What Does Pluralism Mean for Evangelism?

Rethinking_header_p17ortjtlrcpkjfhv12ln0vj87“Which God?” It was a sincere question from a young lady with whom I was sharing the gospel. She had at one time been a student of mine, so she knew that I was a person of faith. Evidently, she wasn’t sure what faith. I’ve increasingly encountered scenarios like this one. Scenarios where the pluralism of our context requires me to think differently about how I share the gospel. Pluralism has impacted our evangelism in at least two important ways.

It would serve us well to define exactly what we mean by pluralism. There is a sense in which America has always been pluralistic. Discussions about the founding of America as a “Christian nation” are often reductionist in their view of history. They tend to overlook the reality of two important elements: (1) The History of Religious Dissent and Division in the Background of the American Experiment; and (2) The Changing Definition of “Freedom of Religion” from the Planting Fathers to the Founding Fathers. When we take these elements into consideration we can readily recognize an element of pluralism has existed on American soil from the start. Nonetheless, in the modern context we have seen an a dramatic increase in pluralism. In The Gagging of God D.A. Carson speaks of pluralism as three kinds of phenomena: empirical, cherished, and philosophical pluralism.

Empirical pluralism refers to factual diversity. “Empirical pluralism sums up the growing diversity in our culture” (13). So we might speak of diversity of race, value systems, heritage, language, culture, and religion in the West. We might observe, simply, the massive cultural shifts that took place after 1965. The Immigration and Nationalization Act of 1965 opened the door to more of an Asian representation among the growing immigration to the U.S. Prior to 1965 this was not possible, largely because of the antagonism towards Asians, which had been going on since the 1880s, and because of the Immigration Act of 1924. But now, suddenly, there was an influx of Asian immigrants that brought with them their various cultures. What the great Eastern Immigration brought with it was nothing less than an entirely new worldview, one that while being foreign to Westerners was also appealing to their individualistic ideals. David Wells, quoting Gordon Melton, notes, “[The 1965 Immigration Act] ‘contributed directly to the massive expansion’ in America’s religious diversity ‘and is even now completely altering the overall shape and structure of the American religious community’” (Above All Earthly Powers, 97). Empirical pluralism is simply a fact of our diversified context.

Cherished pluralism, on the other hand, is the affirmation of this diversity. It’s the celebration of this diversity. As Carson says, “In other words, the reality, empirical pluralism, has become ‘a value in itself, even a priority’: it is cherished” (18). Of course there is much to celebrate about our cultural pluralism. In so far as this diversity has helped us to “break down cultural prejudice, racial arrogance, and religious bigotry” (Carson, 17) we may rightly celebrate it. But cherished pluralism elevates the diversity beyond that point to the supreme place of importance. “To be modern,” says Os Guinness, “is to be addicted to choice and change. Change becomes the very essence of life” (The Gravedigger File, 92). This valuing of change and choice has paved the way, quite naturally, for what Carson calls Philosophical Pluralism.

Philosophical, or hermeneutical, pluralism says that “any notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong” (19). This is the shift away from possibility of objective truth, to the reality of subjective choice. Carson writes:

This state of affairs is not the fruit of sophomoric relativism, or of the urgent need of to redefine one’s morals to justify one’s sleeping arrangements. It is tied to some of the most complex intellectual developments in Western thought in the last twenty-five years. In particular it is bound up with the new hermeneutic and with its stepchild, deconstruction. The outlook that it spawns is often labeled postmodernism. (19)

It is this form of pluralism which Carson believes is the most serious and warrants the most thoughtful, careful interaction by Christians today. I will leave it to him for the moment and shift the focus to the implications of these developments in American life for the church’s evangelistic endeavors. How does pluralism impact our evangelism?

Not Everyone Will Understand Our Theology

It’s debatable whether we should have, but at least at one point in recent history the church assumed a sort of common cultural foundation of Judeo-Christian belief. When we spoke of God in previous contexts people, we assumed, thought about the God of the Bible. Randy Newman, a trained evangelist, tells of a story where he first realized that cultural pluralism presented challenges to the traditional forms of evangelism. He speaks of a student named Artyum whom he began to walk through an evangelistic tract with. He writes:

I read the first point, “God loves you and created you to know Him personally.” I don’t remember pausing at that point. I don’t think I even breathed. But somehow Artyum interrupted. “What do you mean when you say the word God?” he wondered aloud. “And what do you mean when you say the word love? And, most importantly, how do you know all of this is true?” It was a difficult moment for me. All of my training had told me to sweep away any and all questions with “That’s a good question. How about we come back to that when I’m done reading the booklet?” …But Artyum’s questions were different. They weren’t smokescreens….Artyum’s questions were foundational. Could I progress to the second page in the booklet and read, “People are sinful and separated from God” if he was stuck on the words God and love? What would be in store for us when we hit the word sin? (Questioning Evangelism, 23)

The diversity of our culture means that a great deal more explanation is going to be required as we engage with people. We cannot assume that they are thinking in Biblical categories when we say love, God, gospel, salvation, heaven, etc. We have a significant challenge before us in helping people to not simply believe the gospel, but understand it. We must help people put together a framework where the concepts of the Bible at least make sense. Evangelism that consisted in previous generations of simply leaving tracts in mailboxes, knocking on doors, and inviting people to Revivals is gone. Such approaches to evangelism will leave people with far too many gaps.

We live in a context of increasing religious plurality, which requires more articulation on Christian distinctives. Peter Berger has cogently decried the myth of Western secularization. We are not becoming more secular, though he points to reasons why it feels that we are.  Instead, we are becoming more plural. He writes:

Modernity is not necessarily secularizing; it is necessarily pluralizing. Modernity is characterized by an increasing plurality, within the same society, of different beliefs, values, and worldviews. Plurality does indeed pose a challenge to all religious traditions – each one must cope with the fact that there are “all these others,” not just in a faraway country but right next door.” (“Secularization Falsified”)

So while America is not more secular, it is not more Christian. That means as we do evangelism we have to do it in a context where people use the same nomenclature as us (god, faith, heaven, etc.) but mean different things. Being careful, patient, and thorough are part and parcel of our evangelistic method in this setting (perhaps they should have always been).

People Are Less Likely To Come To Us

While, in previous generations, people might come to the church to find out about God they are less likely to do so in the modern era. After all, the church no longer has a monopoly on religion. The number of “dechurched” Americans has risen dramatically over the years. Writing in 2012 Tim Chester and Steve Timmis note:

The number of adults in the United States who do not attend church has nearly doubled since 1991. Over 3,500 United States churches close their doors every year, and the attendance of more than 80 percent of those remaining has plateaued or is declining. (Everyday Church, 14)

The days of opening the church doors and expecting people to come to us are long over. Now, if people have religious questions they are more likely to go to the movies, read a book recommended by Oprah, or consult the web. Our evangelistic tactics need to take this into consideration. We need to see that evangelism today depends more on friendships and hospitality than church events and on-sight evangelists. We must do like Jesus and put ourselves among non-Christians. We must spend time with them, love them, and build relationships that naturally lend themselves to conversations about the gospel. It does not matter how slick our presentations are, how modern our facilities are, or how compelling our preachers are. People aren’t coming to us for religious help like they once were. They diversity of our culture means they can find a plethora of resources at the fingertips and in their backyards. We must go and take the gospel to them.

In many ways these realities aren’t anything new. The early church faced the exact same dynamics, in fact the history of the church is probably characterized by these realities in varying degrees. The problem has been a faulty assumption on the part of previous generations of Christians that Christendom was both influential and eternal. There was a period of church history where the church held a prominent place in society and many assumed that its influence would naturally lend itself to conversions. It didn’t. In fact in many ways it has created more pseudo-Christianity than authentic faith (see Bad Religion by Ross Douthat). Many also assumed that such a place of influence was going to last forever and so they have not taken the time to think carefully about the shifting culture around them and how that impacts their evangelistic efforts. The church needs to do better today. We need to be more patient and more relational in our evangelism. I have no doubt that God will continue to build his church, but we will either be part of that growth or we will be in the way of it. Think about pluralism, friends. While our message never changes, our methods had better!

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