How should Christians engage a post-Christian, post-evangelical, suspicious generation of people? How do we engage postmoderns?

Follow me here through this “Leading a horse to water” illustration. Here are the objects:


Water=the Gospel

Rope=method of delivery

Question: How do we lead a postmodern horse to water?

Option 1: Deny the horse is really postmodern.

No one can be a consistent postmodern. We simply need to convince them of the untenability of their professed worldview and show them how they don’t hold to it in reality.

This option is held by many in the Reformed tradition, especially those who hold to a presuppositional apologetic. Presuppositional apologetics seek to make an offensive defense of the faith by bringing people to understand that God is the presupposition behind all truth and knowledge. Without God, there is no such thing as an argument or a rational thought. He is required before any claim to truth can be made or any view can be held with conviction. There is a lot more to it than this, but hopefully this explanation will suffice for now. The most popular adherent to such an approach, especially when it comes to the issue of relativism, was Francis Schaeffer.

With regards to the issues surrounding postmodernism, the one who takes this approach says that we yield too much ground when we concede that the “relativist” or “hard skeptic” is really such since in order to be such, they have God as the very basis for their ability to doubt or deny the truth. Their logical reasoning shows that they already believe in the God of the Bible who is the presupposition behind all logical reasoning. As the old saying goes, “chaos cancels reason.” If there are reasons for relativism, they cancels relativism.

Those who opt for option one would not necessarily deny the other options a place, but they would say that we have to present the case as it stands, and as it stands, no one is really postmodern.

Option 2: Convert the horse from being postmodern.

Create common ground in epistemology (the way we come to know truth), then they will be able to drink the water.

The Christian’s job, according to this option, is to create a common intellectual ground from which evangelism can take place. Many times this will involve attempting to convince someone of the existence of a perfect, personal, all-powerful, necessary being from whom all things have their being. Once this is accomplished, then there can be a conversation where a transcendent reality (whom we call “God”) is creating a meta-narrative to which all truth must correspond. Typical biblical apologetics can be used once the common ground has been created to convince people that this “God” is the God of the Bible.

Option 3: Change the rope.

Christians need to change the communication method and style for a postmodern audience, being sensitive to the ethos of our culture.

To change the rope means that we evaluate our presentation method and change it where necessary. This might be considered the choice of many within “seeker” churches.

When changing the rope, there are no sacred cows. As the culture changes, so must our methodology in presenting the Gospel and doing church. This might take many forms. It could be as simple as changing the worship style from traditional music to contemporary or it can be as radical as sculpting the Gospel out of clay instead of words. Whatever communicates best to our culture should be used as a medium for the Gospel. Whatever the culture shuns or distrusts as far as communication is concerned should not be used. If we live in a drama-driven culture that seeks to experience life through fictional movies, then the Christian community should be making movies that communicate truth. If we live in a culture that has acquired a disdain and distrust for traditional church gatherings, then let’s change them. In other words, there is nothing sacred in the way we do things, only in what we do.

Those who adhere to this option would see a distinction between form and function. Function represents the basic principles (i.e. the water), the form is the way the function is made manifest (i.e. the rope). The form is always in need of change, even if the fundamentalists of each generation cry wolf-they always have and always will.

Option 4: Change the water.

The water we are calling “Gospel” today may not represent the true Gospel due to traditional folk theology and misinformation. Therefore, the water needs to be “purified.”

There are two groups that represent this option:

  1. Radical water changers: Those who say that the historic Christian faith is wrong in many ways.
  2. Moderate water changers: Those who say that the contemporary Christian faith is wrong in many ways.

The radical water changers would have no ties to tradition at all. They would entertain the thought that many beliefs which have historically defined the Christian faith are actually wrong. Included in these beliefs could be the doctrine of Hell (is it really eternal? Is it really real? Let’s not speak about it), the doctrine of God (is God really eternal? if so, how can He relate?), the exclusivity of Christ (is Christ really the only way?), the atonement (would God really demand “cosmic child abuse” to secure our redemption?), the doctrine of sin (are we really condemned for the sin of another?), and the like. The water is purified to the point where all that is secure is the fact that God loves all people and will eventually save all somehow (universalism). These ideas can be found in the liberal church and many of the more radical representations in the emerging church.

The moderate water changers, on the other hand, would say that the church must always be evaluating the water to make sure that no impurity has crept in unaware. Sometimes these impurities come as a result of reaction against the culture or other false teachings. They are added to the water during the battle, but never taken out – even when the battle is over. This group would look to historic Christianity for the basic essential elements of the Gospel, often looking to the early creeds and confessions. Additives that they would consider unworthy of the water would be issues of practice that have become normalized to such a degree that you cannot distinguish them from the Gospel. It may be how we do church (“big church,” “little church”), how we present the Gospel (the “sinner’s prayer,” walking the aisle, the Four Spiritual Laws), how we relate to the culture (“if the culture does it, Christians should not” mentality), legalistic practices (Christians should not drink, gamble, dance, smoke, or go to the movies), political additives (Christians must vote Republican), and the like. According to this group, these practices have been traditionalized within the church to such a degree that they are now part of the water.


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    7 replies to "How to Lead a Postmodern Horse to Water"

    • I am more of a “presupp” guy, (as Michael knows 😉 ), but yes, we always must have the historical church (the first Five Ecumenical Councils for me), even though it is in this life, a Pilgrim Body, without perfection!

    • Chris

      You get rid of the rope and just bring us a bucket of water. Pet our manes while we drink. Then lead the way to the source. “Leading us” somewhere with a rope will just make us more suspicious. I guess that’s kind of like changing the rope.

    • Andy

      Found this very thought provoking in terms of our attempts at mission. Would love to hear what the models might be, if the church takes the water to the horse, or the water speaks directly to the horse, lastly what does the model look like if the water finds the horse on its own? Thank you for your deep theological thinking.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Question: How do we lead a postmodern horse to water?

      Is there one best way? Or are there several/many different “best” ways?

    • Pavel Mosko (Addai)

      I was on the post modern website for over 8 years, in all honesty much of the time the post modern thing is overplayed. Infact, in looking at Christian Social trends the whole movement heyday passed a few years back (i.e. a few years back some Emerging church folks gave up that label and name, traffic and posting on websites like the ooze are way down compared to where they were etc.). Of course being a former social science student I do believe there is something there as far as how generations think different than one another (like I recognize I have different way of doing things as a Gen X person than my parents, grand parents etc.).

      Anyway personally with the post moderns I’ve known I’ve tried to take a contemporary, Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho” approach. (That is if they are very philosophical or educated). But many are not…. Besides that I also tend to follow the advice that is in this following book…..

    • […] How to Lead a Post-Modern Horse to Water by Credo House Ministries [2-11-2013] […]

    • Pavel Mosko (Addai)

      Well I guess it worth asking by “Postmodern” does the author mean something specific like a follower of Brian Mclaren, or something much more general?

      As one famous oozer and postmodern pastor named “Polycarp” said many times “postmodern does not necessarily mean relativism” (even though in my personal experience they were highly correlated). According to Polycarp postmodernism was a reaction to “The Enlightenment Project”. So were talking Empiricism, Foundationalism, and so on….

      And I have heard many discussions over the notion whether Postmodernisn is truly something different than modernism or is in fact a continuation of it. We all are postmodern or modern depending on the definition.

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