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First-century believers cited as model for reaching today’s postmodern culture

LEESBURG, Fla. (BP)–Christians seeking to communicate the gospel in a contemporary culture where naturalism and postmodernism is escalating should look to the early New Testament believers for clues in reaching their world, said two Southern Baptist cultural observers.

“Forget about trying to make your worship services more contemporary to reach the postmodern. To reach the postmodern instead turn to the Bible,” said C. Ben Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Ill.

Mitchell and Doug Blount, assistant professor of philosophy of religion at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, led an “Issues and Answers for the 21st Century” conference sponsored by the Florida Baptist Convention’s family life department Sept. 14-15 at Lake Yale Baptist Assembly near Leesburg.

The proclamation of the gospel message is more important than the method by which it is communicated, the two professors said.

During the 1800s, Christians held a majority position in society and were regarded in high esteem, Mitchell recounted. But the postmodern culture in which all truth is relative holds Christianity — now a minority group — in contempt. In that respect, he said, “Our world is much more like the first century than it is the 1800s.”

Mitchell, who also is a consultant on bioethics and life issues for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, referred to Acts 17:15 as a “model” for reaching the contemporary world.

After arriving in Athens to find a city full of idols and agnostics, the apostle Paul also found scoffers; Epicureans, who much like today’s naturalists don’t believe in the supernatural; and Stoics, who could be compared to New Age groups or postmoderns.

In a sermon that demonstrates Paul’s awareness of the culture of the day, the apostle began at their worldview by acknowledging their idols and gods. Then he pointed to the statue of the unknown god, telling the Athenians of the true God and concluding his sermon with the power of the resurrection.

“If we don’t get to that message, we have failed. If our songs, our witness or our lives do not proclaim the resurrection, we have failed,” Mitchell said.

The people of Athens responded much like today’s society, with scoffing and procrastination, Mitchell said, while some believed because the power of the gospel message was touched by the Spirit of God.

Paul’s message brought glory and honor to God, Mitchell continued. “If that’s not what it’s all about, then take the name of Baptist, Christian and evangelical off. But if we believe the message is this, we ought to use every resource to get that message out. That message alone is hope.”

Blount told of the teachings of the early Christian apologist Athenagoras (175-180 A.D.), who defended the New Testament believers against charges of atheism, cannibalism and incest. Blount reminded participants that Athenagoras’ audience misunderstood the believers — as does today’s contemporary culture.

After stating the audience’s worldview and undermining that view, the early apologist appealed to the prophetic voice of Scripture and confirmation in the believers’ changed lives, Blount said.

Athenagoras did not argue the truth of the faith, Blount said, nor should Christians today.

“We live in a postmodern culture that does not care much about truth,” he said. “Arguments are not going to do a lot of good. What will go far is the beauty of the faith” as seen in the lives of the believers.

Lamenting that many Christians are “functional biblical illiterates,” Blount called for believers to be deeply relational in their witnessing and to make the biblical text the center of their witnessing efforts.

The most impressive model to reach postmodern society, he asserted, “is calling forth 12 people and working with them for three years” as Jesus did.

Mitchell reminded participants that the purpose of worship is not to “do” evangelism.”

“Worship is for the people of God. The unbeliever cannot worship God,” he said.

The two men decried the usefulness of the seeker service, which is often incorporated by today’s churches as a form of pre-evangelism.

“The place to meet lost persons is where you are working and going to school, not in a building of believers,” Mitchell said.

Both men expressed a hunger for true worship instead of the celebratory style that characterizes worship in many churches.

Worship is a “process, not an event” that progressively moves from adoration to confession and thanksgiving, Blount said.

“I come into worship from a dirty world and am hit with celebration. There’s never time for repentance, to be fed.”

Blount, who at age 35 would be classified between the baby boomers and Generation X, noted that others in his age group are craving the same experience and increasingly are returning to more liturgical forms of worship in an attempt to find structure.

As they explained the Christian’s role in contemporary society, the professors noted that in the past 75 years evangelicals have isolated themselves from society in response to their minority status and have created their own world — Christian music, bookstores, television and radio stations, clubs, gift shops and clothing.

They have also created a subculture that imitates the contemporary world. This was evident in post-war America as the pastoral role was seen as a general, emphasizing the man at top in charge, and as the CEO. In recent years, as corporate America has moved toward team building, the pastor is regarded as the facilitator or coach of the church, Blount said.

Even the physical plant of the church is beginning to look like corporate America, Blount added, saying there is little difference between the campus of Microsoft and the sterile environment devoid of sacred art found, for example, at suburban Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church.

“We are caught in the tension between isolation and imitation,” Blount said. “One would hope that we would be driven by Scriptures. Instead we have let the influence of modern culture affect the way we interpret the Bible.”

    About the Author

  • Barbara Denman

    Barbara Denman is communications editor for the Florida Baptist Convention. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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