We need some history to make a fertile ground for the gospel

Here, in a passage from his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen talks about how preaching doesn’t work when your audience is essentially post-Christian and doesn’t see itself as part of a larger forward-moving narrative.

Only when man feels himself responsible for the future can he have hope or despair, but when he thinks of himself as the passive victim of an extremely complex technological bureaucracy, his motivation falters and he starts drifting from one moment to the next, making life a long row of randomly chained incidents and accidents.

When we wonder why the language of traditional Christianity has lost its liberating power for [modern/contemporary] man, we have to realize that most Christian preaching is still based on the presupposition that man sees himself as meaningfully integrated with a history in which God came to us in the past, is living under us in the present, and will come to liberate us in the future. But when man’s historical consciousness is broken, the whole Christian message seems like a lecture about the great pioneers to a boy on an acid trip.

What’s especially interesting is when this was penned – the very early 1970s. Preachers at that time might have had some excuse for being slow to pick up on all the social and philosophical changes that occurred the previous decade. Fast-forward 45 years, we should know better but it seems as if we sometimes still take this for granted. When man’s historical consciousness is broken, the gospel doesn’t seem freeing anymore. Let’s try to patch things up integrating history (both ancient and modern) into our preaching, (something our grandfather’s didn’t have to do). Let’s also figure out how to present Jesus as the savior of those drifting on the sea of nihilism. The days of making the gospel sound compatible with the American Dream are long gone now. Ours is like strange new missionary frontier.

Later, Nouwen continues along a similar line:

Without this hope, we will never be able to see value and meaning in the encounter with a decaying human being and become personally concerned. This hope stretches far beyond the limitations of one’s own psychological strength, for it is anchored not just in the soul of the individual but in God’s self-disclosure in history. Leadership therefore is not called Christian because it is permeated with optimism against all the odds of life but, because it is grounded in the historic Christ-event which is understood as a definitive breach in the deterministic chain of human trial and error, and as a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness.

Every attempt to attach this hope to visible symptoms in our surroundings becomes a temptations when it prevents us from the realization that promises, not concrete successes, are the basis of Christian leadership.