The following is a book review that I wrote for Essentials, the publication of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC) is 2002.
Chris Edward's recent article in Essentials on church planting made me think: what do we do with people who don't want to be preached at? Churches may not be built on issues of musical style, but do we put hymnbook before praising God, prayer book before worshipping God, Anglicanism before faith? Most of my Christian growth was 30-40 minute sermons and the prayer book. So when we were planning an unchurched and youth friendly evening service, with 15-20 minute sermons, no prayer book, mostly modern songs and a data projector, I had to stretch myself a little. As a lay preacher, how could I be brief (when 30 minutes was easy for me), use a technology in church I had seen badly used, and let God speak to people's needs?
Before now, my three favorite thinkers on preaching have been Haddon Robinson, John Chapman and Peter Adam. To that list I must now add Graham Johnston and his book Preaching to a Postmodern World. That Robinson wrote the forward gave me hope, and I wasn't disappointed. In seven chapters he gives preachers an understanding of some of the issues of the postmodern mindset, issues we must recognise and deal with if we are to allow God's word to be heard. Chapter 1 illustrates Romans 12.2: that people in the pews can and do have postmodern ideas, even if they cannot articulate them as such. The all pervasive media presents a panoply of views, none of which is Christian, and it is naive to think people in the pews remain untouched by these. He challenges us to be lovers of people as well as truth, and to oppose postmodernism without retreating into modernism.
What is the postmodern mind?
Chapter 2 defines ten distinctives of postmodern thought: it's reacting to modernity, rejection of objective truth, suspicion of authority, search for community and transcendence, and it's living in a media world. Chapter 3 warns us to concentrate more on "what" rather than "how", not making the gospel weak which will actually drive people away. However, we must know our listeners to have impact, as Nathan knew David when rebuking his adultery. We must have an ethos of caring for our listeners, for this will come out in our non-verbal communication. And we must begin sermons in the secular, in the life experiences of the listeners, who might not care what Paul is saying in Colossians 2 unless it connects with where they are and is seen to be relevant.
Chapter 4 stresses the need to be more apologetic in preaching, while chapter 5 addresses some of the obstacles to biblical preaching, the "closed doors". In an age where no text is authoritative, simply stating that the Bible really is, is not as useful as allowing people to see for themselves that the Bible is true. Allow people to have doubts, ask questions and church to be a place where nonbelievers can come. Johnston illustrates this point well with the story of a man who although interested in spiritual ideas felt church was not a place for him, only for believers.
Johnston urges us not to flinch at the uniqueness of Jesus, but to teach it clearly and teach against the many other ideas that exist. In chapter 6 he moves from obstacles to inroads: the desire for spirituality but not religion, and the postmodern's yearning for community and hope. Finally, chapter 7 deals with the practicalities; the use of inductive preaching, story telling and a dialogical approach. This deals with Chris Edwards' concern, that we don't preach at people but communicate with them in a way that encourages them to think it through. Elsewhere Johnston calls this producing disciples, not just followers. He also urges the use of multimedia to present Christian values and thinking. After all, Hollywood uses it to present theirs!
Principles in practice
The more I read this book, the more I knew God had thought of it all first! Our sermon series was on "What is worship?". My text was not on how but on why: Romans 12.1. It speaks of spiritual worship. My theological side told me to explain what logikos meant, but my homiletical and now postmodern side told me to ask which they would prefer to be known as: spiritual or religious? A photograph of the Dalai Lama was used to show that people in society were interested in the former but not the latter - so why should we bother with church? A Larson cartoon of a cow standing on its hind legs saying "This is grass we've been eating!" highlighted the point - why do something unthinkingly? I wanted to address those who worshipped at church because of tradition, and those on the edge or from outside of the church who might simply ask "why bother?" So Romans 12.1 addresses postmodernism's interest in spirituality.
But is also addresses the cynicism about authority. How? Paul urges his readers as their brother (he uses adelphoi), but does not make demands as an apostle. It is not merely in view of God's mercy: a postmodern who is told God is merciful will say "so what?" Neither will saying "God has been merciful to me" help, for the postmodern will say "whatever works for you." But Paul appealed to his readers by means of God's mercies (dia), that is God's mercies are instrumental in his appeal. Tell people what you are saying is based on and indeed is part of God's mercies to them and they will listen.
To explain mercy, I showed a picture of the World Trade Centre in flames, a powerful and potentially dangerous illustration to use. Where had they been when it happened? What were they doing? How did they feel? Did they want justice? Questions to get them in, so what is justice? Does God really exist, and if he does why doesn't he do something? But what if he did? Where does justice stop and who decides what needs judging? Jesus said anger was as bad as murder, so do only suicide bombers need judging or will it include us? Without justice, mercy has no meaning, but in the cross both justice and mercy are shown. Evil isn't the illusion that Buddhism says it is, but a problem of the human heart, which God has dealt with in the cross.
Another postmodern concern is pragmatism, what does it mean for me? Is it relevant? Spiritual worship is being a living sacrifice, not being "too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use". The whole of life can and should be worship: work, play and church. An illustration from my own life was helpful - for the postmodern preacher is willing to share from his or her own life. A Sunday morning call from work would be met with my scorn, for I am an employee in office hours only. However, when my unborn child grows up, will they cease to be my child when they are 30 and are in need? Just as I'll never stop being a dad, leaving church doesn't mean I stop being a worshipper.
I'll never view the preaching task the same way again. I haven't abandoned the word as the infallible word of God and the power of salvation, nor Jesus as the only true way to God. What I have learnt is that teaching the Bible is allowing God to speak so that people can hear. Postmodern thought is shallow, cynical, full of contradiction, but all pervasive. Instead of retreat, let's go on attack. Let's use postmodernism against itself, entering its world of thought and subverting it with the truth of the gospel. Why? Because we love the truth, and we love people too.