review: preaching to a postmodern world

Preaching to a Postmodern World: A Guide to Reaching Twenty-first Century Listeners
by Graham Johnston (Baker Books, 2001), pb, 189pp
“The most important single factor in whether or not you are an effective communicator lies in whether or not you doggedly pursue … [this] … question: ‘Who are my listeners?’ … We don’t teach the Bible. We teach people the Bible. As vital as it is to know content, it’s not enough. We must know our audiences.” (p.7)
“The Gospel must be constantly forwarded to a new address because the recipient is repeatedly changing place of residence.” (p.9, quoting Helmut Thielicke)
“[The Christian message] can fail … by failing to understand and take seriously the world in which it is set, so that the gospel is not heard but remains incomprehensible because the Church has sought security in its own past instead of risking its life in a deep involvement with the world. It can fail, on the other hand, by allowing the world to dictate the issues and the terms of the meeting. The result then is that the world is not challenged at its depth but rather absorbs and domesticates the gospel and uses it to sacralize its own purposes.” (p.10, quoting Lesslie Newbigin)
“I am trying to talk about the Gospel – good news about something which happened and which, in that sense, does not change. The way of telling it, of understanding it, however, does change.” (p.12, quoting Lesslie Newbigin)
“Good communication, after all, is analogous to a map. In deciphering a map, you must first know, as is often noted, YOU ARE HERE in order to get to where you want to be. Some preaching has relied solely on knowing where people need to end up without bothering to understand their present position.” (p.21)
“More than ever before, the danger to the Christian faith is not that people reject Christ but that they reject a caricature of Christ.” (p.21)
“… the modern age lasted exactly 200 years – from the fall of the Bastille in 1789 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.” (p.24, quoting Thomas Oden)
“… postmodernism is better understood descriptively and by its features, rather than by definition. … these [are] the tenets of modernity … (1) True knowledge, that which corresponds to reality, exists as a certainty with reason being the sole arbiter of determining truth. (2) The world was perceived on two levels: the objective, physical, and scientific realm (which was open to public debate) and the subjective, spiritual, and moral realm (which was a matter of personal conviction). (3) The world was seen to exist in a cause and effect relationship, so that the things of the world could be understood through empirical evidence. (4) Knowledge was inherently good, dealing with ‘facts,’ which were viewed as ‘neutral’ and ‘value-free.’ (5) Progress, meaning technology, scientific discovery, and economic advancement, was good and would eventually lead humanity to a better world and personal happiness. (6) Humanity was basically good and using the powers of reason and ingenuity, people could solve all worldly problems. (7) The individual was autonomous and society not only recognized the rights of the individual but was duty bound to serve those rights. (Previous to modernity, the individual was viewed as subservient to society.) … [This contrasts sharply with … ten distinctives [that] would emerge as the hallmarks of postmodern people: (1) They’re reacting to modernity and all its tenets. (2) They reject objective truth. (3) They’re skeptical and suspicious of authority. (4) They’re like missing persons in search of a self and identity. (5) They’ve blurred morality and are into whatever’s expedient. (6) They continue to search for the transcendent. (7) They’re living in a media world unlike any other. (8) They’ll engage in the knowing smirk. (9) They’re on a quest for community. (10) They live in a very material world.” (p.24,25-26)
“Look at the contrasts. Modernity [is about]: a romantic view of life, purpose, design, hierarchy, word, a completed work, analysis from a distance, creation/synthesis, present, centering, semantics/words, depth, narrative/grand histoire, metaphysics, transcendence. Postmodernity [is about] an absurd view of life, play, chance, anarchy, silence, process, analysis through participation, deconstruction/synthesis, absence, dispersal,  rhetoric/presentation, surface, antinarrative/ petite historie, irony, immanence.” (pp.27-28)
“Modernity’s arrogance of certainty is countered by postmodernity’s profound openness.” (p.29)
“… the introduction of postmodernity has proved of some benefit to Christian faith. The Enlightenment sought to relegate matters of faith to the rear of the bus as either insignificant or nonexistent. Postmodernity returns value to faith and affirms the nurturing of our spiritual being as vital to humankind. Unfortunately, with the loss of truth, people will now seek faith without boundaries, categories, or definition. The old parameters of belief do not exist. As a result, people will be increasingly open to knowing God, but on their own terms.” (p.31)
“… people are no longer going to tolerate local churches that fail to measure up in any number of ways. The church’s perceived self-preoccupation will be interpreted as a failure of the Christian faith.” (p.37)
“Postmodernity is a consumer age, where people will relish options. Plurality demands these options in which all choices share equal footing. Because there’s no clear center, no clear target, there exists a need for a variety of possibilities on the parameter of life. … We have the freedom to become whatever we wish, yet without a certainty of knowing who we really are. Adrift at sea, every person will seek out something, some reference point to give life some meaning.” (p.39)
“Postmodern people view their time as a commodity, and a precious one, so the very thought of ‘wasting’ a Sunday morning with little or no take-home value is repugnant. Like it or not, this is our culture. God calls Christians to speak into this culture His thoughts and His message. As biblical communicators, your task is not a simple one – it’s to bring God’s truth to bear upon a people who are searching for, yet uncertain of, truth and falsehood; of people open, but skeptical, and livin’ large while running on empty.” (p.59)
“Four principles will make the difference in the effectiveness of your preaching in our postmodern climate: Not engaging listeners at the expense of the message, knowing that good communication takes two – and time, your degree of risk to get involved with those you’re speaking to, and how you address the world in which your listeners live.” (p.61)
“One reason the Christian worldview is so highly criticized in a postmodern context lies in the apparent Christian unwillingness to coexist with any other viewpoint. Christians are then perceived to be threatened and incapable of dealing with a person’s refusal to embrace our way of thinking. Our inability to dialogue creates problems.” (p.78)
“Some sermons will continue to speak to the converted, the insiders, and will fail to engage both the unchurched and those churchgoers who remain postmodern in their thinking. These will likely become churches of the status quo and may soon be congregations that find themselves in survival mode struggling to find anyone to listen.” (p.81)
“The preaching task needs to work off more than a liturgical calendar or Bible themes. I know I want my preaching to reflect a three-point strategy: (1) Balance the preaching of the biblical text, alternating Gospel narratives and New Testament Epistles with the Old Testament literature and the Psalms. (2) Develop the community of faith with direction and values for the overall fellowship. (Ask, for example: If the leadership could pinpoint one area for corporate growth over a given year, what would it be?). (3) Consider each churchgoer’s spiritual development. Try to imagine the strength of a congregation that had worked in these three areas over a ten-year period. Without a strategic plan in place, from Sunday-to-Sunday it can be one step forward and two steps back with a congregation that never seems to get anywhere. …” (pp.84-85)
“‘The basic postmodern attitude toward belief is that a belief that fits a person is fine for that person,’ states Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm. ‘No story is more privileged than another. This openness to the validity of the personal story of each person means that – at least in theory – anyone should be able to have [his or] or her story and should be free to tell it.’ A good technique, then, is to clothe the biblical passage in your message with testimonies of real people who lend plausibility to the stories from their own life experiences.” (p.110)
“Some people would still like preachers to get tough with listeners concerning judgment, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that an understanding of judgment could be seen in the light of a fuller comprehension of God and the cross of Christ. But preaching fear and judgment indiscriminately to twenty-first century listeners poses three risks: A poor excuse to love God, an inadequate perception of the person of God, and an insufficient motive to act.” (p.117)
“In A Generation of Seekers, Roof explains, ‘There are currents flowing that act across the great spiritual. The new values [of baby boomers] emphasizes self-fulfillment and self-growth, inner spiritual discovery and exploration. A greater sense of self, appreciation of the body, of gender and spirituality, of reaching out to others, and of letting go are all themes that find common expression.’ Roof identifies three ambiguities of the present generation of people. One, they search for spiritual values but do not wish to have any constraints imposed upon them. … Two, they wish to cultivate belief but are distrustful of leaders and institutions. Three, they crave community yet stress personal fulfillment in their lives. ” (pp.120-121)
“People caught up in legalism are … scared to death of the freedom that grace brings. It’s much easier to retreat to our cells of dos and don’t’s, of black and white categories. But biblical preaching should not protect people by erecting legalistic walls. Instead it can release people by equipping them to discern godly choices on their own. How often have messages blasted people, though, for their failures without offering any constructive measures to help the listener move forward?” (p.127)
“Some people have argued that the present culture is immune to commitment. The truth lies more closely in recognizing the deep cynicism of movements and that people are loath to give themselves to a self-serving institution.
Commitment in postmodern times is not out of the question. … One factor in commitment is pinpointed by Robert Nisbet in his book Twilight of Authority: ‘As a society becomes increasingly complex, individuals become overtaxed and unable to integrate all the loyalties in their lives. In order to gain control of their inner world, they are forced to narrow the range of their commitments and interests. Postmodernity comes with too many choices so people know intuitively that they must choose carefully. A second factor in commitment is that postmodern people feel as if they’ve already been burned too many times and that every new solution is equally deceitful and manipulative. As in the tile of The Who’s song, ‘postmodern people warily say to themselves, ‘We won’t be fooled again.’ Preachers bent on a quick fix will be continually disappointed. Commitment to Christ, to a fellowship, and to a ministry will be weighed carefully and tested patiently.” (p.138)
“Twenty-first century preaching would do well to give attention to the right side as well as the left, using narration and real life stories of God’s word lived out. Get in the habit of asking yourself: ‘To which side of the brain is this message primarily speaking?'” (p.143)
“People need a big God, a God absolutely worthy of of their allegiance and any offering they may bring. ‘Who is God?’ will remain the paramount issue for postmodern times.” (p.146)
“Take a dialogical approach. … Use inductive preaching. … Use storytelling. … Use audiovisuals, drama, and art. … Use humor. …  Become a good listener…. Make your delivery crisp and clear.” (p.150,151,155,162,167,169,171)
This book’s author, Graham Johnston, serves as the senior pastor of Subiaco Church ( in Western Australia.  And though penned several months prior to 9/11, this book still clearly, concisely, and accurately describes our culture today. If you read this book for nothing else but what it has to say about the way people think today, you will come away from the experience a much better informed and wiser minister. Not only will this work sharpen your preaching, but it will also provide you with an armload of material (and great movie illustrations) for your preaching (or for a class/group study of our culture). You can peruse its table of contents on About the only thing lacking is a detailed index of illustrations and topics.
Put this book on your “want list” for it should be required reading for all preaching ministers. I give it a 9.6.