In his book How to Reach the West Again, Dr. Keller gives a thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of the missional challenges the Christian church faces today—as well as the multidimensional responses needed to address these challenges. As a second-generation Hispanic urbanite, I feel the force of these challenges on a daily basis: in the home, with my neighbors, and even in the church.
The context I seek to live my faith in is Upper Manhattan, in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of over 200,000 dwellers. Most are of Afro-Caribbean descent, but there are also folks from Euro-Jewish backgrounds and a growing number of millennials from all across America. I see the post-Christian values that Dr. Keller describes governing much of their thought and lifestyles. The evangelistic and discipleship challenges are real and raw.
For example, I’ve experienced these challenges with my own children and their friends. Three of my four sons immigrated eight years ago from the Dominican Republic to New York City—two in their pre-teen years, and one as a teen. Through my kids, their peers, and many other young Hispanics I mentor, I constantly glean insights into the cultural dynamics that form the way they think and live. Technology is their prime tutor and companion in life. Disparate bites of information constantly transmit post-modern values of self-expressive freedom, self-made identity, and momentary happiness. And despite the values frequently being contradictory to each other, they actually make sense to them (though something “making sense” doesn’t mean it is either truly sensible or a self-evident truth). Biblical truths and values, by comparison, seem not only dull and antiquated to them, but simply rubbish.
The adults in my area—even first-generation immigrants—are beginning to accept and even embrace these new values, often to ingratiate themselves with their kids and the surrounding culture. The abuela (grandma) that would have cringed at the idea of having a gay grandson years ago is now on his side as an affectionate comforter and supporter. She probably doesn’t even know how that change of mind came about, or care to know. Society affirms him, and so shall she.
Yet in my urban context, these post-Christian values are held in tension with the rooted spirituality of the people’s culture of origin. People seem to have an unnamed, internal conflict within the self, holding on to contradictory intuitions about life and meaning, death and transcendence. When evangelism is mainly propositional and argumentative (reasoning the faith), folks often respond with the popular arguments of the secular agenda (i.e., that there are no relevant transcendent realities, etc). But when conversations become personal—dealing with the day-to-day complexities of life like hoping for a better future, suffering loss, facing insecurities and family issues—then the language of transcendence, hope, faith, and even God kicks in. It’s as if some memory that they cannot shake off is awakened.
WHEN CONVERSATIONS BECOME PERSONAL—DEALING WITH THE DAY-TO-DAY COMPLEXITIES OF LIFE LIKE HOPING FOR A BETTER FUTURE, SUFFERING LOSS, FACING INSECURITIES AND FAMILY ISSUES—THEN THE LANGUAGE OF TRANSCENDENCE, HOPE, FAITH, AND EVEN GOD KICKS IN.
Though surrounded by post-Christian beliefs and values, many urbanites I engage still seem to hold transcendent truths, principles, and values in their gut, even though they oppose the affirmations of the prevailing culture. The God talk, the sense of guilt and shame, are still alive underneath the facade of radical independence and self-affirmation. And in my experience, the way to tap into this visceral sense of God is primarily through embracing and loving relationships.
MANY URBANITES I ENGAGE STILL SEEM TO HOLD TRANSCENDENT TRUTHS, PRINCIPLES, AND VALUES IN THEIR GUT, EVEN THOUGH THEY OPPOSE THE AFFIRMATIONS OF THE PREVAILING CULTURE.
The power of attraction (Keller’s second evangelistic dynamic) somehow opens the door to gut-level instincts of faith and transcendence that can override the need for an articulation, analysis, and deconstruction of the post-Christian cultural values. My suspicion is that the power of attraction can supersede complex apologetics in drawing the post-modern urbanite to faith in Jesus. A beautiful life that suffers with hope, gracefully seeks justice, and sacrifices the self for the community is, in itself, a strong case for Christ.
If this is true, missional living by everyday people can become an attainable and highly-reproducible endeavor. Fewer Christians—even highly-educated ones—can argue their faith in a way that satisfies the complex and contradictory objections of post-Christian culture. But all Christians can learn to love well and live beautiful, meaningful, gospel-renewing lives that can draw even the hardest of skeptics to faith.