c h r i s t i a n i t y t o m o r r o w : e v a n g e l i s m w o n ' t b e e n o u g h . . . p o s t m o d e r n c o n v e r t s n e e d n e w m e n t a l c a t e g o r i e s . . .
Where there are Republicans, there Jesus Christ shall save. I don't believe that, but I disbelieve it against the evidence of my own eyes. Just look at the St. Louis region. Conservative evangelical churches are doing very well in west St. Louis County and in St. Charles County, the most affluent and most socially conservative parts of the Gateway region. Wherever there are conservative Republicans, our churches are full. God is at work in the GOP. Evangelicals--especially the Presbyterian ones--evidently understand how to speak the Christian message in the context of social conservatism.
Speaking Christ to non-Republicans
But look at University City, the Central West End, Soulard, South Grand--the neighborhoods that best reflect the postmodern direction in which North American culture is rapidly moving. In these parts of town, Christianity is suspect, Christians are dangerous, and churches face huge cultural barriers in accomplishing the work of ministry. Such cultural hurdles are far higher with those on the social left than among suburban social conservatives. I've never had to wait for an elevator Sunday morning in my Central West End high-rise.
Several church leaders in recent years have spoken of this trend. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, expresses the urgency of this task:
"A looming crisis for all American evangelical churches is that they cannot thrive outside of the shrinking enclaves of conservative and traditional people and culture. We have not created the new ministry and communication... models that will flourish and grow in the coming post-Christian very secular Western world. Our vision should be to develop campus ministries, new churches, Christian education/discipleship systems that are effective in those fields in North America."
The St. Louis region could be the poster child for the problem Keller observes.
And Keller is right to view traditional enclaves as shrinking enclaves. The 1990s saw radical changes in the mindset of the American people. In the 1980s, homosexuality was tolerated but frowned upon. Now frowning upon homosexuality is a hate crime. Ten years ago, most young people supported the death penalty; now I find most young Christians tend to oppose it. A decade ago, almost all Republicans and a large caucus of Southern Democrats gave lip service to the unborn child's right to life. Now few speak openly about the issue.
The generation that first elected Ronald Reagan is now very, very gray. Social liberals don't live somewhere 'out there' anymore. They are the majority. The vast majority--and few Christians know what to do with them. Today's college freshmen were born in the mid-1980s, remember. The only president they remember came from Arkansas.
Some are focusing on developing new ways to present the gospel to postmodernity's children. Jerram Barrs has followed Schaeffer's lead here. Others are working on restructuring the sermon (homiletics) to include a more apologetic focus, anticipating and answering the concerns postmodern people bring to the Bible. Tim Keller has been the pioneer here.
However, few are doing the creative work of learning how to retool postmodern minds once they're converted. If the theology of the Bible is the intellectual framework God gives us to structure our thinking, then our priority should be to marshal our biblical resources to translate that theology for postmodern people.
I honestly don't know of another Reformed systematic theologian taking on this project. On the one hand, much evangelical theology today is simply not Christian, following instead the worst trends of secular scholarship (like process philosophy, a.k.a. the 'openness of God'). Among those who are strongly committed to the Bible, though, there's often little understanding of our postmodern context--they barricaded themselves in their evangelical ghetto decades ago (...or their seminaries, which is just as culturally isolated).
I hate to sound like I'm marketing myself, but theology needs to be done as an answer to the needs, idols and opportunities of postmodern culture. I can say I have a summa from Covenant Seminary and a tattoo from Iron Age Studio. I use my Greek New Testament and I use Bed Head Manipulator. I'm a registered urban Democrat (gasp!), though I vote pro-life. With God's protection and his Spirit's zeal, I can have one foot in the Bible while the other foot is getting tattooed.
My recent article on Why God is Selfish (Theology Slays Barbie Religion) is a case in point. Christians have told me that shook them up more than anything else I've written. There's not a systematic theology text written in the past 200 years that talks about God's rightful selfishness, even though it's implicit on every page of the Bible. Frankly, learning to explain God's selfishness is absolutely vital if a ministry is going to bear fruit in America today. Our postmodern context requires it be our first and primary mental category.
The ministry of the St. Louis Center for Christian Study is to do what no one else is doing, to develop the innovative systems of Christian education that will serve the churches in the coming generation. Then the rich biblical resources of Christian history can be fully marshaled to develop passionate and insightful lay leaders to revitalize churches and transform culture.
SWM 29½, 5'8" 130 lbs. seeks new
Mental Categories for LTR
When postmodern people are converted, they need more than a new heart. They need a wholly different way of understanding and interpreting their universe. "Do not be conformed any longer [literally, 'Stop being conformed...'] to the pattern of this world," Scripture instructs, "but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2). The 'pattern of this world' doesn't refer to any particular sin, or even to a lot of sins, but to the whole way we look at life. Paul assumes we're already wrong. I think modern learning theory is insightful at this point.
Educators have come to realize the powerful role mental categories play in learning. A child, for example, only comes to understand the difference between cats and dogs when someone explains that dogs and cats are both in the big 'animal' category, but that 'cat' and 'dog' are different categories within that big category. Cats and dogs aren't the same, though they have similarities. Learning is not just about getting the right information. It's about getting the right categories to interpret the information. Christian education is all about category formation.
I used to have a ferret named Nancy Reagan, for example. And I remember when my cousin's little girl came over and saw Nancy. "Look at the kitty!" she cried. No, I explained. Nancy Reagan was not a kitty. Nancy Reagan was a ferret. Ferrets are smaller, skinnier, and cause fewer allergies than kitties. But to her, there had only been one category for all small, furry things that move. As a result, the concept of 'the ferret' had found no place in her thinking. On a more complex level, we learn by creating different mental compartments or categories, which form the grid through which we understand our world.
Innovation: The Need of the Hour
The real need facing the churches as they progress into the twenty-first century is to communicate the categories of the Bible's thought world into a postmodern context. This means a lot more than simply finding 'points of contact' with postmodern culture. It means more than taking sermon illustrations from recent movies. Making disciples in the University City Loop requires more than minimal Band-Aid measures. Total brain replacement is needed.
I was president of my high school's Teenage Republicans Club. I was a pro-life activist my four years of college. But I'm not worried. This is our mission field, and our message is far more powerful than social conservatism. I've seen many young postmoderns experience the most unlikely of conversions. Numerous Christian leaders have meditated on how to reach postmodern young Americans with the gospel. Francis Schaeffer was leading the way in this area when postmodernism was still in its infancy. But evangelism won't be enough.
Evangelism won't be enough
Tim Keller rightly observes the urgent need for new models of ministry, new forms of communication, and particularly new systems of Christian education. We simply cannot take rural and suburban twentieth century Sunday school programs and expect them to fly with the pierced and tattooed South Park generation. Even if we could get them to come to Sunday school consistently, the typical kind of training found in Sunday school programs--even in very good ones--is wholly inadequate for Christians immersed in a postmodern culture.
What happens when someone has always assumed that religion is a construct, a product of human culture? Convert them, and they will think no differently. What happens when a person has always considered the purpose of life to be personal peace and affluence? Their goal is ease of life and ease of soul. They hear that Jesus is the answer, and look to him to make their life easier. Conversion doesn't change a person's mental categories. It makes them willing to change their mental categories, but more is required.
What happens when a soul grows up in a consumer society? Everyone is trying to sell them something--new DVDs to replace old videotapes, sleek German furniture to replace the leftovers from step-Dad's basement, Jesus Christ to enrich life and plug up that little God-shaped hole, new clothes (plaids and brown leather this year) to stay fashionable, and bubble tea, because cappuccino isn't as trendy now that everybody's mom goes to Starbuck's. Jesus becomes just another consumer good. (See illustration, top).
b y g r e g j o h n s o n
s t . l o u i s c e n t e r f o r c h r i s t i a n s t u d y