A Conversation with Milton Jones
The work of Milton Jones is full of superlatives — among some he is revered for his staying power and emphasis on outreach and evangelism. Others say his work is too controversial or, even, unbiblical. What drives this man who is author of a recent study of postmodern philosophies and their impact on faith?
The clues may lie in his daily ministry — encouraging Christians to raise funds for youth mission trips, creating a gallery of faith-related art for the church lobby and preaching lessons of challenge. Perhaps he has settled into a role as both an encourager and a determined evangelizer.
Jones is quiet. He laughs easily and softly, belying a determination to build bridges between the world of faith he inhabits and the realm of unbelief and loss of meaning where so many live. That’s where his latest book begins.
Jones’ ministry started at the Broadway church, Lubbock, Texas. He has been in Seattle since 1978. He is the author of six books, including How to Love Someone You Can’t Stand. He and his wife, Barbie, have two children.
Describe postmodernism as it has affected evangelism and the church.
Postmodernism is a philosophy that has taken over our country. It has been called the second biggest sociological shift in the history of the world. And we have just gone through this change. A transition of this size has to have some effect on the church. Popular postmodernism is marked by multiple truths. A Seattle minister, who has a large outreach to postmodern students, stated recently that his big problem is no longer getting students to believe in the Resurrection but to believe it is the only one.
Into this postmodern world, we have heralded the message that there is only one truth. We also say, “Let me share with you the Word” in a culture that thinks words have no validity. These are problems.
We are in an era when many voices are insisting the church must engage our cities, towns and neighborhoods. How can we end our isolation without ending up in the polemics and conflict-oriented models of the past or the broadest kind of ecumenism?
Engaging our cities with the gospel is our only option if we take seriously the commission of Jesus. Our messages tend to be for ourselves and delivered to ourselves. Most churches that are growing are increasing at the expense of congregations that are dying. The majority of church growth today is not coming from evangelism.
To reach the city, we must turn to what has been called an “embodied apologetic” In other words, we must become an argument for Christ.
When we started Shoreline Community Care, hardly anyone in our city was helping the poor. After 10 years, other churches and the city itself have joined us to show compassion to our community. We started it simply to show the love of Jesus. It ended up being much more. It brought church cooperation and authenticity to our evangelism. We didn’t give up our convictions or water down our message, but we found people and other churches were more than willing to work with people who were demonstrating genuine compassion.
Since our world has changed so much in the last decade, we have a tendency to be fearful of evangelism. As postmodernism has turned us into more of a “postChristian” country, Christians have become more like aliens or exiles.This heightened antagonism toward Christianity is not familiar ground for most of us. In a society where “tolerance” is the supreme virtue, evangelism has come to be seen as the ultimate sin. I think we have backed off of our outreach because the world has told us that it is unwanted.
What are the strengths which the Restoration heritage takes with it into a postmodern era?
As I understand the Restoration Movement, it was founded upon a conviction of going back to the Bible and a unity of all believers in a non-denominational way. I think that all kinds of churches and people today agree with the validity of such a plea. The second part, the unity emphasis, especially fits well into a postmodern era. As we have approached the postmodern age, we have also encountered the post-denominational age. The major disagreements that produced denominationalism, as we know it, are deemed to be solved or unimportant by most of Christendom. There is not much loyalty to denominations anymore. It is like everyone has become a free agent. And it is becoming much more that way in our movement too.
First of all, it is problematic to tell people truth is found in a book in a postmodern age of deconstruction which believes that words can no longer convey a definitive meaning, much less a truth. Secondly, it is also difficult to attractively turn younger people to the gospel if the basic message is “Let’s look at this book.” The millennial generation doesn’t look at books for any reason unless it provides a source of entertainment.
How can young, energetic and thoughtful Christians find deeper, more authentic reasons to stay within the circle of the Restoration?
They will have to find a greater freedom than exists in most congregations, especially in the areas of experiencing God. Younger generations in our postmodern world are seeking experiences. As the builder and baby-boomer generations collect possessions, Gen-X and the millennials collect experiences. Our general reaction to younger people in the past has been that we are seeking truth rather than experience. This reasoning assumes that one cannot experience truth. Experience can be either true or false. Certainly, truth in a postmodern culture is most often defined by experience. In our Restoration heritage, we believe in an absolute truth that has an objective basis. What our challenge will be is to create and allow experiences of absolute truth. Younger generations will discover truth by experience. These experiences should be backed up objectively by biblical revelation.
Is making a commitment to the Restoration Heritage the same thing as denominational affiliation?
It has certainly been my desire to stay in the Restoration Movement. Our congregation also wants to stay within the fellowship that calls themselves “churches of Christ”. We discussed the name change but decided to stick with “Northwest Church of Christ.” But on the other hand, someone from another congregation offered us some money if we would change our name. This is the problem. We have identified this “Church of Christ” group as having to be identical in order to wear the name. I don’t see it that way. I have been told that if we are not alike, we will lose our identity and heritage. As a result, there are movements to keep our forms and styles of worship from changing. I don’t buy this. Everything doesn’t have to be the same to keep our movement together. I know this because everything is not even the same on forms and styles of worship in our particular congregation.
What are the challenges to endurance which Christians face today?
My ministry has centered around church renewal. I’m for church planting, but I don’t like the motivation behind a lot of it. Too many churches are being planted because we have given up on current congregations and their willingness to change. Many churches are currently being birthed not so much from a sense of mission as of desperation because of the belief that churches of Christ are simply not willing to change.
What is your vision for connecting our past to a postmodern future?
Paul’s words to the Colossians are very appropriate when dealing with bad philosophies. “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8, NIV.)
In many ways, postmodernism may be better for the spread of the gospel. The good thing about postmodernism is that faith is valid. In a modern age, faith was too often dismissed by science and simply considered to be irrational. Spirituality is “in” in a postmodern age. Again, our difficulty will be convincing people of the exclusive nature of the Christian faith.
Much of postmodernism is at odds with Christianity. However, I am not hesitant to engage a postmodern culture with a mysterious message of the magnitude of “Christ in you.”