Postmoderns' Indispensable Question

Seventh-day Adventists have a long association with the truth. Joseph Bates went looking for “the most honest man in town,” because he knew an honest man would respond to the truth. Today we face a new challenge, a generation that, through both formal education and real-life experience, have come to doubt the existence of that sort of truth. Our responses to this surprising and even somewhat frightening attitude have ranged from condemning them for their mental laziness, to total bewilderment on the part of the teachers.

But condemning those we hope to reach rarely succeeds. And in any case, the responsibility lies with those of us who claim to have the truth to find a way to share it with those who do not.

The Basic Rules

Upon reflection, it turns out that the basic principles of presenting anything have not changed. Plato’s rules of persuasion still work, that is, the three-step sequence he called ethos, pathos, and logos. “Ethos,” as Plato used it, means “authority”: Why should you listen to me? “Pathos” means emotion: In this case, elicit an emotional response. “Logos” means reason and logic (logic comes from the root logos): “Here are the reasons.” Those principles worked before the modern age, and they work with postmoderns.

What happened? Modernism, with its reliance on evidence, made it easy to forget the first step, ethos or authority. Why? Because “the truth,” by which we meant the product of logic and reason, became our authority. Our presentation of the gospel too often became “logos, pathos, logos” at best; “logos, logos, logos” at worst. Let me explain.

Our claim to authority, the reason people should hear us, has become, “We have the truth,” and that truth has been reduced to reason, to logic, to historical facts. At least partially in reaction to that reductionist approach, postmoderns take a different view of truth. When we meet someone with that perception of truth, we think they’re unreachable, some sort of new creature immune to ordinary persuasion. All that really happened is that we lost track of ethos, the reason they should listen to us in the first place. And without ethos, we can’t get started.

The indispensable question. Instead of throwing up our hands and condemning them, we need to ask, “What do they regard as authority—what makes them want to listen?” And that turns out to be, like most of the really important things in life, simple, though not easy.

The indispensable approach. If you want to be heard by postmoderns, by people under 30, just be real. They value authenticity, the “what you see is what you get” person. Be as real as you can comfortably be. If you feel uncomfortable, say so. Be vulnerable. This lets them know you’re safe to talk to.

The indispensable advantage. Your authority comes from your experience, your authenticity, and your understanding of real life—their real life. If you don’t understand something, ask. Once they realize that you’re safe to talk to and that you actually listen to what they say, you will probably find them surprisingly forthcoming. The truth is, they’re eager to share with anyone who will really pay attention.

You’d Recognize Her

If you saw her, you’d recognize her. She went to an Adventist college and works in a church-related job. But she doesn’t come to church or Sabbath School, because, “I went a couple times . . . . [and] found a lot of gray heads and few hellos.” In the next few years she tried “ignorance, atheism, and agnosticism,” because she has an “aversion” to “churchy people whose spiritual depth does not go beyond their routine of church and not swimming on certain days of the week.” She said, “I failed to see how I could follow that God.” 

We might be led to think she is just shallow, self-centered, skeptical, and blaming her lack of spirituality on other people. But then, speaking of my book Grounds for Belief, she said, “I loved the pop culture references, and how God was uplifted in ways I can actually relate with. . . . I’m thankful for God’s unfailing love, even through my lack of desire to listen to Him.”

And her e-mail tells us how to reach her:

  • A few hellos. Like everyone else, young adults need to feel welcome. But feeling welcome means more than a handshake at the door. It means that honest seeking is welcomed.
  • A safe place to talk and safe people to talk to.
  • Spiritual depth beyond the routine—more than just rules.
  • Pop culture references, and God uplifted in ways I can actually relate to. This, as she said later, is simply “stepping up to the challenge of speaking our language.”
  • A God she can follow, and a practical, experiential religion.

In other words, our 18- to 35-year-olds need what all of us need—a friendly, safe place where people welcome our seeking—by being vulnerable, open spiritually, and expending the effort to make God and religion relevant to our lives.

Ed Dickerson
© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists