As a former missionary I have often reflected on the difference between what I mean to say and what people hear me saying. My colleague Charles Kraft's experience in Nigeria illustrates this clearly. As a new missionary, he once explained the death and resurrection of Christ to an old Nigerian man—a communication of what was to the missionary the simple gospel. "Oh, I have heard of that before," the man said when Chuck had finished. "My nephew once was dead and came back to life." (In that culture anyone who is unconscious is thought to be dead.) Apparently the mere events of Christ's passion did not strike this man as particularly unusual; they were not "good news."

So Chuck decided to take another tack: "What would be the best news in the world that you could possibly imagine?" The man thought a minute and then said, with an air of asking for the impossible: "If I found out that there was a power greater than all the many spirits that trouble me." That was it, Chuck thought to himself, that is the "good news" for these people: In Christ's death and resurrection he has conquered the powers of evil in this culture.

In America, most people at one time or another have probably heard some version of the gospel—at least some of the facts about the gospel. Polls continue to show that a large percentage of Americans believe in God and prayer and know something about Christ's birth and death. But, like the old Nigerian man, Americans understand Christian faith with strong cultural overtones that influence what they really hear—or more precisely, what they don't hear: the good news.

With the visibility of churches on our city corners it is hard to think of America as post-Christian or unevangelized. Yet evidence is mounting that many Americans, especially those with the most education and cultural influence, no longer think of themselves as Christian in any deep sense. They are less likely to have been raised in Sunday school than their parents, and they have only the foggiest notion of how the Bible might relate to their lives. The case can be made that many Americans have not really heard the gospel. While America still sends out the most missionaries (though that is changing), America may need to be seen again as a mission field.

Good news for Mary
Missionaries have long realized that evangelization of a culture involves a thorough knowledge not only of the language of that place but of the cultural values that shape the society. So those who are serious about reaching Americans with the gospel must also take the time to understand the values and practices of their neighbors. This may sound like a strange idea: asking Americans to learn about their own culture. Yet I am convinced that because of the cultural isolation of much of conservative Christianity, most Christians remain largely ignorant of the values of their secular neighbors.

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To make this more concrete, let me introduce you to a friend of mine—an American equivalent to Kraft's friend in Nigeria. I will call her Mary. She is a 35-year-old career woman and mother who has overcome many obstacles to reach the upper-level management position she occupies in her company. She prides herself on being a good wife and mother in addition to her busy professional life. Her life is very full, to such an extent that she has little time for herself. She seldom takes vacations, and when she does, she reports being eager to get back to work. But she enjoys life and wants to see her children have the opportunities she did not have, opportunities that will allow them to develop themselves.

In the last few years, in the midst of the economic uncertainty and social tensions, she has begun to worry about the future, especially for her children: Will they be able to get into good colleges? Will they find satisfying jobs? She has worries even for herself: Will I be laid off? Will I have enough saved for retirement? She has recently reported feeling that she is missing some important part of her life, and her friends have persuaded her to take up yoga. She has also begun to sponsor several orphans in Africa. These have been important experiences for her, leading her, as she puts it, to develop her "spiritual side."

It is hard to think of someone like Mary as "lost." In many respects, she leads a rich and full life, but she too stands in need of God's grace. How can she be made to see this? What would count as "good news" for someone like Mary?

Proof that Mary does not hear what we think she should was illustrated by a conversation we had. When I asked her how she thought about God (she was raised in a Christian family but no longer thinks of herself as a Christian), she responded by referring to her father, who died more than 20 years ago. "I think he would be proud of me, but I always feel he would say I could do better," she responded. "I think God is like that," she added. For some reason, God's presence and love do not come across as good news to her.

So I wonder: What would be the best news in all the world to Mary? Or to put it another way, What are the powers of evil that hold Mary in bondage? Before answering these questions, perhaps we need to ask about the cultural values that are shaping the way she looks at life.

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Cultural anthropology for America
Even this brief introduction to Mary reveals important characteristics of our culture, which the missionary needs to reflect on. We might put them in terms of (1) a quest for spiritual reality, (2) a desire to see goodness done, and (3) a growing fear about the future. Let us look briefly at these characteristics.

The end of this century has come to be characterized as a new age of spirituality. While traditional religion is often in decline, the hunger for spiritual fulfillment is, if anything, more pervasive than ever. Sociologist Wade Clark Roof entitled his book on the baby-boom generation A Generation of Seekers (1993). He contends that this is the first generation that has not been able to live at ease with the spiritual values handed down from their parents. Though diverse in many ways, these Americans "value experience over beliefs, distrust institutions and leaders, stress personal fulfillment yet yearn for community."

This desire for deep and personal spiritual experience is a long-standing one in our culture. It was expressed in the first and second Great Awakenings, in the explosive growth of Methodist piety in the nineteenth century, and it was part of the context for the Azusa Street revival and the rise of Pentecostalism in the early 1900s. In the 1990s this yearning has overflowed the banks of organized religion and has issued in a bewildering array of spiritualities: Native American, feminist, Twelve Step, Buddhist, and so on.

This deep longing for peace and spiritual connection is evident on every hand. Thousands of people, attracted by his bright, sunlit gardens, thronged in 1995 to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the retrospective of painter Claude Monet. Recent holiday seasons have seen an explosion of greeting cards that returned to religious and spiritual themes. As one Hallmark card spokesperson put it: "The closer we get to the millennium, spirituality is something that is important to people" (Los Angeles Times).

This spiritual sensitivity is closely related to a second characteristic of our age: a deep hunger for goodness and the desire to relieve suffering. This set of values, according to Charles Taylor, is one of the dominant poles of Enlightenment morality (along with the sentiments of inwardness and our high valuation of everyday life). Practical charity, he notes in his book Sources of the Self, has become "one of the central beliefs of modern western culture: we all should work to improve the human condition, relieve suffering, overcome poverty, increase prosperity, augment human welfare." The impulse of volunteerism and cooperation has been noted in American culture as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century. But at the end of this century, after the excessive narcissism of the 1980s, sociologists are noticing a renewed interest in helping the needy and a hunger for more traditional moral values.

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Recent studies have pointed out that a vast majority of Americans are sympathetic to the plight of the homeless in cities. Like Mary, many busy people are finding time to volunteer at their church or support the poor. But this benevolence is often not based on firm moral grounding but on an inward sentiment, on the desire to feel good about oneself. The latest peacekeeping operation in Bosnia in many ways provides a parable of our American urge to "do good." While many wonder if we have the moral resources necessary to wage war on behalf of goodness, we still want to believe in our goodness. So we can just barely muster resources to send our forces in support of a fragile peace.

Third, Mary illustrates our culture's growing uncertainty about the future. Economic uncertainty exacerbates this sense of social and cultural anxiety. Studies show that this is the first generation to fear that the future may not be as easy for them as it was for their parents: Will they have continued health care? Will there be social security benefits when they retire? This final characteristic may be the most salient of all, for it reflects the fact that American culture is in the midst of a major transition. The growing pluralism—cultural, social, and religious—especially in urban areas, adds to the anxiety of people who fear the "worlds" they once knew are a thing of the past. The diversity of America is nothing new, of course, but related problems—racial tensions, poverty, and violence in our cities—seem to have intensified.

Some cultural analysts say that we are living in a transition era that also feeds a sense of deep-seated malaise and uncertainty. This transitional period has been described from many perspectives. Some focus on the eclipse of the Enlightenment project, what we have called "modernism," with its confidence in a universal reason and endless progress. This "in-between time," when old dreams have faded and new ones are struggling to be born, has come to be called "postmodernism." Others express concern about the decline in the prestige of the church and the rising biblical illiteracy and speak of our era as post-Christian. Still others point to the end of the Cold War wherein the protagonists and antagonists—the good guys and the bad guys—were clearly and comfortably laid out. We are now in an era where local skirmishes are more unpredictable: Latin American hot spots simmer, the Balkans struggle with an uneasy peace, and whole countries in Africa teeter on the edge of anarchy. How does, or should, a superpower like the United States relate to these many struggles for power and control? The future seems up for grabs.

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Cultural anthropology of the gospel
However it is defined, we are clearly in the midst of a historical transition of major proportions. And this is having an impact on how our neighbors are able to hear the good news of God's love for them.

For example, recall the most successful evangelistic strategy of the previous generation: Campus Crusade's Four Spiritual Laws. This presentation focused on God's love for us and his plan for our lives, our sinful rebellion from God, and Christ's death to reconcile us to God. It was biblical, but pointedly directed to the craving that Americans felt for personal meaning and peace. It appealed to the central symbol of American culture—the individual self and the search for the integration of that self and for meaning in life: "God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life" is the first law, signaling that the individual is the center of God's attention. This personal salvation or integration, the Four Spiritual Laws argued, must ultimately be found in reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ.

Many Americans were reached by this or similar strategies. But notice: in spite of the Four Laws' appeal to John 10:10 (Jesus' words: "I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly") and to other New Testament texts, the integration of the unitary self can hardly be said to be central to New Testament theology. In fact, if anything, Paul discourages such a quest when he talks about salvation as involving death to self: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live" (Gal. 2:20, NRSV; cf. Rom. 6:5f.). Nevertheless, starting with this uniquely American quest for personal integration and using the Four Spiritual Laws, it was possible to present the gospel in a way that was clear and effective.

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While many people will no doubt continue to respond to such a presentation of the gospel, we are clearly moving into a different era in which this appeal will be less effective. As the story of Mary illustrates, the search for personal integration has become problematic at best. Our individualism and quest for personal peace do not challenge, much less resolve, the seemingly intractable problems of our era. A new way of thinking about evangelism has become necessary so that our generation will hear the old story of God's love.

What then would be the best news in all the world for people like Mary? What is the bondage to which she is subject? Clearly, the good news that the gospel brings will relate to the tensions we have noted. In spite of continuing materialism, Americans evidence a deep spiritual hunger; in spite of growing diversity and cultural conflicts, Americans yearn to make the world a better place and are willing to give their time and money to help make this happen. While we previously sought integration for the individual self, now we understand the self in relational terms. People ask: How can I connect with others and make a difference? Meaning comes not only from personal fulfillment, but from connection with some source of spiritual energy and with other people. These yearnings reflect the central cultural dynamic that we must harness in our presentation of the gospel.

The good news to Mary would tell her that she could experience intimacy with God and could do so as part of a supportive community of faith. Such a community, given our current cultural fashion for support groups and Twelve Step programs, might best be built around cells, groups small enough that each member could grow to know every other member intimately. These cells would also be task-oriented: they could join in a common effort of doing good for others—such as letter-writing to call attention to the plight of prisoners of conscience or working in a soup kitchen.

Evidence that Americans are hearing the good news in these terms is found in a number of prominent renewal movements sweeping the church. Charismatic renewal puts persons in touch with an immediate spirituality, often within the context of a group experience. Promise Keepers appeals to male interests through large rallies in sports settings. And so-called seeker services start with where people are, taking their real life needs seriously and adapting to them rather than forcing them to adapt to the traditional patterns of the church. In differing ways, these movements appeal to the spiritual and moral quests we have described.

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But how do we insure that our sensitivity to culture does not lead to a cultural captivity in which the gospel tells people what they want to hear? Clearly every starting point can distort the gospel and keep its full message from emerging. One could argue that the spiritual longings of people like Mary are not only misleading, they are trivial and ultimately self-serving. And in many respects, they are. But the longings themselves, however misplaced and trivial they may seem, must be taken with utmost seriousness for one simple reason: God takes them seriously. As Christ consistently met people where they were, so we must take seriously the situations of people.

The gospel itself, when it is heard in its full biblical context, will judge and transform our questions even as it satisfies longings we did not dream we had. Popular culture then can provide important entry points for the gospel, which we dare not overlook. Those who would criticize use of popular culture as an entry point for the gospel should keep in mind that evangelism is calling out to people in urgent need; when you warn someone about an advancing avalanche you don't worry about your grammar. Yet any church or program that is captive to popular culture will not hold its audience for long. While the apostle Paul makes clear that there is only one gospel, grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that this is the power of God for the salvation of all people (Rom. 1:16), Paul and the other New Testament writers explained the "good news" in a variety of ways depending on the cultural situation of the hearer. Our experience of Christ's death is described as justification and deliverance from the wrath of God (Col. 1:22-23), a victory over the powers (Col. 2:15), reconciliation of people with God (2 Cor. 5:19), the forgiveness of sins (1 John 2:12), peace with God (Rom. 5:1), union with Christ (Eph. 1:10), a new birth (John 3:3), abundant life (John 10:10), and so on. The gospel includes all of this and more. Which of these emphases will seem especially like "good news" to people—all of whom are clearly in need of Christ—will depend to a large extent on their particular historical and social situation.

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Meanwhile, we must not lose our urgency to tell people like Mary about God's love for her. While they do not know it, the contour of their search is, finally, God-shaped. They desire spirituality; God offers peace (shalom) through the victory of Christ's death. They cringe at suffering and long for goodness; Christ calls them to radical discipleship that is empowered by God's Spirit.

Whatever version of the gospel will best capture the contemporary imagination, one thing is sure: as God's ear is tuned to the cries of the lost, so we must tune our ear to these contemporary cries. The good news for Americans must inevitably respond to their concern for spiritual connections and for goodness. We are sensitive to these, not because we are after what "works," but because God takes these hopes seriously. For in the words of that old, familiar Christmas hymn, "the hopes and fears of all the years"—including those unique to Americans—have been met in the Child born in Bethlehem.

-William Dyrness is dean of the School of Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.

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