Conversion and Worldview Transformation Among Postmoderns
Bruce L. Bauer
Conversion is a wonderful act of the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of men and women. It can take place very quickly, even after a short presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, if conversion is not followed by a worldview transformation, the life of the baby Christian remains under the influence of the values and core assumptions of their old lifestyle and worldview. Therefore, what also needs to happen in the conversion and spiritual growth of every person is to have their basic core assumptions and premises that form their worldview also changed.
This paper will first of all look at the worldview values found in the emerging postmodern generations, then will briefly describe some of the positive and negative aspects of those values before listing some of the best practices that encourage conversion and worldview transformation among postmoderns. First, let’s begin with some basic definitions.
Conversion in the Old Testament found expression in the Hebrew word šûb indicating a return to the point of departure (Jenni and Westermann 1997:1313). The New Testament uses epistrephõ (turn) and metanoia (repentance). Conversion is “a supernatural transformation of the mind, affections, and life that restores freedom, self-control, and spiritual union with God that were lost as a result of sin” (Neufeld 1976:349). “The Bible speaks about conversion as turning away from wickedness (2 Tim. 2:19), turning to God from idols (1 Thess. 1:9), or turning from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God (Acts 26:18)” (Love 2000:231).
There is also conversion from a psychological perspective that involves a “step-by-step process whereby a person who knows nothing about God is led to a true knowledge of God. . . . [And it] usually involves a gradual change in the thinking of the person being converted” (Love 2000:231). Finally, there is transformation at the worldview level. For example, the conversion of the apostles took place gradually as they interacted with Jesus over a period of three years. Bit by bit their assumptions about reality, about the purpose and work of the Messiah, and the Kingdom of God were transformed. They moved from believing it was proper to treat Gentiles and Samaritans badly to realizing that God loved Gentiles and that they also could be part of God’s Kingdom (Kraft 1989:105). Transformation at the worldview level takes time, but until the disciples had experienced that kind of change they were of little value in the mission that Jesus was calling them to.
Worldview is defined as the “foundational cognitive, affective, and evaluative assumptions and frameworks a group of people makes about the nature of reality which they use to order their lives” (Hiebert 2008:25, 26). So if in the conversion process new believers continue to pledge a higher allegiance to the values and assumptions of a postmodern worldview their conversion will be incomplete and sooner or later the old assumptions will derail the growth and spiritual development that characterizes a follower of Jesus Christ.
Postmodernism is much more difficult to define, so I will use a very long definition.
Postmodernism is a general and wide-ranging term which is applied to many disciplines, including literature, art, economics, philosophy, fiction, and literary criticism. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to scientific or objective efforts to explain reality. There is no consensus among scholars on the precise definition. In essence, postmodernism is based on the position that reality is not mirrored in human understanding of it, but is rather constructed as the mind tries to understand its own personal reality. Postmodernism is therefore skeptical of explanations that claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, arguing that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain or universal.
Postmodernism postulates that many, if not all, apparent realities are only social constructs and are therefore subject to change. It claims that there is no absolute truth and that the way people perceive the world is subjective and emphasizes the role of language, power relations, and motivations in the formation of ideas and beliefs. In particular it attacks the use of sharp binary classifications such as male versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black, and imperial versus colonial; it holds realities to be plural and relative, and to be dependent on who the interested parties are and the nature of these interests. Postmodernist approaches therefore often consider the ways in which social dynamics, such as power and hierarchy, affect human conceptualizations of the world to have important effects on the way knowledge is constructed and used. (Postmodernism)
Conversion at the Worldview Level
As can been seen from the long definition of the postmodern perspective, the worldview values of many in the emerging generations are very different from those with biblically shaped worldviews. Therefore, it is important for those coming into the Seventh-day Adventist Church to have a conversion experience that goes deeper than the observable behaviors, and even deeper than a changed belief system. They must also have a transformed worldview. Since people’s worldview assumptions, premises, and values create their beliefs out of which behavior flow, it is vitally important that those worldview assumptions and values also be transformed.
From the earliest days of the Seventh-day Adventist Church until just recently most of the Church’s evangelism was focused on sharing the distinctive Adventist doctrines with those who were already Christians. New converts added biblical knowledge concerning the Sabbath, prophecy, diet, and health to their general Bible knowledge about Jesus, his life, and death, and atoning sacrifice. Such Christians already had a worldview that had been impacted by biblical principles. They had already grappled with issues of loyalty to God, and allegiance to the Bible. As long as Adventist evangelism was largely carried out among Christians of other denominations such an emphasis on distinctive Adventist truths still resulted in a Christian conversion experience that produced healthy Adventists with biblically shaped worldviews. However, as Christian witnesses interact with people who have been shaped by postmodern premises they are discovering people who have many values that are at odds with the values and premises of the Bible. Therefore, in the next section a brief overview of postmodern values will be given.
Worldview Values among the Emerging Postmodern Generations
The worldview values of many are changing at a rapid pace in many of the world’s cultures. In the United States George Barna found that only 34 percent of American adults believe that there is such a thing as absolute moral truth and that only 9 percent of all American adults have a biblically-shaped worldview (Barna Group 2009). Several years ago, in his book Boiling Point: It Only Takes One Degree: Monitoring Cultural Shifts in the 21st Century (2001), Barna spent a whole chapter comparing the values of earlier generations of Americans with present trends. What are some of those trends?
The postmodern worldview highly values spirituality, pluralism, the experiential, relativity, altruism, community, creativity, environmentalism, globality, holism, and authenticity. These values have both negative and positive aspects when it comes to conversion, so in the sections below each of these values will be very briefly described.
There is a postmodern ethos at work in the area of spirituality that is characterized by its rejection of formal religious doctrines and structures that is anti-institutional and that is very private, personal, and individual (Wells 2005:95). It is not that the emerging generations have turned their backs on spirituality, but it is true that they want to engage in spiritual pursuits on their own terms. By rejecting revealed knowledge in the Word of God this generation has dabbled in all types of spiritual activities. All one has to do to confirm this smorgasbord approach to religion is to visit a large bookstore to note this new emphasis on New Age, Wicca, Scientology, all types of Eastern religions, various forms of meditation, including a lot of religious activities completely devoid of God.
The postmodern worldview is also pluralistic and rejects the concept of any absolute moral truth that has worldwide application. However, it does not reject all standards of truth, but believes that truth is developed and accepted by each community. Thus, each culture or community creates its own truth, setting the parameters for community right and wrong (Gilley 2002). “Truth, is not something objective” and is not based on absolutes for all people everywhere at all times. Rather, “truth is what is truth for me, and that may be different than it is for you or others” (Erickson 2002:13).
“Postmoderns want to experience things rather than just read or hear about them” (Jones 2001:23). With their skepticism towards an overarching metanarrative and skepticism towards universal absolute moral truth, the postmodern generation is looking for something that works and something that makes a difference. This is not all bad, for Christians can also just as easily share their faith from the perspective that Jesus Christ can make a tremendous difference in one’s life just as they can stress doctrinal statements in their witness. Instead of saying, “This is truth,” postmoderns will respond much more positively to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). Christian witness to postmoderns can be further strengthened if the tasting of God’s goodness is carried out in a community of caring, authentic believers.
The postmodern generation was the first generation to grow up in a completely secular school system that stressed that truth was a subjective matter. They heard over and over again that there were no absolutes, that everything was relative. This acceptance of relativity has also created the political correctness movement that tolerates very opposing values. Since community is so highly cherished, diametrically opposing views can coexist as people tolerate even destructive views and lifestyles (Celek, Zander, and Kampert1996:46).
Postmoderns desire to be involved in doing good. They value giving their time to community projects and are generous with their resources (Smith 2005:68). Churches that have tapped into this value regularly invite community members to join in projects the church is involved with that impact social needs.
When it comes to reaching out to postmoderns it is vitally important to understand how they react against the traditional approaches of the church. Earlier generations usually responded favorably to a doctrinal approach. However, this emerging generation is more interested in relationships and community, so to be effective churches and ministries need to maximize opportunities for building relationships where those in the community of faith demonstrate that Christianity works and that God’s love is real (Baugh and Hurst 2000:45, 46). Instead of Bible studies and evangelistic meetings being the means to communicate the gospel, postmodern sensitive churches introduce people to the themes of God’s good news through relational activities in the church community.
In contrast to previous generations that appreciated functionality that served useful purposes, the emerging generation is known for its aesthetic sensibilities and its appreciation for beauty for beauty’s sake (Smith 2005:68).
The postmodern generations are much more concerned with the environment and with the proper use of natural resources than previous ones. As such they seek to improve and protect the quality of the environment by activism through political, economic, and social organizations. Postmoderns are also active in reassessing humanity’s relationship with nature as more and more of them claim “that living things other than humans, and the natural environment as a whole, are deserving of consideration in reasoning about the morality of political, economic, and social policies” (Environmentalism). The Adventist emphasis on creation and the Creator (Rev 14) as well as its emphasis on vegetarianism fits well with this shift.
The emerging generation is much more global in outlook than previous generations. “With no major wars or economic depressions to unite us, students believe they’re citizens of the world, and their loyalties may be stronger to the entire human race than they are to nations. CNN and the Internet only strengthen this conviction” (Jones 2001:46). This is a positive for God’s people should be world Christians and not tied to any particular country and its foreign policy.
Holism in life is a highly valued characteristic of postmoderns. They reject a compartmentalized life that goes to church one day a week, but then lives an entirely different lifestyle the rest of the week. In contrast, postmoderns feel that integrity in all areas of life is important, and they are “rightly suspicious of those who live segmented and compartmentalized lives” (Smith 2005:69). The holism that postmoderns espouse also “rejects the radical individualism of modernism and seeks to replace that individualism with community (Ford and Denney 1995:117).
The emerging generations are skeptical of authority figures and cynical about religion—perhaps with good reason. The lies and deceit of the Vietnam War era, Watergate, CIA cover-ups, the tele-evangelists’ scandals, the sexual abuse that rocked the Catholic Church, and many other betrayals of the public trust have left postmoderns searching for things that are real and authentic. What postmoderns are looking for is people who are transparent, real, vulnerable, imperfect, and unpolished (Celek, Zander, and Kampert 1996:101). This is a far cry from what is projected by many religious leaders and believers who act like they are spiritual and religious and that they have it all together. Instead of wearing a spiritual mask, believers who want to minister to these new generations need to communicate that they are fellow pilgrims dealing with life’s struggles in a real and authentic way.
How Worldviews Change
With this as a brief background of some of the worldview assumptions and premises that are highly valued by postmoderns, in this section I will share two basic approaches that encourage worldview change (Kraft 1996:56, 57).
First, when people are given a new explanation of reality that sets up tension within their worldview they are forced to reassess what they think and believe about reality. Adventists are good at this approach and have used it effectively in presenting biblical truths in powerful and convincing ways. This approach is most effective among those who are already Christian, who are committed to the Word of God, and who have a basic understanding of biblical doctrine. When such people hear presentations on the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation or on the Sabbath or the condition of humanity in death a crisis begins to rage in their minds. Such a crisis and tension in their belief system create an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to bring about a change in values and assumptions.
However, many in our world are not interested in biblical truth. Postmoderns are especially skeptical of anyone who suggests that there is only one truth. Furthermore, many postmoderns would not be inclined to attend either a typical Bible study or a traditional Adventist evangelistic series. In such a situation the second approach to worldview change can be more effective. This approach provides an opportunity for people to have a new experience that again challenges their worldview and causes them to reassess their view of reality. This approach more closely mirrors the approach of Jesus, the disciples, and the early church in its emphasis on healing, setting people free from the evil one, and in helping people experience the power of a loving, caring God in some practical and experiential way.
It is interesting to note that in the Book of Acts the usual pattern of bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ was for the Holy Spirit to initiate some new experience in a city or village that caused the people to be amazed. The experience created a willingness to listen to preaching about the kingdom of God.
This is probably what it will take for postmoderns. The church and Christian witnesses will have to begin with an experience of some kind that grabs the attention of the pre-believers, but they will also have to eventually get to the place where the new explanation of reality in Jesus Christ can be shared with them before they can become committed believers.
Best Practices Encouraging Conversion among Postmoderns
If postmoderns are more open to worldview change that occurs through new experiences, exactly what kind of experiences would encourage the emerging generations to consider the claims of Jesus Christ on their lives and help them become believers? In this section of the paper I will share some of the best practices used by those working with postmoders that encourage movement towards Christ and conversion to his cause.
Tim Celek, Dieter Zander, and Patrick Kampert present an approach for reaching the postmodern generations that is based on Paul’s approach on Mars Hill in Acts 17. They suggest four aspects of evangelism that will help get a hearing:
Real—Christian witnesses in their communication must be real. When working with postmoderns who are so skeptical of authority and the institutional church God’s people need to be vulnerable, transparent, admit they are imperfect, and be authentic. People are more willing to relate to us when we are honest about our own struggles (1996:101, 102).
Rousing—Many postmoderns are hiding from dealing with the real issues in their lives, so if they come into contact with authentic Christians who share their own struggles they can be roused and encouraged to also grapple with those issues. For example, at New Song Church Celek, Zander, and Kampert did a series on “Great Sex” that included “The Great Gift of Sex” dealing with how God created sex and wanted people to enjoy it and “The Great Divide” that shared the biblical perspective on why God does not want people to be sexually active before marriage (1996:103).
Relevant—Many in the postmodern generations are looking for something that works. Unless Christian witnesses can share how God has made a difference in their own lives they have very little to share with this generation (1996:104).
Relational—The three previous aspects of ministry all need to be carried out in a relational ministry. Impersonal public meetings are never going to reach the increasing number of people in the postmodern generations. Postmoderns yearn for friends, for community, for meaningful relationships (1996:105-108).
Ken Baugh and Rich Hurst make a very valid point when they contrast how modernists and postmodernists go about knowledge acquisition. This understanding is of great importance when it comes to discipling postmoderns. The earlier generations relied heavily on science for knowledge, whereas the present generation relies on stories. Earlier generations found satisfaction in propositional statements describing doctrinal truths, and sought knowledge because they believed it had intrinsic value. “To the postmodern mind, however, knowledge is important only in so far as is can be applied to an end. Knowledge must be useful, and it is acquired through experience. Emotion, imagination, and story are all valid means by which the postmodern person seeks knowledge” (2003:12).
Can Christian witness recapture the early church’s ability to tell stories of hope and reconciliation and salvation instead of sharing proof texts and propositional statements of truth? Those who have done this have seen conversions among the postmodern generations (Hahn and Verhaagen 1996:101-156).
It is important however, that God’s people in their witness tell the old story in a way that the present generations will see the gospel as plausible and real instead of “making a rational defense of its credibility. Christians will need to live out their faith in front of people so that it allows them to see that what they believe is credible. . . . People will make a commitment to Christ when they hear a story that seems coherent and rings true to them” (Johnson).
It is the telling of the biblical story that sets up tension in people’s lives that allows the Holy Spirit to bring about conversion and change at the worldview level. Jimmy Long suggests that “the conversion process in narrative evangelism can be called a ‘collision of narratives.’ When God’s story touches our story, a collision takes place. When we encounter a story that calls into question part of our story, we need to reconsider our story. We may not like the process because it can shake our equilibrium” (1997:190).
God’s story is the answer to the yearnings of the emerging generations in a number of ways:
They feel alienated: God’s story brings reconciliation.
They feel betrayed: God’s story restores broken trust.
They feel insecure: God’s story brings a sense of safety within a protective, healing community.
They lack a defined identity: God’s story brings a new identity in Christ.
They feel unwanted and unneeded: God’s story offers them a place of belonging, a place of involvement, and a place where their lives can be used in service of a purpose that is larger then themselves. (Johnston)
Jimmy Long suggests that there are six phases in the postmodern conversion process (1997:206-210):
Discontentment with Life—Discontentment is rampant among postmoderns with their pessimistic outlook on life and the world. Discontented people are open to exploring new options, and Christ is certainly a new option for them.
Confusion over Meaning—With no absolutes, meaning is an elusive pursuit for the emerging generations. One of the evidences for this confusion is the various places people look for meaning. Some search in sexual promiscuity, others in Eastern religions, some in music, some in involvement in environmental causes. This searching provides God’s people with opportunities to share the purpose and meaning they have found in Christ.
Contact with Christians—Contact with authentic believers is of vital importance. Postmoderns often do not have a very positive opinion of Christianity. Perhaps they have had a bad experience with Christians or have been turned off by the negative stories of Christianity in the press. What they need is to have a positive encounter with a genuine Christian who breaks down all the stereotypes and preconceived ideas they have. Once such friendships have been established there are three additional guidelines that must shape the contact. First, heart issues rather than working on a transfer of cognitive data about biblical truth need to be worked through at this stage. Second, there must be a recognition that moving postmoderns from where they are to commitment to Christ will take much longer than it did for previous generations. Third, the friendship needs to be moved from an individual friendship to friendship with a community of local believers.
Converted to Community—Postmoderns view life from a communal perspective, and not from the perspective of the autonomous self as was common among earlier generations. Becoming a Christian means leaving one’s old community, and unless there is a new community to take its place, few will make the transition. The emerging generations enjoy participating in activities and they will need to have a sense of belonging long before they believe. Postmoderns often experience a two-stage conversion process—converted first to community, and only afterwards to the Christ of that community.
Converted to Christ—As postmoderns experience acceptance in the community of God’s people they may not even be aware that they need to make a commitment to Jesus Christ. Prior generations were often quick to make decisions. Short evangelistic meetings also operated on the supposition that within two or three weeks, people could commit their lives to Christ. This will not be the usual practice among postmoderns. It will take longer and will usually require deliberate steps or the results will only be conversion to the community and not to the Christ of the community.
Postmoderns deny that there is absolute moral truth that has universal application and are highly influenced with pluralistic thinking. These worldview values are best dealt with over time as people begin to make a commitment to Jesus Christ and as they realize that Jesus heals the brokenness of the uneducated and the educated, the person in Africa or America, the married man or single woman—the power of Jesus experienced nudges people to realize that Jesus is the truth, a truth for all people in all places at all times.
A Calling to God’s Heavenly Vision—People coming out of a postmodern background lack an understanding of the biblical metanarrative that gives meaning and purpose to every human being. People really do need to understand God’s story. “This postmodern generation also needs a perspective into which it can place all the joys, sorrows and pain it will continue to experience in this life. That perspective is one whereby life is lived from the future (Christ’s Second Coming) in the present (pain and suffering) while being anchored to the past (Christ’s death and resurrection)” (Long 1997:209).
Working with postmoderns is very much like working in cross-cultural situations. God’s people will need to do the same type of hard work that cross-cultural missionaries do when they begin working for an unreached people—they study the cultural and worldview value system in order to understand how best to present the gospel. Times have changed. The modernist perspective is slipping away among the emerging generations, so new approaches to witness and evangelism are needed. Therefore, I offer the following recommendations.
- The average Adventist member needs to learn as much as possible about the emerging generations. Books and articles on postmodern worldviews and the culture of the new generations should be promoted, read, and analyzed so as to enable God’s people to speak in contextual ways.
- Much more emphasis needs to be placed on discipleship within the Adventist Church. Postmoderns are not impressed with lukewarm Christians who do not live what they profess. Hopefully a greater emphasis on discipleship will result in more authentic witnesses.
- Discipleship is relational and takes place more naturally in community. The Adventist Church has relied too much on public evangelism for its witness. With the emerging generations, public evangelism will have a declining impact in many societies, so a relational approach to sharing the good news will become extremely important. This relational need in society should give added emphasis to the growth and development of small group ministries in the church.
- I would like to plead for kindness and charity for those who feel called to minister to the emerging generations. They do not have all the answers, but they are trying to discover approaches that are effective in helping postmodern people become committed followers of Jesus Christ. Too often those sitting on the sidelines are very quick to point out errors while they themselves never enter the arena where the battle is taking place. Quiet dialogue and interaction is more appropriate than heaping blame and criticism on those doing their best to share the love of Christ.
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