The following horse and water illustration that follows is taken from Millard Erickson’s book Postmodernizing the Faith. I use this and expand on it.

How should Christians engage a post-Christian, post-evangelical world, 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 professing worldview and show them how they don’t hold to it in reality.

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.

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.

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.”

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 professing worldview and show them how they don’t hold to it in reality.

This option is held by many in the Reformed tradition, especially of those who hold to a presuppositional apologetic. Presuppositional apologetics seek to make an offensive defense of the faith by bringing to people’s understanding 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, this 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.


I don’t hold to this view much, although I do think it has its place. Yet I think the issues run much deeper than confining postmodernism to relativism. In fact, I think the ethos of the culture is not relativistic, but made up of varying degrees of skepticism and doubt. See my paper here which distinguishes between hard and soft postmodernism. I believe that our culture today is legitimately confused about truth, not necessarily denying its existence altogether.

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.

This option is very much like the first, but does have some major philosophical differences in approach. Like the first, this approach starts with the assumption that postmodernism is essentially evil and antagonistic to the Christian faith, associating it completely with its tendency toward hard relativism (the belief that all truth is relative). But there is a distinction. While the first option did not accept the notion that a person could actually be relativistic in their epistemology, this option does.

According to advocates of this approach, people hold to contradictory systems of truth all the time. Polytheism, for example, is self-contradictory since it does not make room for a first-cause or a necessary being. Yet many people throughout time have adhered to a polytheistic worldview. The Christians 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. This God is the God of the Bible. Typical biblical apologetics can be used once the common ground has been created.

Some adherents of this view might be R.C. Sproul or Norm Geisler. While option one was identified with presuppositional or reformed apologetics, this option is taken by those who follow a more classical apologetics approach popularized by Thomas Aquinas.


I believe that this approach, like the last has its merits. I think it recognizes that people’s thinking can become corrupt due to sin and bad influences within the culture. But I must contend with its understanding of the postmodern ethos. I think that it is too simplistic to identify the problem and solution upon the assumption of hard relativism. I don’t think that the average person is truly a hard relativist either in confession or practice. I think better designations are skeptical and suspicious. They do not trust other people’s claims to knowledge and therefore are normally not open to listening to their arguments. At the same time, I do believe that there is going to be a necessary time and place for this type of argumentation, but only once we have won their trust. And in a world where even self-trust is difficult to find, this is not going to be easy.

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 where necessary. This might be considered the choice of many within the emerging church (although number 4 will also play into this as well). It is also the method of many “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 lets 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.

As well, changing the rope can be seen as following the pattern set by God. God did not write in a “God-type” literature, but condescended to the culture in which He was communicating. He used Psalms where Psalms were common, He used Near-Eastern suzerain-vassal treaties when in the Near-East, and used parables for relevance to those who would understand them. Therefore, according to this position, God changed the rope, so should we.


Like the previous, I see much to commend with this option. We all have the tendency to see the rope as sacred as the water due to longevity of use. “I use this rope because mom used this rope, and her mom used this rope, and her mom used this rope. If it is good enough for them . . .” you know the rest. The rope is not sacred, yet we have the tendency to make it such. I agree very much with this view since it sees a great need to evaluate the culture and make change based upon the ethos of the generation. I do believe that God condescended His message to make it understandable and relevant. Heck, even language itself is a condescension in many ways. To the Hebrews, He spoke Hebrew. To those in the first century, He spoke in Greek. Why? Because that is the only way they could understand. He changed the rope. So should we.

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.”

I can hear the reaction. “Change the Gospel? This cannot be. This is the last thing that I would choose. The Gospel must remain pure and unadulterated.” I know that it is very easy to have an elbow-jerk reaction to this, proverbially slapping it in the face, but, like the others, let us consider it in the way that those who opt for it would.

There are many in the church who would say that the “Gospel” that we call the “Gospel” is not really the Gospel at all. In other words, the water is not pure. According to this group, the culture is reacting strongly against church, Christians, and religiosity in general. They are not only sick of the self-righteousness that is so easy to find, but against the dogmatism of the various groups represented. This dogmatism has the “I’m right, your wrong; Your going to hell, I’m not” feel about it. They like Jesus, but not the Church. What does that mean? Well according to those who hold to this option, it means that the church does not have Jesus, at least the real, essential Jesus. In other words, if Jesus is the subject of the Gospel, and the church does not have Jesus, then the water as it is now is nothing but a poisoned, bitter, and false representation of the Gospel. Therefore, the church needs to re-evaluate the water. The church needs to put the water to the test and purify the impurities.

There are two groups that represent this option:

  1. Radical water changers: Those who would 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.

How can we purify the Gospel? By removing unnecessary and bad doctrine that has misrepresented the truth and given the church a bad name. But the question becomes: What are these impurities?

The radical water changers would have no ties to tradition at all. They would entertain the thought that many beliefs that have defined the historic Christian faith are 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 enact “cosmic child abuse” to secure 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 secure is the fact that God loves all people and will eventually save all somehow (universalism). These can be found in the liberal church and many of the more radical representatives 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 “sinners prayer,” walking the aisle, the Four Spiritual Laws), how we relate to the culture (“if the culture does it, Christians should not” mentality), and 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. As well, according to this group, non-essential doctrinal additives are present in the water. Some Christians have elevated non-essential beliefs to that of essentiality (political affiliations, views of the end-times, views on election, views on the inerrancy of Scripture). Therefore, the church needs to purify the water as it has become corrupt, getting the water back to the basic essentials. This option is held by many evangelicals and has much representation in the moderate emerging church.


I don’t believe that the radical water changers are on safe ground. How can one depart from two-thousand years of essential Christian belief and still call themselves Christian? Is God absent from history? Is He a cheerleader on the sidelines or is He in the game? You cannot justify a radical change in basic Christian doctrine. You may not like it or agree with the way God did things, but if the Church has held strong to these basic essentials, we must respect God’s work through the giants of the past. When they speak in unity across time, you had better humble yourself and listen. This amounts to diluting the water according to the feelings and opinion of a contemporary audience. This will not do.

The moderate water changer option, on the other hand, has much to commend. They don’t seek to dilute the water, but to remove the additives. We are always in need of re-evaluation and reform. I believe that the Reformers were moderate water changers with regards to the culture and church at the time of the Reformation. Interestingly, the institutionalized church of the day believed that they were radical water changers. I believe that the church does need to inspect the water to make sure that there are no impurities present. I do believe that the Gospel can become identified by non-essential methodology and folk lore. Indeed, this makes the water not only hard to drink, but it can become completely destructive to the representation of Christ. Christ, in this sense, can be separated from the Gospel and the church. We need to make sure this does not happen.

In short, the water needs to be mere Christianity. Once it is, then it cannot be changed.

To bring this to a conclusion, I believe that all the options have their place when rightly understood. How do we engage postmodernism? I believe that we meet people where they are and bring them the essential Christ. The options will be relative to the situation. Therefore, there is no one option that is always right or wrong. (Boy, that sounds postmodern!)

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

    15 replies to "Leading the Postmodern Horse to Water – Four Views on Engaging Postmoderns"

    • Boz

      as a non-christian, the best strategy to take with me would be number 2, which involves finding common ground in epistemology.

      Also, I’m prety keen to be shown to be wrong, so that I can correct my false opinions.

    • Steve Cornell

      The best way to reach postmoderns is by being humble, loving, truth-telling Christians in communities filled with mutual affection and mutual honor: “Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other” (Romans 12:10, NLT). When our Churches are filled with people who treat each other with the honor, esteem, deference and humble service exhibited in the kind of foot washing love Jesus demonstrated, we offer the badly needed alternative to the uncertainty, anxiety, and angst of postmodern times. We engage what Francis schaeffer called the final apologetic (John 13:35). We become communities that cannot be deconstructed by postmodern minds.

      Key to ministry in postmodern times

    • Ernest

      Wow, another great topic. In my earnest (no pun intended) opinion, i would tend to side with option 3 in most situations (especially in a post-churched Oklahoma City). I find it funny I had the exact “elbow jerk” reaction warned of towards the water change option, until I read it. given deeper thought I can understand the logic and necessity behind the Moderate water changers.

      Brian McLaren (who I don’t agree on many topics) in his book “More ready than you realize: Evangelism as dance in the postmodern matrix” gives 8 ways we should engage postmoderns-
      1. Count conversations, not just conversions
      2. Listen to their stories, share your story, share God’s story, not just propositions or formulas
      3. Expect conversion to normally occur in the context of authentic Christian community, not just in the context of information
      4. See disciple-making as a holistic process and unending journey, not just a conversion event.
      5. Believe that God is at work “out there” in everyone, not just “in here” in the church
      6. See evangelism as part of your own discipleship, not just the other person’s
      7. See evangelism as recruiting people for God’s mission on earth, not just for heaven.
      8. See evangelism as one facet of our identity as servants to all.

    • Michael

      The flaw with the “rope” analogy is that almost all proponents of this methodology go to far. They not only end up changing the rope, but in the process change what’s at the end of the rope, the gospel.

      “Whatever the culture shuns or distrusts as far as communication is concerned should not be used. ”

      If the culture distrusts the preaching of the word, which is verbal communication, this should be not be used?

    • Ernest

      This is a very tricky topic to navigate. If you go too far left or right you are destined to plummet into either mediocrity or compromise. Like you stated Michael, when most well meaning people set out to “improve” upon the rope, they often substitute it altogether. For some the rope turns into a electric cow prod of fundamentalism, for some it turns into a invisible yet whimsical dialogue of liberalism. And in either case, inevitably, the gospel lake gets polluted by peripheral streams.
      Instead of altering the rope, could we set out to improve our rope handling techniques?

    • I think one thing we need to remember in all this is the gospel, in and of itself, is a stumbling block to those who will not believe it (1 Corinthians 1:23). I am not absolutely opposed to any of these methods, other than radical water changing. But if we get the idea we can and should please everyone, we can go to extremes and end up in radical water changing. There are dangers in both directions here.

    • Glenn Leatherman

      I may be wrong in my understanding of these classifications because this to me creates confusion. The classifications don’t seem really represent any position accurately (Especially #1: “Deny…”). Do those who deny that the “horse” exists really only boil their evangelistic efforts to the area of relativism. From my understanding of presuppositionalism, they would see the problem is not just their epistemology but also their ontology, axiology, Ethics, etc. They would look at things through an entire lens of worldviews, and try to engage the person with love while really trying to listen for how they see the world that they live in. They actually do believe that postmodern exists. They are willing to change the rope and/or purify the water when necessary as well. I am sure that I could say the same for the other classifications as well. I could be misunderstanding everything you are saying, so I admit I could be wrong in your intended meaning from this.

      I am also wondering with respect to classification #3 – changing the rope – why did not Paul who live in a drama-driven culture use more drama than simple proclamation? Just a question that I am pondering with respect to the priority of speaking the word of God to each other over other mediums and forms. Is there something about the speaking the Gospel verbally that God has decided to use to a greater degree over other forms of proclamation like drama? I am not sure, but would like your take on that.

      I can find things with each classification that I can affirm. but it seems that the real issue for us is to accurately define and relate to the Horse (post-moderns) – in other words we need an accurate ontology. Wouldn’t you agree?

    • William Mayor

      I find this an interesting discussion. Are there flaws in post-modern views as suggested in point 1? Of course there are,, just as there are in traditional Christian theology. Both views are internally inconsistent, especially in today’s society.

      Now taking this view one must likewise take seriously the need to consider points 3 and 4. And of course I would not ignore the need to remember point 2 in the process.

      If our goal is to reach truth, that is objective truth or truth that stands on its own feet without believers needing to support it, then everything must be on the table, including considering if Christianity has changed from its initial message, irregardless of 2000 years of claimed consistency.


    • Glenn Leatherman

      How do we define “Traditional Christianity” and “Postmodern Christianity” for this discussion? I think this needs to be dealt with in order to really communicate with each other and to communicate the Gospel better in our culture.

      Bill – “Both Views are internally inconsistent…” – how so? What is the warrants and/or assumptions for this conclusion? Are we saying that those positions that are inconsistent are irrational?

      I really like the statement “truth that stands on its on feat without believers needing to support it.”

      We all want to proclaim the initial message that we call the “Gospel of Christ,” so there needs to be some firm premises that we hold to in our investigation of historic orthodoxy in order to evaluate other truth claims.

    • Bill Moore

      Great topic & well done considering that space and time are prohibited somewhat in trying to encapsulate “how to reach a post-modern” in one posting. As I’m sure much more could be said & is said via the comments posted afterwards. I think the Apostle Paul summed it up best “become all things to all men that we might winsome”. (of course this is paraphrased – but his evangelism proved he knew what he was doing and had to adopt to tehe contmeporary views of his day which I assume were equally as challenging as those we find today.) I also like the points brought out by Brain McClaren (the 8 points listed above). In this type of approach and.or method, you are focused on the person you’re engaging with and trying to make the Gospel understandable and palatable as you can tho’ not compromising truth.
      Great post!!

    • William Mayor


      You asked about warrants for accusing both post-modern and traditional views as inconsistent. I have come to this viewpoint by studying widely in areas often ignored by theologians of all stripes. Scripture tells us that the path is broad that leads to destruction, and I find that there are many ways to ignore aspects of reality. Both post-moderns and traditionalists do this by choosing to not consider certain realms of study or their implications.

      Various experiments suggest that mind is independent of matter, although mind and matter do influence each other. Futher there is ample experimental evidence that Paul’s comment about “the lie” in Romans 1 is squarely on the mark (hindering mind and making it more vulnerable), yet who wants to really deal with it? It is defined away or ignored.

    • Glenn Leatherman

      Bill – I like and resonate with your conclusion that “both Post-moderns and Traditionalist ignore aspects of reality. … by choosing to not consider certain realms of study or their implications.” But the struggle I have is that I cannot give a basis for this conclusion other than my experience. I agree that many people fail to understand each other (including myself) because they talk past each other without listening to understand their worldview or classifications of understanding.

      Also can you tell me where Paul talks about “the lie” in Romans 1? Are you talking about the noetic effects of the fall (sin)? I just re-read Romans 1 and cannot find a comment on “the lie”, so I assume you are representing our sinful bent to suppress the “truth” about the true God and His authority over our lives that all know from his revelation – implying that we are setting up our own kingdom. Is my assumption correct that you are talking about our sinful nature rather than an “act” of lying?

      One of the things I always try to remember is that “Facts” (theories, experiments) don’t speak for themselves, but are interpreted according to a specific worldview one has. I desire to ever be conscious of the lordship and the sovereignty of Christ, because He is the ultimate point of reference. God has this absolutely true explanation of every fact.

      If all people (represented in the classifications of article) are inconsistent and ignore aspects of reality is correct, then how does this affect our approach to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20)? How do we realize our own ignorance and inconsistency so that we proclaim a humble orthodoxy and a real Gospel?

    • William Mayor


      The passage is often missed due to translations. It is in Romans 1:25 where Paul states that they traded the truth of God for THE (it is present in the Greek) lie. It is not just any old lie, but the one lie that all humans tell themselves and proceed to believe.

      I would even go so far as to state that this one lie is the basis for Sin. It is what separates us from other humans, God and even ourselves.

      It is recognized by psychiatry as the root of all psychiatric problems.

      And probably no one else in here can recognize it by this description.

      It is also known to physics, in part through Einstein.

      However, I will quit here and work on a second post to avoid length problems.

    • William Mayor

      To finish my comments on THE lie, it is the creation of the self. No one can truly observe themselves. To do wo would require observing oneself observng oneself, etc etc. Thus creating an infinite regression. Instead what we do is we CREATE an image and decree it to be ourself. We then hold up the creation between our true self and all others, both humans and God. We act to support this creation of ours also. “I need” is usually “My creation needs”, and leads to all sort of problems. These include, “my creation needs what you have more than you do” to justify stealing, and is an example of bearing false witness also by the way. With a little thought I am certain you can cover the rest of the ten commandments also from what the created self feels it needs.

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