In 1 Corinthians 9:22b, Paul says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” This does not mean changing the essence of the gospel to cater to the target audience of evangelism. Rather, it is adjusting the evangelistic strategies to better reach different groups. From one generation to the next, cultural trends continue to develop and bring their subtle influences on one’s worldview, value system and lifestyle. Furthermore, they affect people’s attitudes towards, and perceptions of, the gospel.
At the latter half of the twentieth century, objections to modernism with its social ills led to the emergence and development of postmodernism. The spread of postmodernism from the West to Asia affected China’s younger generation and naturally the overseas Chinese students in the United States as well. In the 1980s, North American Chinese churches experienced a great wave of Chinese students, who had come from abroad, coming to Christ and had perfected quite an effective evangelistic model. However, faced with the ever increasing influence of postmodern ideologies on the new generation of Chinese students and scholars, the question arises, how should North American Chinese churches modify their strategies in order to be used by the Lord to reach these students? Over the past years, this author’s ministry has been targeting the population of overseas Chinese students and scholars in the city of Boston and its vicinity. This question has been an important issue under examination.
Due to the assertion that language and recorded history do not reflect factual events and phenomena but are only the products of regulated cultural constructs, postmodernism denies the existence of “truth” and asserts that man cannot know facts and absolute truth. All truth, standards and norms are viewed as products constructed under specific situations to be used as a tool by one group to control another. Thus, men need to eradicate the concept and declaration of truth and free themselves from its oppression. Because of this denial of absolute truth, all faiths that provide stability in life and an anchor for the soul, along with all truth and laws are relative.
This understanding of truth as relative leads to the belief that morality is relative. Without the absolute distinction between good and evil, right and wrong conduct, all moral laws are relative. The relativity of truth and morality leads to utilitarianism and self-interest as the guidelines for life decisions. Man openly seeks to benefit only self without regard for the welfare of the public and the community. His main pursuit is personal gain, and while the community may benefit, it is only because the individual’s benefits are being protected. Altruism, love and care for others thus become rare.
As postmodernism distrusts all historical records, it is skeptical towards all so-called laws of historythe metanarrative. When men lose faith in the metanarrative with its guidance for future world development, they become lost and confused. This, together with the rapidly changing times, is causing people to lose the ability to have an optimistic outlook on life. Once hope is lost, they can only live in the present.
Disillusionment with faith, hope and love leads to confusion for this new generation of young people, but it also creates opportunity for spreading the gospel. Postmodern man fails in his search for life-stabilizing and soul-anchoring faith, as well as in his quest for goodness and for finding a future hope that modernity provided with modernism as the basis. Yet, man craves the satisfaction of these three crucial needs; faith, hope and love are the most precious gifts offered to mankind and are at the core of the gospel of Christ (1 Corinthians 13:13). Now, with the collapse of modernism, there is a great opportunity for the gospel to fill the emptiness found in so many lives. Without these three gifts, the postmodernist is left with a voidbut that void provides an excellent opportunity for the gospel to win his or her heart!
At the same time, the church is faced with the challenge of modifying its approach in sharing the faith. In the past, ministries to students in North America from overseas had adopted strategies for spreading the gospel to Chinese students and scholars that coincided with modernist ideologies. As ideologies have gradually shifted over time, the church needs to make appropriate changes to facilitate winning the new generation for Christ.
Since this is still a developing topic, and given the limited space of this article, this author can only discuss some postmodern influences on Chinese students and scholars from overseas as well as the corresponding strategies and modes for evangelism based on personal experience in ministry among them.
First of all, sharing our faith can no longer adhere to the traditional and authoritative didactic format. Emphasis should be placed on using multifaceted means of communicating faith, that is, audio, video, two-way and multidirectional interactions as well as the practice of rites or liturgies such as Holy Communion, worship and special rituals at Christmastime. One new Christian from the author’s church said in her testimony that she decided to convert to Christ during a Holy Communion service. Another new Christian said that the first time he attended the author’s church on a Christmas Eve, the gospel attracted him so profoundly that he was baptized one year later. As intellectuals and professionals, the postmodern generation does not like traditional, noninteractive, Sunday School curriculum and favors diverse learning modes such as small group Bible study, interactive discussion, hands-on learning and similar methods. Sermon style and content also need to be more creative. So far, the adult Sunday School ministry has been relatively successful in North American churches; however, what the postmodern generation needs now is more caring, shepherding and modeling.
Secondly, because postmodernists distrust any truth communicated in words, in the process of leading one to God, life witnessing and establishing community identity should precede the verbal gospel presentation. A living example and testimony of love hold great appeal and are the keys to their hearts for sharing the gospel. A strong desire for identification with and commitment to a community is a characteristic of postmodernists. This desire is even more intense for Chinese who are away from their homeland. As the Chinese economy grows rapidly, and with it improved living standards, students no longer care about living assistance provided by North American churches. Now, to attract them to church, it is more important to establish community that they can identify with, such as small groups or fellowships.
Furthermore, friendship evangelism is more effective than a short, one-time, personal evangelism presentation. In the author’s church, one seeker was finally baptized after being a seeker for four years. During these years, innumerable times countless people played basketball with him, performed alongside him in a band, resolved his troubles, endured his provocations and supported him patiently before finally leading him to make a decision for Christ. On the contrary, asking one to make a quick personal decision during an event with a short, evangelistic presentation of the gospel often causes the opposite effect or even results in seekers disappearing from fellowships and the church entirely.
Though rational assent undoubtedly has an important role in people’s decisions whether or not to accept the faith, the real key to their decision to believe in Christ often lies in their knowing that only God can give them purpose, hope and sense of value in life. When they are fully convicted that they need Christ, the majority of their traditional faith questions are easily resolved because of their changed presuppositions. The gospel of Christ points them in a worthwhile direction; it prompts them to pursue a new life and way of living. This plays a more crucial role than moving them to make a decision for Christ based on cogent rational arguments.
An example of this is twins who obtained PhDs in engineering from distinguished universities in the US and the UK, then came to do postdoctoral research at MIT and began to attend the author’s church. Though they were strongly suspicious about some doctrinal issues such as creation and its “conflict” with the theory of evolution, the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of prophecies in the book of Daniel, they continued to attend the fellowship meetings and Sunday services because of the loving atmosphere they found in the church. After one year, to the surprise of the author, they both decided to be baptized. During a serious conversation, they explained that the critical reason they decided to convert to Christ was that the Christian life of faith provides what they were seeking and now intended to live. After the transformation of their perspective on life, they found it was easy to resolve the issues that previously had presented difficulties because those issues had been based on their presuppositions.
Postmodernism has brought opportunities as well as challenges to spreading the gospel. Making adjustments to address cultural trends is not a matter of right or wrong, correctness or error; neither is it a prioritizing of options. Rather, it is a strategic modification to effectively respond to the changes in the targeted group. Discussions on this issue have only started among North American churches and a more comprehensive study is pending. However, we simply cannot sidestep gaining a deeper understanding of our target group in order to effectively and skillfully lead them to God.
Translation by Ping Ng
Juta Pan (潘儒達), PhD (The University of Edinburgh, School of Divinity) from Taiwan, is the pastor of the Chinese Bible Church of Greater Boston serving Chinese overseas students and scholars in the Boston area. During his sabbatical in 2012 he was a visiting scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary focusing his …View Full Bio