on Postmodernism

On ministering in the postmodern world…an essay

Postmodernism is a real development that has changed the way humans think, reflect, behave, and interact with each other. Whether recent philosophers birthed this movement, or whether philosophy prophetically spoke about the inevitability of postmodernism is certainly up for debate. However, what is not up for discussion is whether or not postmodernism is real, influential, and important for the church to understand. Postmodern thought has already impacted the western world, especially in such places as Europe, major urban centers in Africa and Asia, and along the east and west coasts of the United States. This influence can be easily noticed in educational systems, architecture, science, linguistics and other fields such as sociology and anthropology. People are changing. Human beings continue to evolve and progress in their knowledge and ability to reflect and think. Postmoderns, simply put, have a much different worldview and perspective on life than then those trained and influenced by modern thought. Subjects such as truth, objectivity, propositions, form, function, and authority have forged a gap between these two generations. We are now in, as many scholars and philosophers would say, a major paradigm shift with profound implications for humanity. And yet, the church seems to be poorly equipped to deal with this change.

The Emerging church movement represents a response to the growing tide of postmodernism in the western world. Whether this movement simply mirrors the radical attempt of evangelicalism in the 1950’s or brings about long-term shifts such as the Reformation…only time will tell.

This introduction needs to be made in order to reflect upon my involvement and response to postmodernism. I see these changes happening and see the failed attempts of Christianity in the recent past. Postmodernism cannot be ignored, nor can it be condemned. For, if in fact, the dawn of postmodernism is fast approaching, the church of today must learn to minister within postmodernism, or there will be no church of tomorrow. The church must respond to the changes and demands of globalization. Postmodernism helps define how to live in the tension; live in the paradox of real life.

The emerging church in the midst of postmodernism, is attempting to find an alternative (third way) between secularism and liberalism to the left and fundamentalism and ethnocentrism to the right. While complex, messy and uncertain, it seems to be the most authentic approach to ministering to, with, and as a postmodern.

I grew up in the Northeast of the United States in a well educated and financially secure community. Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I was trained to either ignore or reject any form of postmodern thought. This new type of thinking questioned the ability to know anything concretely or absolutely; it praised contextualism and relativism; it valued doubt and deconstructionalism. Needless to say, these were issues the church did not want to respond to, and so the church held firm to its views and frowned upon those who questioned anything. But I quickly learned for myself that questioning is necessary, and doubt can be a good thing. Of course there is risk involved in such an approach, but nothing worth believing in is null of risk.

Growing up in New England, the only alternative to conservative evangelicalism was an extreme form of liberalism. This stream of Christianity used historical/critical analysis to deconstruct the biblical text…and its message. It also demythologized the story and discredited all of the miracles in the biblical narrative. To liberals, the message of Jesus was more important than the factual history of him. To me, these were very skeptical people who simply could not believe in mystery or paradoxes. I saw this as a complete lack of faith in the supernatural or spiritual. However, I always appreciated the belief that somehow, the “gospel” that Jesus preached was more than simply a one-way ticket to heaven. Liberal Christians in my area were extremely involved in social action and justice. They seemed to ‘live the faith” with more conviction and passion than many of my church members. While we were holding massive rallies and trying to convert people, they were feeding the poor, caring for the environment, and trying to make “this” world a better place to live. And somehow that resonated with me. It seemed to me that’s what Jesus meant when he prayed that God’s kingdom would come “on earth as it is in heaven”. Of course, I could never share these views for risk of scorn and excommunication (not literally I think). There seemed to be no place for a doubtful and yet hopeful, skeptical and yet faithful, theologically liberal and yet culturally conservative type of Christian.

Attending a reformed Christian college actually marked the beginning of my journey navigating the unchartered waters between conservative evangelicalism and liberalism. Systematic theology just wasn’t cutting it. The professors laid out this neatly packaged box of beliefs about God, and while I could follow their reasoning and logic, something about nailing down and cementing the concept of God didn’t sit well with me. In other classes, we would spend hours dissecting the Bible as if in a laboratory in hopes of fully understanding even the smallest nuances and literary devices of each participle. These students would literally spend hours and hours each week delving into the text. In contrast, I wanted to spend time with people and love them as Jesus did.

For some reason, and I know this is an outrageous generalization, it seemed to me that the more time people spent time mastering the text and mastering their understanding of God, the less like Jesus they became. They would become more judgmental, angry, removed from society, less tolerant of others, more critical, more likely to condemn, and less likely to love and forgive. But then again… I could have been wrong. I appreciate the emergent hermeneutic of humility and uncertainty. As we humble ourselves to the unknown greatness and mystery of God, we allow the text of Scripture to master us and open the way for God to work in and through us in new life-giving ways.

I started to read more about what Jesus actually taught and how he lived, and it really didn’t translate to the version of evangelicalism I was familiar with. In fact, the more I read the gospels, the more similarities I witnessed between many prominent evangelical leaders and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees in the first century were very concerned about maintaining their religious traditions and protecting the holiness of God. They established rules upon rules to protect God’s laws from being violated and often spoke about the anger and wrath of God upon people who didn’t follow their ways. Then Jesus came on the scene and really upset these religious leaders. He spent time with the outcasts of society and embraced them rather than judging them. He spoke about the radical love of God, and seemed much more concerned about restoration and reconciliation than upholding religious traditions. In fact he claimed that the Pharisees got it wrong by focusing on the letter of the law rather than the love of law.

I have also witnessed that within evangelicalism has existed a militant notion of advancing the Kingdom of God. Certainly this was the case during the Crusades, but even today the prevalent mentality among most Christians is an “us vs. them” mindset. You can see this reflected in the titles of sermons, articles and books such as the Battle for Faith or the War on Truth and motivation slogans such as “increasing His kingdom” and “advancing the gospel”. Of course this is widely agreed upon and advocated because the main purpose of Christians is to win as many people as possible to their beliefs before they die. Once again, the gospel simply becomes to save as many souls as possible and using whatever means necessary.

There is a difference in theology and approach between advancing the kingdom on the one hand, and partnering with God in his activity in the world on the other. The emerging church is seeking to be missional and incarnational and to find a common ground between these two notions. The essence of the gospel cannot, no should not, be easily boiled down. Even within Jesus’ teachings there existed a dualism between this world and some other world; between the here and now and the future. Postmoderns really care about what is happening here on earth and in the complexities of daily life and relationships.

I believe the church must minister with postmoderns. For right now, postmoderns are considered a separate tribe of people. Missiologists are attempting to contextualize the gospel in order to minister to these educated, wealthy, (mostly white) Westerners. I am not convinced however that people so influenced by modern thought will be able to understand and articulate within postmodernity. It is possible though that if missionaries try to understand the cultural, philosophical, and linguistic differences and learn to appreciate them, they might be able to succeed. However, from a personal experience, “missionaries” to the North East never faired too well, especially if they were not Red Sox fans! People in New England can always tell an outsider. If that person makes a real effort to speak our language, learn our culture, history and customs, and disown the Yankees, he or she may stand a chance. Longevity always helps as well.

Therefore, it is possible to minister to the postmodern generation. I see the evangelical church (hopefully) attempting to minister “with” the postmodern generation. Even now, this “emergent” church movement is considered a minority stream within the broader context of Christianity, much like Eastern orthodoxy. Of course, there are many Christian leaders who simply will not acknowledge “Emergent” as Christian, and I am fairly confident that in the future such people will become the new fundamentalists. This is because I believe that the emergent movement may in fact change the face of Christianity as we know it. Of course, I doubt the term “emergent” will last forever, but I do think that this necessary deconstruction of evangelical beliefs, doctrines, and institutionalism will have far-reaching impact.

Even now, the Evangelical Manifesto was recently written, and has embraced many facets of the “emergent” movement. If this manifesto were written ten years ago, it would be radically different. I can envision evangelicalism embracing postmodern thought in many ways including the uncertainty of “absolute” belief, the duality of God’s kingdom, the command of stewardship of the earth, a renewed focus on the spirituality of the physical, and an increased awareness for missional living and social action and justice. This current generation of western Christians is embracing the emerging church, because this conversation is speaking into the realities of life as we know it to be. It embraces the messiness and uncertainty of life, values relationships and authenticity, and seeks to follow in the way of Jesus.

Moreover, though clearly not primarily a generational movement, people between the ages of 15-40 all across the western world make up the postmodern generation. If the church does not minister to, with, and as postmoderns, little will be done to bring the future generations into the Christian faith. Ministering in a postmodern age will require of someone to be a missiologist, sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher, linguist, historian, Biblical scholar, and contextual theologian. But then again, authentically following in the footsteps of Jesus may do just as well!

Although not fully complete, nor adequately descriptive, there are a number of characteristics that unite emerging churches.

Here are nine core practices of emerging churches that I resonate with, and believe are necessary features of churches hoping to minister in the postmodern world.

  • Identifying with Jesus
  • Transforming secular space
  • Living as community
  • Welcoming the stranger
  • Serving with generosity
  • Participating as producers (creating culture)
  • Creating as created beings
  • Leading as a body
  • Merging ancient and contemporary

I end my essay admitting that I consider myself one of the few, the proud, the…”Emergents”. I can speak the language, relate, and understand my generation because I am part of this generation. I understand the difficulties in coming to faith; yet also understand the deep longing for intimacy with God and relationships with others. I want to have hope in a good destiny after I die (eternal life), yet am not content with waiting around for that future day and seeing my world around me fall into despair. I want to make a difference in the world, and that cry from my heart is also the cry of this generation. And I truly believe that God hopes for the same.

If the God of Christianity is an anger-bent and intolerant being who is waiting for the earth to get bad enough to destroy it so he can then send most people into eternal torture, then I have a very hard time wanting to love and live for a God like that. However, if God is truly compassionate, kind, and loving in his nature and character, and desires for the salvation of all, than that’s a different story. If the message of Jesus when he first came to earth was good and if will be good news when he comes back, and if God desires the restoration and reconciliation of all things, than that is a God I can and want to partner with. If Christianity is simply about obtaining fire insurance so that we don’t end up in hell, then it seems to be a very limited belief system that completely downplays our entire existence here on earth. If however, God is still active and at work here on earth in preparation of the life to come, that gives me hope and much more of a purpose here on earth.

I subscribe to this “fuller understanding of the gospel”, not taking away or subtracting, but adding a new, deeper, and richer meaning. The church is not here for us. We are the church and the church is here for the world. This is the eschatology of hope. This is the emerging church. This is why I desire to minister as a postmodern, with postmoderns, and to the postmodern generation.

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One thought on “on Postmodernism

  1. Hi,
    I think you have made a helpful attempt to address the issues of ‘being’ church in a post -modern context. What I am not sure of after reading your assignment is the answer to the question: what is the message ?or How does the Emergent church differ from conservative/liberal Christianity

    David,
    Thanks for the reply. Your question is very good and needed. However, there is still a certain sense of ambiguity surrounding the “message” of the emergent church. I think at this point it is safe to say that many questions and conversation are being thrown out there, with not a great deal of answers. I would say that the Emergent church differs from liberal Christianity in being Christ-centered, recognizing and acknowledging the humanity/divinity and lordship of Jesus. It differs from conservative Christianity perhaps in certain doctrinal and theological viewpoints previously held as “essential” such as specific views of atonement. These are very general viewpoints and I am probably not doing justice to the ten plus years of conversation within the emergent movement.
    Also, you will find some “liberal” Christians and some “conservative” Christians trying to find the balance between the two. Holding onto a solid view of Christ while attempting to focus the kingdom of God in the here and now as opposed to only eternal life.
    Finally, I think in some ways there are just Christians who really think (and hope) that God is beginning to do a new thing with his people and are embracing change with hope and optimism…in my mind they would be considered emergent.

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