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The postmodern mind is besieged by a barrage of information that numbs its ability to analyze and sort out one idea from the next. This prevents the construct of a well-thought-through worldview and leaves men and women with no reliable sense of direction. Incoherence is the norm of human activities, as can be observed in the arts and music for example, and the addiction to mindless video games. People no longer believe in anything. Faith is dead.
Distrusting men and women look for what fits their personal circumstances with little or no consideration given to what the collectivity believes or adheres to. This is especially verifiable in the realm of religion; the post-modern religious person is more of a nomad than a sedentary being. Personal spiritual experience and experimentation, rather than conformity to a collective tradition, is the order of the day. This is not to say that the modern believers are less religious than their parents; they are religious but experience spirituality differently. They construct their own system of spiritual meaningfulness, picking and choosing what makes sense to them and discarding the rest. It does seem that personal religion, defined as the religiosity of individuals who construct their own system of spiritual meaningfulness, is the new reality in the religious landscape of western societies.
The Judeo-Christian matrix that used to determine the overall beliefs and behaviour of western societies has been discarded. This is not primarily a modern occurrence. Its roots are to be found in the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. Beginning in the fifteenth century a gradual mutation in the philosophical, social, political, economic spheres impacted and profoundly changed the religious landscape of Europe. The Enlightenment successfully promoted the dynamic ideas that reason should emancipate from faith and the individual should break the restrictive fetters of tradition. Before, individuals were acknowledged only in as much as they occupied by birth a specific place in the social hierarchy. They had to submit to the beliefs, the rules, and the norms shared by the group and determined from above (king and pope). No allowance was made for contestation, no room for unorthodoxy. In the modern world individuals determine by their achievements the position that they shall occupy within society. They are also the sole decider of how to run and experience their spiritual lives. They can draw from a plethora of moral/spiritual concepts freely advocated within the framework of a pluralistic and egalitarian society.
Within that framework critical reasoning reigns supreme. Past beliefs, today seen as myths, have lost their grip over people’s minds while the future is full of promises of perfection that only ask to be embraced. Today’s western society is made up of independent individuals for whom the past, religion, and tradition have little real meaning except as folklore. The future does not belong to God but to mankind. Science will provide the solutions to present and future problems.
All this has an enormous impact on the way people view and experience religion. For one, it is now widely believed that the notion of humanity’s sinfulness and need of redemption only result in creating guilt and alienation. It follows then that it is pretentious for the church to define the true and the false. It is therefore no longer acceptable that rational knowledge accrued from scientific observation be subservient to the Truth as defined by the Magister. Thus, structured religion is rapidly being pushed out to the periphery. Confined to one specific sphere of human consciousness, it should no longer pretend to impact all the other dimensions of human activities. An Australian political leader recently declared that though his faith was important to him, he never allowed it to dictate his political choices.
The primary consequence of this view is that it ultimately reduces religion to a strictly private affair. It must also be added that the entrenched belief in the right of the individual coupled with a high level of religious tolerance makes it easy for individuals to have their own peculiar brand of beliefs and practices. Religion has become something akin to a self-service convenience store. It is like participating in an “a la carte” dinner in a posh restaurant that offers a variety of dishes. Modern adults, if religious at all, are reluctant to experience religion according to the former obey-no-questions-asked mode. Charismatic spiritual leaders such as the Pope or the Dalai Lama can still draw large crowds but the phenomenon does not result into spiritual transformation for the majority of the attendees. It has shrewdly been observed that charisma draws people but does not turn them into practicing followers. Contemporary believers will more often than not submit their conscience to critical reasoning rather than to doctrinal propositions.
The present religious landscape of the west described above compels the church to stop and review its approach to evangelism. It is well documented that in these countries organized religion is in crisis. The SDA Church is not immune to the problem. We rejoice that the church is growing in the rest of the world but where is it going in the postmodern west? Were it not for success among the ethnic minorities the growth rate would be close to zero.
Evangelism must be redefined. The word brings to mind a public hall, a trained evangelist - preferably from overseas - videos of archaeological artefacts, and prophetic charts. The members’ participation is reduced to providing the funds and letter boxing and ushering. This psyche must change. When Christ said: “You shall be my witnesses” he clearly laid the responsibility on the shoulders of individual believers, not on the institution, which did not yet exist. The Holy Spirit equipped each believer with a cluster of complementary spiritual gifs to be used efficiently in individual evangelism or in small groups. Mass evangelism only began when, following the conversion of Constantin,e the church suddenly had to accommodate thousands of pagans resulting in the gradual subversion of truth.
It is a historical fact that great social changes have always followed the work of a committed few, who in small cells shared their views with enthusiasm. Early Christianity and later Communism have one thing in common: rapid growth resulting from the work of cell groups. Communism has been discredited but Christianity is assured of ultimate victory. Indeed, but only if and when individual members take seriously the words of the Master: “You shall be my witnesses.”
Pastor Eddy Johnson is the director of ADRA Blacktown and pastors two churches in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia.