During the 90s, the decade that brought America grunge, raves and the Clinton administration, there was a sea change going on in the Church. As the seeds of the 60s planted by way of cultural revolution grew into the forests of the pre-millennium (think Columbine or American Beauty) the Church lost its most-favored institution status in the United States, and many former church-goers left the Church in favor of anything that seemed more real. As a result, a generation of Church leaders and evangelists were left scratching their heads, amazed that tactics that had brought huge numbers to their churches in the past had become nearly useless in this new cultural landscape.
Brad Kallenberg, a professor of religious studies at University of Dayton and the author of Live To Tell: Evangelism in A Postmodern Age, realized in the early 90s that evangelism as Evangelicals had known it was no longer effective. After 10 years of work as a campus minister using traditional models of evangelism and discipleship, Kallenberg decided to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, in order to help the Church relearn evangelism for this generation. Recently, RELEVANT had a chance to speak with Kallenberg about science, community and the danger of seeker-sensitive churches and their relationship to evangelism in a postmodern era.
[RELEVANT magazine:] In your book, Live to Tell, you talk about how necessary it is for the Church to model Christ to postmodern seekers by learning to live graciously as a community of faith, but … was that not a necessity in the modern era as well? Did someone just forget about this?
[Brad Kallenberg:] William James once said that the philosophical thought of the times inevitably forces its clothing on us, so whatever the reigning philosophy of the period is, that’s what we end up adopting unwittingly to address the culture. So, yeah, the moderns essentially forgot about community, primarily because individualism seems to have really come to the fore in the modern period. So, the Church just kind of unwittingly adopted that mindset to speak to individualists. We talked about a “personal relationship with God.” We overemphasized that part, whereas in the Scriptures individuals and the community are so closely related that you can hardly separate them. When Paul writes to us that we need to be filled with the Spirit, he uses plural verbs meaning you all, as a community. He could have said “each of you,” and on rare occasions he uses “each of you,” but the commands are corporate.
[RM:] But that still kind of begs the question: Is the philosophy of postmodernism somehow better “clothing” for Christianity?
[BK:] Philosophy is never a guaranteed friend of Christianity, and the philosophy that reigned in the Modern era was particularly harsh. During the 300-year period in which Modern philosophy reigned, we emptied our churches … although we were doing our best to respond to the modern philosophy challenge, and I think that some aspects of postmodernity that have raised challenges against the philosophies of modernity opened up the space for Christians to say, “Yeah! We were right all along.”
[RM:] In your book you use a lot of references to science. That’s interesting because normally science and religion have butted heads. Why did you choose to include so much of the scientific in your book?
[BK:] Americans are very persuaded by science, whether they’re Christians or non-Christians. As soon as you say, “Seven out of 10 doctors …” people’s ears perk up. They’re looking to see what you want to talk about. There’s that element. But, whether it’s science or it’s philosophy, in my book I’m suggesting that the things that the secular mind assumes are hard facts are not necessarily hard facts, and those disciplines are themselves raising the questions that Christians want to raise. So, when science raises a question against individualism or metaphysical reductionism, for example, I use those as wedges into a conversation about God. I think all truth is God’s truth, and if we honor a creator of the entire universe, then however he’s wired the thing, it should show forth his glory.
[RM:] You talked a little bit about liberal churches and how their desire to speak the language of the culture led to their losing their distinctly Christian characteristics. You warned that evangelicals are now in that same danger. Can you talk a little about this?
[BK:] Sure! It goes back to Schleiermacher in the 18th and 19th century. Schleiermacher was a very sincere believer, of sorts. He wanted to be able to reach his non-Christian friends (they were Romantic philosophers) with the Gospel. So he translated the Gospel into a language they could understand. The problem was that the distinctive parts of Christianity (like Jesus being God or rising from the dead) didn’t translate well, so he left them off.
You can almost imagine the Church as a boat going down a river, and it comes across a sandbar, and that sandbar is modernity. In order to get across modernity, it has to lighten our load, and so it empties the hold a little, and by the time it gets across the sandbar, the boat is empty; there is no more distinctive content in the Gospel. And that’s really the story of the last 200 years of liberal Protestant theology. The mainline churches now have very pleasing, non-offensive, tolerant sermons that say absolutely nothing, and nobody wants to listen to them.
Well, Evangelicals, since the 1950s or 40s, in our zeal to not be ashamed of the Gospel and to preach to everybody, mastered the media, radio first and then television, and started tweaking it to make it more and more pleasing and more and more accessible. My fear is that we now have nothing distinctive left to say to the lost. If the lost show up at our churches, our churches are so seeker-friendly that you can’t tell the difference between them and some other polite social club.
[RM:] You’re saying that when we begin to lose our distinctive qualities and make everything so seeker-oriented, we have nothing left of substance to give …
[BK:] Right. I had a friend who visited a church in California and brought a friend. The service and the sermon were both very nice and non-confrontational. My friend got disgruntled at the wimpy-ness of the church service and the lack of robust presentation of the Gospel, so he stopped attending the church. The pastor was tracking attendance, and he looked up my friend to ask him why he was no longer going to this church. The pastor visited him and said, “Why did you stop coming to our church? Did we do something to offend you?” And my friend said, “Well, no, you didn’t offend me, and I brought a non-Christian friend, and he wasn’t offended either.” And the pastor didn’t get it. The point was that his lost friend should have been offended, he should have been challenged with the message of Christ. But he wasn’t challenged. And therefore he walked away totally un-offended, and totally uninterested in the story of the Gospel.
[RM:] Can I ask what the “rubber meets the road” for evangelism is right now? In other words, can you give some examples, in your opinion, of ways evangelism needs to go?
[BK:] Well, it seems to me that there are two strategies. One strategy is to translate what you’re saying down to the level of the person who doesn’t understand you. I think that’s what modern liberals, and, in some sense, modern evangelicals have tried to do. And that dumbs down the Gospel to their level.
The other strategy is to say, “Well, what will it take to bring this person up to our level of understanding so that they will understand the Gospel on its own terms?” I think that’s the conceptual level we want to work from. What will that take? Well, it will take more than a 20-minute presentation. It’s going to take us inviting them in to see the church being the Church, not pretending to be something else. All the while we trust that the Holy Spirit will do the job of illuminating.
We want to see the Church living the life in community, not perfection, but reconciliation. We offend each other all the time, so we should be confessing our sins to one another all the time too! We should be forgiving each other all the time [and] caring for one another all the time.
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