Thursday, October 30, 2008

How, then, Should We Preach to the (Postmodern) World?

Today we had the benefit of hearing a lecture from Dr. David Wells, Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is a prolific writer, whose works in the last 15 years have focused greatly on the cultural shift from modernity to post-modernity. I personally was exposed to his body of work while in Italy as I read the first of five books on this subject entitled No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, which I found extremely intriguing for two reasons: 1) I had just begun to be exposed to the term “postmodern” and how the culture that flowed from the thought affected the thinking of our generation and 2) I was in Italy where postmodern thought had swept through a generation before and still had a grip on the students with whom we ministered.

The topic today--How, then, Should We Preach to the (Postmodern) World?--would have been highly pertinent then and it still remains so now. Put on by the Carl F.H. Henry Center, Dr. Wells lectured for a little over an hour, opening with the gripping line, “This is very complex and perplexing subject that we have before us,” expounding on this by the sober reality that pastors and future pastors are on the front lines facing one of the greatest challenges of our times, “having to pick up the pieces and address the heartaches.”

He went on to share why it is important to think about the subject of postmodernity itself. The first is that there is a clear shift, even though many scholars are unsure as to what the shift exactly is. He did however explain how it is as momentous as the shift from the Middle Ages to modernity through what we know as the Enlightenment, so to put our times in that frame of reference allows us to see that when the foundations settle finally we will live in a vastly different era yet to be named (that is left for those generations after us). America today, he mentioned, is marked by three distinct characteristics: We do not believe in the modern idea of human progress, we do not believe in the false truth of pure, objective reason, and there is a great lack of community, thus there is a great yearning for it.

The second reason why it is important to think of postmodernity is because, in his words, “the Evangelical church right now is in turmoil as to how to address this.” In almost every instance churches are seeing a decline, programs are no longer working, and most are disillusioned with the idea of church altogether.

So we are left with two questions: How should we be thinking about this postmodern context? And how more particularly should we be thinking about it as preachers?
The first of these questions received the most attention and rightly so. If we know how to think about the postmodern context, rightly flowing from that with a good biblical foundation and proper exegesis we should discern how to preach in this context.

Dr. Wells spoke about how the postmoderns are getting it right, namely that they are right to be skeptical of the modern view of human progress and objective reason. However, although they are right to be skeptical, postmoderns enter into the same world as moderns when looking at consumption, but instead of consuming material goods and wealth, postmoderns are consuming experiences and relationships, or at least a sense of both. This is why we see Oprah and The View as popular shows, or pornography to be a successful and growing industry—because of the illusion of relationships. The most important thread that binds the Enlightenment all the way to our culture today is this very fact: The view of the self.

Without delving too much into his argument, the flow begins with Kant, who saw the Enlightenment as giving humans the freedom from the chains of the church to live as we ought. Growing out of this view is a strong narcissistic worldview and from this develops three human traits, which can be traced back into the early 20th century (he mentioned P.T. Forsythe’s 1909 text Preaching and the Modern Mind as being the “prophetic voice”), which pervade our culture today—triviality, uncertainty, and complacency. Triviality because we live in a culture that belongs to everybody and because of this it belongs to nobody; uncertainity because in triviality God becomes weightless and with a weightless God there is no sense of right and no conviction; complacency in the sense of “apathyism,” an indifference to the things that are ultimate, otherwise known as sloth.

To the second question, if the analysis is right, then in our culture today, with most of the preachers we have, postmoderns will just have their ideas reinforced. The problem today is that people want to reduce their knowledge of God only to what is therapeutic and sadly that is what much of our preaching is today. In short, we are failing. To counter this, we who love Jesus and want to see the gospel go forth with great power by His Spirit, must preach about the Triune God with all biblical categories given to us in Scripture and help people frame their problems in light of eternity. The churches that are truly thriving, not merely in numbers but in substance, are those who do this and do it faithfully because, as Dr. Wells so aptly put it, “It’s not about understanding God from the ground level, but understanding Him as He has revealed Himself to us.

I will end this post with the quote Dr. Wells closed with as I hope pastors and future pastors (including myself) take the words above and those that follow to heart, bearing the responsibility we have to be devoted, unwavering, gospel preachers:
If preachers have brought preaching down, it is preachers who must save it. The church will be what its ministers make it.”

By His Grace.


  1. Andrew, thanks for the summary of Wells' lecture. I will try to listen to it in due time. He has helped me in countless ways.

  2. Anonymous10:26 AM

    Yeah, thanks for the action! In a similar vein, Tim Keller and Edmund Clowney have a free class to download from RTS on iTunes U (there's like 31 lectures or something) on preaching Christ in a postmodern world.

  3. Thanks Mikey. Love you brother!

  4. were all over my blog today. Haha. Thanks for the heads up on those lectures. RTS is so on the ball!