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April 1, 2006

Apologetic Preaching: Proclaiming Christ to a Postmodern World

An excerpt from my book, Apologetic Preaching.

Preaching Between Times

A cartoon I have displayed on my office door portrays a pastor, sitting behind a large wooden desk, being consoled by an obviously caring parishioner. The pastor’s face betrays disappointment and discouragement. The “Worship Attendance Chart,” prominently displayed on the wall behind the desk, has apparently provoked the pastor’s heavy anxiety and dismay. The chart shows a steep decline in worship attendance over the past two years; shortly, the rapidly descending line will extend beyond the chart’s boundaries. The parishioner, in model pastoral care tone, suggests, “I’m no expert … but perhaps you shouldn’t close each sermon with ‘But then again, what do I know?’”

The pastor and the parishioner reflect the angst of today’s preaching situation. We live and preach between times. The dogmatism of the modern era’s pulpit has led to ambivalence in dawning pulpits of the postmodern era. In the presence of political correctness on one side and the fear of sounding like a rabid fundamentalist on the other, preachers skulk from their studies to the pulpit, wide-eyed and confused, like children facing their first day in school. The children’s fear, however, appears warranted because they will truly enter an unknown world. But preachers cannot hide behind such childlike innocence because we have been to the pulpit before, and the fear we face is often of our own making.

We fear successful mega churches who have marketed their programs well, drawing from the rich reserve of baby boomers and baby busters in our communities and, yes, even from our churches. We fear church apathy and lethargy. The empty pews in our line of sight Sunday after Sunday do nothing to quell such fear. Yet, we also fear what might happen if we push too hard or demand too much. We fear being labeled narrow-minded by colleagues, by the media, by academics, under whom we studied while pursuing theological education, and by our educated church members who remind us, in so many subtle ways, who pays our salaries. Words like sin, judgment, immoral, evil, righteousness, faith, commitment have been purged from our progressive ecclesiastical vocabularies. We fear their use might rupture our hearers’ boundaries and offend their sensibilities. We fear being stereotyped with both the Religious Right and the Religious Left. We have become so hyper-cautious that our sermons offend no one at best and merely bore at worst. We fear being irrelevant, so our sermons become mundane chatter about raising self-actualized children or coping with the latest mid-life crises or providing five easy steps for managing anxiety. The role of one who introduces people to mystery runs counter to everything we hear or read about so called “successful” ministers and churches. Thoug we cringe at the idea of being successful, we fear the alternative even more. In our ubiquitous fear, apologizing for God rather than courageously proclaiming the gospel, in all of its scandalous stead, becomes our sermon fare.

Frightened as we are, we live and preach between times. The modern world passes; in bursts the postmodern world. “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” proclaims Dorothy. I think she’s right.

The Landscape of the Postmodern World

If my thesis about preaching between times is correct, what does this meantime look like? What makes up this dawning postmodern world and how will we know it when we see it? Will there even be preaching in postmodernism? Well, the speculation hinges, of course, on how one defines “postmodern.” Definitions of the term abound. A current flood of books, journals, and doctoral dissertations uses postmodern as though it had a fixed meaning, one to which every thinking person ascribed. Such pondering is a paradox, because one characteristic of postmodernism centers on its intentional willingness not to objectify anything. Is postmodernism a movement, a philosophy, a reaction to modernism, or merely a modern shibboleth academicians use to impress other academicians? The answer of course—all of the above. A dictionary definition might describe postmodernism as a reactive movement against the theories and practices of modern art, literature, philosophy, economics, politics, and theology. Calling postmodernism merely “a reactive movement,” however, begs some larger issues at stake. In a basic and sweeping sense, postmodern is what follows modern: that is, it is post modern. Thomas Oden offers a helpful framework by dating modernity from 1789-1989, what he calls “from the Bastille to the Berlin Wall.” So one definition of postmodernity is that period which follows modernity.

Yet, is postmodernism merely a temporal description—a turn of the calendar page, a kind word to describe the death of an aging era—or is there more going on in the cauldron of time and space than meets our modernity-conditioned eyes? Homiletician David Buttrick suggests we live “in the midst of a cultural breakdown not dissimilar to the collapse of the Greco-Roman world or the fragmentation of the Medieval synthesis.” Is this description of our cultural milieu mere hyperbolic musing? Or are we truly experiencing the disintegration of the existing world order, a system to which we might owe more allegiance than we care to admit? Diogenes Allen states: “A massive intellectual revolution is taking place that is perhaps as great as that which marked off the modern world from the Middle Ages. The foundations of the modern world are collapsing, and we are entering a postmodern world. The principles forged during the Enlightenment (c. 1600-1780), which formed the foundations of the modern mentality, are crumbling.”

One would have to live as a hermit not to personally experience the anxiety enveloping modern, or should I say, postmodern living. Increased violence mars our cities. Teenagers, even churchgoing teenagers, appear oblivious to the moral moorings that once seemed to hold our culture from going adrift. Heightened racial and ethnic tensions splinter what used to be sane communities. “We live in systems that no longer work,” bemoans Buttrick, “a politics of gridlock, an economy based on four million homeless people, an educational network that is now entered through metal detectors, and churches that isolate lonely-for-God members in their own subjectivities.” Even hippies of the 1960s, now entrepreneurs and corporate executives, wonder why baby busters lack institutional confidence and initiative to invest themselves in these systems gone awry.

Like children finding out that Santa Clause is not whom they thought he was, the promises of modernity have disillusioned us. The vows of the Age of Reason collapse before our eyes. The Enlightenment heralded the unlimited scope of the human spirit. Rationalism would lead to complete knowledge. Empirical observation and the scientific method would free us from learning born of immeasurable myths and superstitions, whether they were cultural or religious. Reason emerged as the God of the human conscience. Objectivity became the hallmark of intellectual endeavor. History moved on a teleological path of unending progress. Yet something has gone wrong. Oden describes the situation as the “enchantment of modernity” and characterizes this enchantment by “technological messianism, enlightenment idealism, quantifying empiricism, and the smug fantasy of inevitable historical progress.” Modernism teeters on thin ice. Standing in the wings waits a postmodern world, highly skeptical of modernism’s lost innocence and, as rapidly as it can, shedding itself of any vestiges of a modernist world view.

Is it possible to preach mystery in an age of information, hope in an era of skepticism, confidence in a time of doubt, truth in a climate of relativism? The ultimate question becomes, Can we preach Christ to a postmodern world? My answer, of course, is yes. But then again, what do I know?

Posted by Craig Loscalzo at April 1, 2006 10:50 AM Bookmark and Share

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