This paper will outline a variety of approaches that are effective in ministering to my postmodern students and colleagues in the academy. Included in this article will be a review of the paradigm of evangelism first introduced by Jim Engel in which people are pictured as being on a belief continuum, with evangelism being defined as appropriate activities that seek to move people along the belief continuum toward a more accurate perception of God and His love for us. Examples of unplanned opportunities to dialogue with postmodern friends will be presented. Then practical examples of planned activities that I have found to be effective in ministering to students and faculty at Texas A&M University will be shared.
As our culture has moved from a modern to a postmodern view of truth and life, it has become necessary to adjust our approach to effectively reaching out to non-Christians. Otherwise, we will be providing answers to questions that the average non-Christian does not have. In Jim Engel’s classic book, What’s Gone Wrong with the Harvest, he says that evangelism should not be thought of as simply sharing the gospel. For the person who already believes there is a God and is aware of their sinfulness and separation from God, the good new of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ is the appropriate evangelistic activity. However, for the modern or postmodern person who doubts the existence of God or the idea of objective truth about God is available from God through in history, the presentation of the gospel will fall on deaf ears, or worse yet, become a stumbling stone.
If we picture people on a continuum from –10 which represents atheism, to –6 which might represent an open minded agnostic, to –1 which represents a seeker and on to +1, a new believer, and +5 as a person at some stage of discipleship and spiritual maturity, then effective evangelistic activities (for –10 to –1) and effective discipleship activities (for +1 to +10) will depend on where the person is along this belief continuum. To effectively reach out to people in our sphere of influence, we must get to know them sufficiently well that we may determine where they are along this belief continuum and then reach out to them in a way that is appropriate.
The planned and unplanned opportunities to be described in this paper are appropriate for people who are classical atheist or agnostics, or who are postmodernists who believe all religious truth is subjective and personal. This would include ~80% of all faculty and at least 50% of all students at Texas A&M University.
When I was appointed Department Head of Mechanical Engineering in 1989, I began to have the opportunity to have much more personal interaction with faculty in our department who worked in other divisions than my own Materials and Manufacturing Division. A faculty member named Clay asked for an appointment to discuss with me his request for a 1-2 year leave of absence. I suggested that we have lunch at the faculty club. He explained that Gail had finished her degree in veterinary medicine and had gotten a job at the zoo in Portland, Oregon and he wanted to go with her. As we visited, I asked him about his and Gail’s relationship, how long they had been married, and if they had any children. He responded with some discomfort that he and Gail were not married but they had lived together for six years. While this was known to some people in the department, he had apparently not wanted to share it with me, anticipating my disapproval since he knew I was an evangelical Christian. How would you have responded to such an opportunity?
I did not believe a response of my Christian disapproval of his choice in this regard would have been very helpful to Clay, but would have only reinforced his stereotype about evangelical Christians and his desire to keep a safe distance from them. Instead, I responded by telling Clay that I could understand how a person who did not believe in a God of revelation who had given specific guidance about how we should our lives would find such an arrangement to be perfectly sensible. I indicated that society today seemed to affirm such alternative lifestyles. I went on to share that if indeed the Bible was the word of God, then such an arrangement would prove to be unsatisfactory in the long-run, however satisfactory it seemed to be in the short run. He seemed to be relieved by my response and immediately asked me to tell him more about why I thought the Bible was the word of God, and therefore, should be used as a moral compass to get through life. We spent the rest of our lunch-hour discussing this fundamental question, which was much more fruitful than arguing about where he should or should not live with Gail out of wedlock. Until our friends accept the authority of scripture, then the primary questions to be discussed have to be those of God’s existence and transcendence. He subsequently read Mere Christianity and we had some very fruitful discussions. About a year after moving to Oregon, Gail left him for a woman lover, as she was a bisexual lesbian. It was for this reason that she had been reluctant to marry Clay. My lunch time prophesy was unfortunately, all too accurate.
As a second example of an unplanned opportunity to minister in the postmodern academy, a colleague who was a Hindu from India invited me to attend a presentation by a well-known Indian Swami. My first reaction was to decline, thinking that I would not be interested or edified by listening to an Indian Swami. However, it dawned on me that if I hoped to get others to come to my activities, I needed to reciprocate. If I want others to honestly pursue truth, I have to be willing to also be open to the ideas of others as well, not that I am obliged to uncritically accept them, but at least to listen with an open mind. I attended the lecture (probably as the only non-Hindu present) and was surprised to hear a message that was very much in the vein of the power of positive thinking, without giving a relationship with God any prominence in the presentation. On my invitation, I wrote a short note indicating how much I appreciated the invitation, that I found the message interesting, but was surprised that it was more practical, psychological advise with very little spiritual content. My friend responded by indicating that he totally agreed and asked if we could have a lunch together to discuss this further. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to have lunch with him and another Hindu faculty member from our department during which time I shared very clearly why I thought that a personal relationship with God was much more crucial to human happiness than the power of positive thinking. It was a very special opportunity that I would never have had without my taking the opportunity to listen to a program my Hindu colleague helped to sponsor. This experience has persuaded me that one of my best opportunities is to respond positively to the invitations of my non-Christian friends to attend their programs and then give them my critique.
A third example of an unplanned opportunity to deal with postmodernism came during a panel discussion at a Veritas Forum program at Arizona State University. The evening panel discussion was meant to bring together non-Christian and Christian scientists to discuss the relationship between Christianity and science. A non-Christian physicist on the panel began by claiming that there was absolutely no relationship between science and religion since science was based on empirical observations and Christianity was based entirely on (blind) faith. His claim was basically that science produced "Truth" that was objective and empirically validated (or modern) while Christianity was based on "truth" that was subjective and personal (or postmodern). These were in his mind mutually exclusive types of truth. He further argued that scientific theories could be overturned by new observations but faith based beliefs were never tested and rejected. He was quite surprised when I replied that I would reject my Christian beliefs if compelling evidence became available that it was indeed not true. I added that even the Apostle Paul said that if the resurrection did not actually occur, then Christians were to be the most pitied of all men because they had believed a lie. I concluded by adding that the only valid reason to believe in Christianity was that it was true. If there was not good evidence for the existence of God and the deity of Christ, which could be further confirmed by subjective personal experience, then I would not be a Christian. He seemed truly astonished that myself and the other two Christians scientists on the panel were rejecting his simplistic stereotype of Christian faith being based on blind faith.
A fourth example of an unplanned opportunity to minister to people whose thinking is clearly postmodern came in December of 1997 when the churches in our community united to offer the video tape Jesus to our community as a Christmas present. These were distributed door to door by people from the participating churches. Much to our surprise, there was a very negative editorial supported by additional letters accusing the local Christian community of being insensitive to and intolerant of the religious beliefs of others in the community, even invoking the holocaust as the consequence of such intolerance by Christians. I wrote a letter of response in which I quoted John Stewart Mill’s classical essay on tolerance. I noted that tolerance was not the uncritical acceptance of all points of view as equally valid (postmodernism), but rather tolerance was the practice of forbearance toward others with different beliefs and the engagement in civil discussion of our differences with the shared purpose of the pursuit of truth. The editorial seemed to want all discussion of differences to cease with everyone accepting all religious beliefs as equally valid, with the tag of "intolerance" being used to bludgeon everyone into acquiescence.
In summary, if we pay attention, we will find many opportunities to minister to people whose postmodern way of thinking has clearly blinded them to the pursuit of all Truth, but especially religious Truth. If we do not respond clearly and forcefully to these attacks by the cultural elite and others, we will soon be completely marginalized and the Christian truth claims will be completely ignored as irrelevant, rather than judged on their merits.
In this section, I want to share several approaches that I utilize each year to provide a forum for meaningful dialogue that addresses universal questions about life, meaning, and relationships, with God and each other. The discussion/dessert series has been very effective in providing such a forum for faculty and graduate students while the "Friday Night at the Movies" has been and effective forum for undergraduate students. Veritas Forums and lunchtime discussion groups build around stimulating books are alternative venues for students or faculty.
The discussion/dessert series idea originated with Search Ministries in the early 1970. Originally designed to provide a beginning point for dialogue with professional people who often had serious questions and stereotypical views of Christianity and Christians, it has proven to be very successful for a general audience as well as for the campus community, especially faculty and graduate students.
A group of 5-6 singles or couples agree to co-host the discussion/dessert series for one night each week for four consecutive weeks. Formal invitations are printed (computer generated ones are fine, but format is formal) and each host single or couple invites at least five friends who would have some worldview other than Christianity. The invitation indicates that the four evenings will consist of open-ended discussions of issues related to God and life, with illustrative questions such as "If God is all loving and all powerful, why do bad things happen to good people?" printed in the invitation. This are distributed in person rather than mailed, and usually provide an opportunity for the invited person to raise a questions or concerns they might have as they consider coming.
The discussion begins with finger foods and informal visiting from 7:30-8:00 P.M. to provide a buffer for late arrivals and to give the guests and hosts a chance to get better acquainted before the formal discussion begins. The discussion monitors call the discussion to order at 8:00 P.M., explaining that an alarm clock is being set for 8:59 P.M., at which time the formal discussion will end and the dessert buffet provided by the hosts will be open. He then asks what question would the group like to use to launch the discussion. One of the guests suggests a question of interest and the open-ended, freewheeling discussion begins. The goal of the discussion is to have a free exchange of ideas, to get different points of view on the table, and to stimulate the thinking of all of the people present. It is important that it not degenerate into a debate with winners or losers, which would dampen the spirit of true inquiry and search for Truth that is essential for the series to be a success. When the alarm goes off at 8:59P.M., the discussion is usually at some very interesting point, and the discussion monitor must insist over the objections of the participants that formal discussion is finished for the evening but informal discussion over dessert is certainly permissible and desirable. Needless to say, the formal discussion is just a catalyst to many small informal discussions, which often continue until midnight. With a host group of 6 couples, we usually average about 30-40 people per night total in attendance.
The beauty of this program is that it breaks down entirely the social taboos which prevent us from discussing the most important issues of life, keeping conversation on politics, sports, shopping or other more superficial but safe topics. Once the "ice" is broken, one finds that such discussions naturally come up not only at the discussion/dessert programs but also at work or in the neighborhood with guests who have attended the series. It both stimulates interest in this much higher level of communication and personal interaction and establishes dialogue between the people who share this discussion/dessert series together.
We have found that movies are an interesting and fun way to stimulate a discussion of the bigger questions of life, the so-call universals. Undergraduate students might not function so easily in a discussion/dessert series, as they have not given as much thought to the more fundamental philosophical and spiritual questions of life. However, a movie that clearly frames such questions can provide the needed catalyst for a very lively discussion. Movies that we have found to be very useful include Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody Allen (1991), Citizen Kane by Orson Wells (1940), and recently voted the best movie of all time), Out of Africa (1986), and Chariots of Fire (1983). It is not necessary that the movie selected give Christian answers, but only that it frame some very important question in a clear and stimulating way. For example, Crimes and Misdemeanors addresses the question of whether it is possible to have moral structure to the universe if there is not a God. Citizen Kane is very much the book of Ecclesiastes, considering whether happiness can be found in success, power and material wealth alone.
When we have such programs for students, we normally invite them over for pizza and soda water, ask three questions, show the movie, and then return to the three questions to begin our discussion. The three questions we typically use are:
The discussion often moves from the question(s) raised by the movie to other important questions about life. The discussion usually last for at least one hour after the movie and provides a unique opportunity for students to take off their masks and talk about the fundamental issues of life, meaning and purpose. The problem of postmodernism is compounded with the preoccupation with trivia for the modern college student. These carefully selected movies quickly get our discussions beyond trivia and get the students to thinking about the fundamental truths on which they will build their lives, either consciously or subconsciously.
The Veritas Forum sponsored by the Veritas Institute (Director, Kelly Monroe; Sponsor, Jerry and Adelle Mercer, Columbus, Ohio) makes possible programs with outstanding speakers who address issues of truth in the academy from a Christian worldview perspective. These programs provide a special opportunity for faculty and students to invite their friends and colleagues to stimulating lectures which are intended to provoke people to reconsider their ideas about truth, and particularly, the truth claims of the Christian faith. I have found such special programs are useful to catalyze ongoing conversations with friends and colleagues, both students and faculty.
To continue these discussion after the most recent Veritas Forum held at Texas A&M University in the fall, 1997, I invited five faculty friends to a lunch time discussion around the book The Journey by Peter Kreeft. This book addresses in a very clever and entertaining way the various philosophical objections to belief in objective truth. I gave each person a copy of the book; invited them to read the first chapter, To Journey or not to Journey, and then decide whether to join our lunch time discussion for four weeks. All but one agreed, with the group growing to 8 with my guests inviting their friends. It takes closer to ten weeks to go through the book at the pace my group went, but better to ask for a short commitment initially. After finishing this book, the group decided they wanted a quick overview of the truth claims of the various world religions, which we obtained from www.leaderu.com. We also considered Mortimer Adler’s book Truth in Religion, which considers which if any of the major world religions might be objectively true. We read separately Kelly Monroe’s book Finding God at Harvard to balance the objective, cognitive approach we had been taking with some personal experiences, which are important to validate the Christian truth claims, even if they are weak as stand-alone arguments. This naturally led us to the critical question of who Jesus was, and we are now doing a study of the Gospel of John to address that question. It has been a very interesting journey.
The planned and unplanned opportunities described above and many others not described above for lack of space have persuaded me that it is indeed possible to have meaningful encounters and dialogues with postmodern college students and faculty members. I need to be prayerfully sensitive to unplanned opportunities which arise and creative in the planned activities I use to provide a comfortable platform on which to engage my postmodern friends. These can most surely lead to some wonderful ongoing discussions with people through which my life and theirs is enriched, and hopefully, they find the ultimate truth in a relationship with Jesus Christ, who is the way the truth and the life.