Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Preachers in Wonderland: We're Preaching to the Choir!

Earlier this week a couple of missional minded colleagues and I met with a few folks who are more apologetically inclined in order to seek understanding over our differing ministry philosophies and methodologies. Over the course of the meeting our apologetic brethren shared their appreciation for even the more aggressive and confrontational forms of preaching by evangelicals at LDS General Conference, and at the Manti Miracle Pageant. Unfortunately, there was no awareness of the complexities of effective communication as it relates to theology or missiology. How often we forget that what makes perfect sense to us in fact makes no sense to others. When I heard these well meaning brethren share their passion for such forms of monological proclamation at LDS I heard a loud voice in my head shouting, "You're preaching to the choir, gentlemen!"

My friend and colleague Philip Johnson sent me an interesting collection of quotes recently that are directly related to this problem found not only in evangelical attempts to communicate to Latter-day Saints, but in other cultural contexts as well, sometimes even within our churches. The quotes come from Christian Faith and Practice in the Modern World: Theology From an Evangelical Point of View (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), Mark Noll and David Wells (eds). The quotes speak for themselves for those who have ears to hear:

"In much of the Post-Reformation period, and until relatively recently, the task of the evangelical theologian was easily defined. Theologians were to study the biblical text, crystallize doctrines from its pages, explore their relationships, sharpen their cutting edges, proclaim their truth, and confound those who disagreed or disbelieved. This set of activities was predicated on the assumption that biblical doctrine once explained was not only readily comprehensible to reasonable people, but also self-evident in its aplication to daily life. These assumptions, however, are now in ruins. The theological task no longer can be limited simply to the reception, refinement, repristination, and promulgation of the received orthodoxy; it must now concern itself with understanding what that faith means in a world whose cognitive horizons are so vastly different from the biblical and whose life poses questions the
biblical authors did not foresee nor answer directly. (p 11)

"In the West, evangelical theology must now function cross-culturally. Theologians, by circumstance if not by desire, are missionaries; there is no longer a home base to which they can retreat. For four centuries they had enjoyed such a home base in the broad Christian assumptions on which Western culture was predicated and by which it had been nourished. In the presence of those assumptions, even where they suffered cultural dilution, biblical doctrine had made ready sense. Moreover, the work of theologians had been accorded cultural legitimacy even by those who neither understood theology nor trusted its conclusions. Today, however, those assumptions have not merely been diluted; they have dissipated. Without them, biblical doctrine has lost its cultural coordinates and the professional guardians of that doctrine have been deprived of their legitimacy. They have become disinherited strangers in their own world, wanderers whose message strikes no chords and creates no resonance in a naturalistic, technological age. They are cognitive hermits. (p 12)

"Theologians who work in isolation from these developments are surely living in Alice's Wonderland." (p 12).

"As a matter of fact, there can be no forceful, meaningful evangelical theology that does not seek to communicate between the in-group, the church, and the out-group, the world. This communication, moreover, requires that the world be understood with sensitivity and clarity so that the church states the meaning of faith in terms germane to the world. This necessity calls evangelicals to hard and sympathetic attention to this world and conditions them to accept help from all who advance comprehension of its inner workings. A Christian theology that uses only the resources from the in-group is a paltry thing, both because it talks mostly with itself and because it is deprived of the insights of the out-group." (pp 12-13).

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