Our culture questions biblical authority, so, like Paul, we must adapt our hermeneutical approach to reach our neighbors.
So What’s A Girl To Do?
As bleak as all that sounds, I’m not discouraged. For one reason, as we all know, the original version of our faith was extraordinarily robust. Once upon a time our faith was stronger than Roman steel and tougher than Roman nails. Against all odds a small band of Jesus followers defied an empire and claimed their leader came to replace the temple. Two-thousand years later, we’re still standing. All over the world. And we have the internet! So I’m not worried. But I’m not sitting around praying for revival either. I grew up in the pray for revival culture. It’s a cover for a church’s unwillingness to make changes conducive to real revival. You want revival? Start assuming there are post-Christian people in the room. All the rooms. Begin evaluating through the eyes and ears of post-Christians.
Don’t know any?
That may be part of the problem.
Appealing to post-Christian people on the basis of the authority of Scripture has essentially the same effect as a Muslim imam appealing to you on the basis of the authority of the Quran. You may or may not already know what it says. But it doesn’t matter. The Quran doesn’t carry any weight with you. You don’t view the Quran as authoritative.
Close to half our population does not view the Bible as authoritative either. If you’re trying to reach people with an undergraduate degree or greater, over half your target audience will not be moved by the Bible says, the Bible teaches, God’s Word is clear or anything along those lines. If that’s the approach to preaching and teaching you grew up with and are most comfortable with, you’re no doubt having a good ol’ throw-down debate with me in your head about now—a debate I’m sure you’re winning. But before you chapter and verse me against the wall and put me in a sovereignty-of-God headlock, would you stop and ask yourself: Why does this bother me so much? Why does this bother me so much—really?
OK, commence with the debate.
But finish the article.
Years ago our organization made several decisions to better position us to minister to and recapture the attention of post-Christian people. We adjusted our sails. We cast our nets on the other side. We … you get the picture. And why wouldn’t we? The data Barna and others have collected should cause all of us to stop and rethink what we’re doing. Al Mohler’s statement should cause our hearts to skip a beat. As I mentioned earlier, it was about eight years ago that I adjusted my preaching to compensate for an increasingly post-Christian audience. I adapted my approach. An adaptation that, as we’ve seen, left some of my conservative Christian brothers and sisters wondering about my orthodoxy. I get that. I just wish they would ask more questions and make fewer accusations. I’m easy to find.
As part of my shift, I stopped leveraging the authority of Scripture and began leveraging the authority and stories of the people behind the Scripture. To be clear, I don’t believe “the Bible says,” “Scripture teaches,” and “the Word of God commands” are incorrect approaches. But they are ineffective approaches for post-Christian people. I don’t regret teaching my children that the Bible is God’s Word. But my grown-up kids understand their confidence in the Bible is rooted in their confidence in who Jesus is based on the testimonies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James and the apostle Paul.
Shifting the conversation away from the authority of Scripture to the authority, courage and faithfulness of the men and women behind our Scriptures has not only enabled me to better connect with post-Christians, it’s done wonders for the faith of the faithful. The stories of the men and women behind the Scriptures are rich, inspiring and, unfortunately, not as well-known as you might think. For my latest example, go to WhoNeedsGod.com and watch the last 10 minutes of part six. To wrap the series, I leveraged the story of James to encourage nones to reconsider the claims of Christ, just as James the Just had to do after the resurrection of his brother. As you’ll see, this in no way undermines the authority of the Bible. It actually underscores the historical roots of our Bible. You’d be shocked by how many students and adults in your church view the Bible as a spiritual book that says true things to live by as opposed to an inspired collection of documents documenting events that actually happened. This is why I will continue to insist that the foundation of our faith is not an inspired book but the events that inspired the book; events that inspired writers, borne along by the Holy Spirit, to document conversations, insights and events—the pivotal event being the resurrection. While it’s true we would not know these events occurred had they not been documented, two other things are equally true. First, they were documented years before there was a Bible (i.e., New Testament bound together with the Jewish Scriptures). Second, it is the events, not the record of the events, that birthed the “church.” The Bible did not create Christianity. Christianity is the reason the Bible was created. The reason many Christians struggle with statements like these is they grew up on “The Bible says” preaching. And that’s fine as long as one first believes the Bible is inspired.
Notice I said first.
Let me state it another way.
If someone is first convinced the Bible is God’s Word, you can leverage “The Bible says” language. But let’s be honest. What do you call people who first accept the Bible as God’s Word before they’ve read the Bible? What do you call someone who takes someone’s word for something as significant as “This book is the infallible Word of God?” What kind of person would go for that?
When did you come to believe the Bible is God’s Word? Be honest. Chances are you arrived at that conclusion the same way I did. Your momma told you. Or your pastor told you. You accepted the authority of the Bible long before you read it. In my case, before I was able to read it! Only a child would accept the Bible as God’s infallible Word before knowing what was inside the Bible.
Anything wrong with that?
I hope not. I did the same thing for (Richard Dawkins would say to) my children. And I’m glad I did. But this explains in part why we have a difficult time doing effective evangelism outside the circle of the already indoctrinated and the already convinced. Very few people reading this article embraced the Bible as God’s Word as adults. The few who did were probably predisposed to hold the Bible in high regard as a result of some experience in childhood. My point? If we’re going to reach post-Christians, we must change the way we talk about the Bible. Remember, we don’t live in a non-Christian culture. We live in a post-Christian culture. Most educated people have an educated opinion about what the Bible is and isn’t. They don’t walk into your church with blank slates. They walk in with full slates. Consequently, we must begin the conversation on the lowest rung of the ladder. That’s not hard to do. And no, it doesn’t require that we water things down and ignore mature believers in the room. People who think it’s either/or just haven’t seen it done well.
While there are no New Testament examples of sermons designed with post-Christians in mind for obvious reasons, Luke documents four occasions where two prominent leaders in the first-century church adjusted their approaches in light of their audiences. Specifically, they adjusted their use of and reference to their Scriptures, our Old Testament, based on the assumptions of their listeners. While they tailored and adapted their approaches, their central message remained the same.
That’s all I’m asking you to consider.
Exhibit A: Peter and the Jews
In the second chapter of Acts, Luke documents what is thought to be the first Christian sermon delivered after the resurrection. The setting is the city of Jerusalem during the Jewish festival of Pentecost. The preacher is Peter. The audience, Luke tells us, was a crowd of “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). But they weren’t there to hear a sermon. They had come together to figure out how this strange band of Galileans had mastered such a wide variety of dialects. The Jewish makeup of the audience is corroborated by Peter’s opening statement, “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:14). Peter begins by explaining that the phenomenon they just experienced was not the result of a few too many mimosas. “No,” he says, “this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel.” He goes on to quote several lines from the book of Joel (2:28–32) to confirm that the event they just witnessed was predicted in their Scriptures (Acts 2:15–21). Then he directs their attention to the recent events concerning Jesus of Nazareth, events with which many in his audience would have been quite familiar. Following that, he states his thesis, his big idea.
“… and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead” (v. 23-24a).
Peter again turns to the Jewish Scriptures (Psalm 16:8-11), this time to demonstrate the resurrection was the fulfillment of Scripture (vs. 25-31). Then he gets personal: “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (v. 32). After another quick appeal to Psalm 110:1, Peter delivers the homiletical coup de grâce, the final point, the big “so what” of his message: “Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (vs. 32-36).
Throughout the message, Peter leverages his version of “the Bible says,” “the Scripture teaches.” This makes perfect sense given Peter’s audience. This was a group that held their Scriptures in high regard. If their Bible said it, that settled it. It didn’t hurt that most of Peter’s audience believed those particular Scriptures pointed to a future Messiah. Peter simply connected the dots. He connected their existing belief, which was informed by the Jewish Scriptures, to a current event.