By Chris Watts
Ever since the Enlightenment, humanity has asked the question “what is true?” The scientific revolution and its attendant philosophy permeated into all facets of society. Reason, not emotion, would lead us to the truth. Truth was knowable and discoverable, and through careful searching and study, it could be found.
But we live in a post-truth society. Moral relativism, like the Enlightenment before it, has set into the very fabric of society. No longer is the question “what is true?” Now, society seeks to understand the world through a different set of questions.
“Is truth knowable?” “Does truth even matter?” “Why should I care?” “What is true for me?”
More and more people think that reality is subjective, determined by perception, experience, and emotion. It should not be surprising, then, that most people don’t bother seeking objective, absolute truth. Why would you if you didn’t believe such a thing existed or mattered?
Society has changed, and our attitudes about evangelistic methods have not kept up.
The restoration movement of the 1800s was born out of the attitudes of the Enlightenment; it began with the application of careful, reasoned thought to the text of scripture. This approach was not unique to the restoration movement. It has occurred periodically throughout history as people endeavored to return to New Testament Christianity.
We must be aware that the attitudes that enabled the church at the time to grow so rapidly and expansively do not exist anymore. At least, not on the scale they once did. Fewer and fewer people believe in objective truth. Because of this, fewer and fewer people care to study the Bible with careful, considered study to discover what it objectively says. The question is no longer “what is true?” The question is “what is true for me?”
It is easy to see how such a subjective view of reality would lead to fragmented, sloppy interpretation of scripture. If objective truth does not exist, how could one 2000 year old collection of documents possibly contain the only righteous way of life? If reality is determined by my experiences and emotions, why should I care about the words of supposed prophets whose experiences were so vastly different than my own?
The pendulum of societal thought ever swings forward and back. I imagine that one day we will swing back toward reason and objectivity. But in the meantime, we must realize that if we fail to convert people on the scale of a hundred and fifty years ago, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are doing it wrong. In other countries, where other modes of thought persist, the church isthriving and growing and expanding. But for us, in this country, at this time, we should expect that most people have no desire to study the Bible. There’s so much philosophical and spiritual groundwork to lay before a person will even care what the Bible says! If you sense that there are fewer Bible studies going on now, you are absolutely right! But it may not be because we are not trying as hard, or aren’t asking as many people, or aren’t putting in the effort we should.
To reach the average American, our example will do more than our words. How we live, not what we teach, matters more to the lost in this country. More than ever, the words of Jesus and the prophets must be heeded: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 5:16). “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12).
Jesus demands that we mold our lives to look like his, removing behaviors that violate his commands and adding behaviors that fulfill them. When the moral norms of society more closely resembled scripture, this was not a hard ask. The more people deviate from God’s Word, the more Jesus demands they change or give up. It should not surprise us that fewer people than ever want to study the Bible, and fewer still accept its Truth and allow it to transform their lives.
Even so, in every place, and at any time, there will be the seekers of truth who have realized the emptiness of the world and seek eternal purpose. These will ask “what is true?” and they will be willing to work to find it. As these precious seekers become fewer and further between, another step will be added to our evangelistic work. Our efforts will be much more effective if we spend the time and effort findingthose who are looking for truth. More are more, our work must start with seeking, before we can begin teaching.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul articulated the need to understand how people think and how to meet people on their level. He became like a Jew, or a Gentile, and he thought like one who knew the law and one who didn’t. “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (9:22). I pray that we will all consider our approach to evangelism and take the time to properly understand the people that so desperately need the knowledge we have.