How to Bring Good News to 21st Century People, part 2

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I want to continue my discussion from the part one of this blog about bringing good news to 21st Century people.  Bridging the distinctly different cultures of the 20th and 21st Centuries is a challenge. If you are over 40, you were born and raised solidly in 20th Century Culture. In those days there was a much clearer line between right and wrong. People believed in truth and were at least open to the possibility of changing their minds if they found that they were wrong.  I was born in the 1950s, so I am a child of the late 20th Century.  But I have spent the years since the turn of the current century trying to understand 21st Century people and communicate the gospel to them.

When I started teaching community college students nearly 25 years ago, I began to realize that you can’t reach many contemporary people with the gospel using 20th Century approaches and methods. They just don’t get a lot of it.  We older Christians don’t understand why.  What we may be missing is that 21st Century people don’t want to be 20th Century Christians.  Here’s the hopeful part: they can be reached with the gospel. But here’s the catch: the good news about Jesus must given in a way that meets the needs of 21st Century people. Let me be clear: it is the same good news, just packaged for a different group. Let me show you what I mean.

A 20th Century Preaching Model

Consider this biblical example of gospel preaching that was used in much of the 20th Century.  In Acts 2, Peter and the Apostles preached the first gospel sermon on the day the Church was founded. They had been filled with the Holy Spirit and we doing some unusual things such as speaking in languages that they had never learned. Verses 14-16 give Peter’s answer to people’s mistaken thinking that the Apostles were drunk.

“ Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: ‘Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel..’”

Peter brings the sermon to the point in verses 36-39 where he says, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.’”

Notice that Peter is confrontational. He directly accuses them of missing and even rejecting their Messiah. He is blunt, direct and does not attempt to soften the blow. Peter also assumes that these religious Jews know the scriptures and respect them. He builds on this knowledge by appealing to the their desire to be biblical and obedient.

In other words he preached to people with a basic understanding of the Bible and God’s ways and he confronted them directly about their sin and disobedience. This approach is the main model used by believers to preach the gospel in the 20th Century. It is very biblical, and for people back in the 20th Century, very effective.

21st Century Preaching Models

But this isn’t the only way the gospel was preached in the Bible. For example, here are a couple of samples of gospel preaching that may better fit people in the 21st Century.

The Samaritan Woman.

In John 4, Jesus is traveling through Samaria and met a woman drawing water at Jacob’s Well. They have a conversation about water and being thirsty. In verses 14-17. Jesus says to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”  “I have no husband,” she replied.

The Athenians.

In Acts 17, Paul is in Athens and finds himself addressing some of the noted philosophers of the day. Notice that not once in this sermon does he quote scripture. Verses 22-23 show his ability to adapt to his audience: “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

The differences between 20th and 21st Century preaching.

In both John 4 and Acts 17, Jesus and Paul are interactive, rather than confrontational in their approach. They see the situation and viewpoint of the people they are speaking to and tailor a message for them. In John 4, Jesus knows that the woman has some knowledge of scripture, but that this knowledge is highly distorted, so he straightens out her cultic misunderstanding of scripture. He doesn’t criticize her for her misunderstanding, but instead he appeals to the woman’s obvious desire for acceptance and fulfillment. Hence her five failed marriages and current dysfunctional relationship.   In the Acts 17 passage, Paul assumes no knowledge of or loyalty to scripture by the Athenians, so he doesn’t use it. Instead, Paul appeals to the Athenians’ spiritual emptiness and hunger for wisdom. Both of these approaches are very biblical. Both fit the needs of the people they were focused on.

The point.

What is my point? I am not suggesting any compromise of doctrine. I am not suggesting that we stop using scripture. I am saying we have to be open to changing at least some of our approach and ways of thinking in order to reach 21st Century people. Unless of course, we just plain don’t care what happens to them.  I will suggest some ways that can help us be more effective with 21st Century people in the third and final part of this blog.

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