acts. In other words, in a sentence like “I apologize for writing too much in this email,” I am not just stringing together signs in the hopes that meaning will be understood. I am also performing the act of apologizing.9 Riceour and Gadamer have argued that while we can never transcend our own interpretive “horizon” to fully embrace the “horizon” of the author, we can still make legitimate claims about the texts that we read. There may be no absolute distinction between “interpretation” and “application,” but we can recognize some very illegitimate applications of texts.10 Meaning, however, is not “objective.” It is subjective, relative to the life and culture of the interpreter. This is not a bad thing, however. It allows texts to be broadly applied.


If I may summarize generally with the language of Kevin Vanhoozer, within postmodernism, the scientist and the philosopher have been dethroned and replaced with the literary critic.11 Systematic theology and philosophy have been dethroned and replaced with the narrative and the story. Truth has been replaced with conversation.12 If we are to continue to do theology in a postmodern world, therefore, the theological method of Charles Hodge has to go out the window. Theology is not the task of organizing jumbled data in the Bible into an Aristotelian system of thought, as Hodge would have us think.13 It is the task of understanding the Biblical narrative as it is. We may still find a “system” to our theology, but the hermeneutic we embrace will be narrative, not scientific.

Rightly understood, therefore, postmodernism can be seen as a tremendous opportunity for the church. The scientist and the philosopher have fallen off their pedestals; the literary critic has ascended to the throne. Protestant Christianity, therefore, which places such a high emphasis on the Bible as God’s Word, may find effective avenues of Biblical evangelism if we adopt the perspective of literary critic, rather than the scientific or philosophical totalizer. We can share the drama of redemption (the gospel) by seeking to understand another person’s story and connect that person’s story to the story of redemption. We can show how our own stories have been grafted in as well. When proclaim the gospel in terms of narrative, story and drama, we may there by God’s Spirit find an audience yearning for a grander story of their own to give meaning to the lifeless existence they experience in today’s world.

Postmodernity (Cultural)

Postmodernity, as we are defining it, is far more broad a term than postmodernism. It refers not only to what people are thinking in the academic world, but to how actual people are living in the actual world. It is descriptive of contemporary culture and the patterns of thinking that people have (consistently or inconsistently with postmodernism). Likewise, postmoderns are people who live in postmodernity, whether or not they’ve heard of Derrida. Some of these people may well have embraced major tenants of postmodernism, perhaps without even knowing it. Others perhaps are simply dissatisfied with the structures of modernity.

It is here that Peter Berger becomes very helpful. He argues that people interpret life based on how their minds have been structured to think by their culture.14 He calls these “plausibility structures.” Certain ideas seem plausible to us based on the cultural structures of our minds. Thus, within any culture, there is a climate of plausibility-a climate that suggests some things will seem plausibly true and others won’t.1516 People are not nearly as interested today in making sure they have the right theological system as they are in understanding a story. Preaching that focuses on narrative and the drama of redemption will fit the climate of plausibility of a postmodern culture far more readily than a systematic sermon. Preachers ought not to seek invisibility in their sermons either-we don’t want to disappear so that Christ will appear in our words. On the contrary, preaching ought to reveal “Christ in us”-the story of redemption preached to the hearts of sinful people, bringing redemption to their life stories and testimony to how His story has brought redemption to the preacher’s life story. With the shift from modernity to postmodernity, the climate of plausibility in our culture has changed. For instance, within modernity, people trusted scientists as philosophers of life. Within postmodernity, that trust is gone. Nietzsche, for instance, claims that science is a rape of mother nature, robbing her of all of her mystery and beauty.

It is important to note that postmoderns are not demographically definable. They are not an age group or a socio-economic status. Postmoderns are professors like Derrida and sixth grade students in a Christian school. They are rich and they are poor. They have good home lives and poor home lives. They are simply people of all walks of life who no longer find modernity plausible. And as our culture becomes increasingly postmodern, more and more people will find modernity very, very strange.

Conclusion: Relation to Evangelism

Not every author/expert on postmodernity is going to make these same distinctions between postmodernism and postmodernity, but I think it is a helpful one to make for our purposes. I don’t think it proper at all for us to embrace postmodernism any more than I think it proper for the church to embrace modernism. At the same time, there is a tremendous amount that we can learn from postmodernism and postmodernists. At the very least, they aid us in a critique modernism (which the evangelical church has bought into hook and line, if not sinker). They teach us not to take our selves too seriously and place too much emphasis on our own rational (or emotional) abilities. The Reformed church has fallen captive to this. For example, see Hodge’s description of systematic theology for how modernism has turned theology into a scientific study of God. Postmodernism permits us to embrace a mysterious faith in which not all questions are answered.

Our task is to be in the world and not of it. We need to be in the world, and this is a postmodern world. Therefore, if we are going to evangelize in this world, we need to do postmodern evangelism to postmodern people. However, we are not to be of the world-we are not to throw out the gospel for the sake of postmodernism. In other words, we need to preach a postmodern gospel without preaching a postmodernistic gospel. As you may be able to see above, Derrida’s postmodernism would remove the possibility of genuine conversation taking place. We can never truly understand another person’s story, since his story is just a string of signs in which meaning is endlessly deferred. True communication ends, and God becomes a silent victim of language. That’s not what we want. Nor do we want Fish’s “what works for you” Christianity. We want the gospel to be communicated clearly by God’s Holy Spirit to the sinful hearts of people.

With the value placed within postmodernism on narrative and story, it is important for our evangelistic approaches to conceive of our “outlines” in that manner. The gospel is not a collection of true data; it is the life-story of the Son of God. That life story is the climax of the story of God’s people, the people Israel. It is also the turning point to history. Not only that, but we get to be caught up in a drama that is still taking place. The Biblical “D-day” (the cross) has occurred, but “VE day” (second coming) has not yet happened.1718 We grieve and mourn because of the pain that we feel, but we have been given hope of a future glory (Rom. 8). This is a real drama that is centered on Christ, and Christians all participate in that story. Our gospel presentation ought to reflect this understanding of the gospel. Christ is for us our advocate during this time between the “already” and the “not yet.”

The first step to constructing a postmodern gospel presentation is to embrace the postmodern reality that “the medium is the message”-the medium by which we communicate also communicates our message (and sometimes contradicts and distracts from it). We need to evaluate every aspect of our gospel presentation to see if our method is consistent with the Bible and communicative to a postmodern audience. What good is it to proclaim a thoroughly Biblical gospel only to have the message lost in modern rhetoric? What happens if we craft our medium, our method, for a postmodern audience only to proclaim plainly a message that still does not communicate to the plausibility structures of our society? All elements of evangelism ought to be thoroughly evaluated, both in terms of its medium and message, to ensure that we are communicating Biblical truth to a postmodern audience.

The issue here is not finding a method that will achieve results (more postmodern converts). The issue is it is finding an approach that will Biblically communicate the gospel, both in medium and message. It is possible that a more thoroughgoing postmodern gospel presentation will make postmoderns more uncomfortable, since the offence of the gospel will be proclaimed all the more clearly. Yet the potential for ministry to them in that context will also go up exponentially, since the gospel will be applied to their sinful hearts in ways in which their hearts are actually sinful. And that’s all we can do ourselves in any evangelistic encounter. The rest is up to God’s Spirit.

1 This distinction comes from Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 12.

2 The “Rationalism” to which I’m referring began with the Enlightenment in the late 16th century. It focused on the abilty of reason to ascertain truth. Along with that principle came the desire to reduce God to a being who could be rationally comprehended-hence “deism.” The value on progress led to industrialism. Descartes’ emphasis on originality (self-fathering) led to an abandonment as premodern traditions as valid sources for truth. Far more could be said.

3 Romanticism was a reaction against rationalism which insisted that truth could only be understood through emotion. Rationality leads inevitably to the kind of dogmatism that killed Christ (Emerson). Industrialism and science lead inevitably to a rape of mother nature (Nietzsche). Nature was understood somewhat pantheistically, as an organism, rather than a machine (hence the rise of Liberalism). The teachings of many romantics anticipate postmodernism, particularly the emphasis on poetry and art as more valid sources of truth.

4 For a good contrast of modernism with postmodernism, see Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Postmodern Times: A Contemporary Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway books, 1994), 27-90

5 Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, published in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, ed. Moises Silva (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 120-123

6 D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 75-6.

7 This probably not the best term to use, but it works for our discussion.

8 Roger Lundin, Clarence Walhout, Anthony Thistleton, The Promise of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

9 Anthony Thistleton, “Communicative Action and Promise in Hermeneutics” in The Promise of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 114-150.

10 Anthony Thistleton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (GrandRapids: Zondervan,1992), 44-6.

11 In fact, since the time of Thomas Kuhn, even scientists have adopted methods of literary criticism in the scientific method.

12 Kevin Vanhoozer, Is there Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

13 Hodge writes, “Theology, therefore, is the exhibition of the facts of scripture in their proper order and relation, with the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole” (emphasis mine). From Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1952), I, 19, cited in John Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987), 77.

14 See Acts 14 for an example of this. Their minds were structured to think polytheistically, so they interpreted Paul’s actions in that way.

15 Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Anchor Books, 1966).

16 Nietsche writes, One should have more respect for the bashfulness of nature as it hides behind riddles and iridescent uncertainties.” From The Gay Science, cited in Richard Pratt’s lecture notes on the Introduction to Theological Studies.

17 I believe these terms come from Oscar Cullman.

18 What Christ has already done at the cross and what he has not yet done at his second coming.

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