From Modernity to Postmodernity: A Primer for Leaders – Part 4

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Christianity is changing. Not in the core essentials that were affirmed by the apostles. But rather, the way we talk about, communicate, and even view our faith has changed radically in the past few decades.

Anyone who spends much time reading serious analysis of 21st century Christianity, culture, and ministry will frequently come across the term “postmodernity”. Indeed, much of our understanding of culture is directly dependent on our ability to understand postmodernity.

This series of four articles is designed to provide you with a basic understanding of postmodernity and its significance to the conversation of Christianity and culture.

In part 1, we became familiar with modernity, the parent philosophy of modernity. In part 2, we observed the relationship between modernity and the Church. In part 3, we became familiar with postmodernity, briefly observing how it grew out of and reacted to modernity.

In part 4, we’ll explore specific ways in which postmodernity is challenging Christian leaders to navigate the Church through this significant era of transitions, once again leaning heavily on insights from historical theologian Dr. Robert Webber.

Postmodernity and the Church

It cannot be ignored that there is a very spiritual component to postmodernity. Although the United States is no longer a Christian nation, its interest in spirituality is huge. The renewed sense of mystery surrounding postmodernity appears to have opened people’s eyes to the greater unknown around them… and a desire to connect with this greater unknown in a mystical sort of way. We see this evidenced in the rise in interest in New Age religions.

Because of its significant spiritual component, it is only natural that postmodernity challenge the Church to explore new ministry paradigms. We want to focus on this culture shift as it is already being seen within the Church itself and how the Church interacts with culture.

This article will briefly explore the following questions:

  1. What opportunities and challenges does postmodernity pose to the Church?
  2. Which theological paradigms of ministry are “ripe” for postmodernity?
  3. How does the evangelical Church respond to the revolutions that brought about postmodernity?
  4. How has postmodernity changed the way that younger evangelicals think about the Church? (If, that is, they continue to identify as evangelical at all.)

Throughout this article, we will be using the terminology “emerging generations”. This refers to the generations beginning with those who were born in approximately 1981. This terminology reflects that these generations have been influenced more by postmodernity than earlier generations and that this influence is observable.

What challenges does postmodernity pose to the Church?

Postmodernity obviously poses many challenges to modern Christianity. It rejects the emphasis on the Word of God, and thus, the authority of scripture. Postmodernity also dismisses the idea that one metanarrative is adequate for a diverse world. Pluralism has led to a dogma of tolerance. This tolerance is ironically tolerant of everything that is not intolerant. Because Christianity proclaims that Jesus is the only way to God, Christianity is not looked upon favorably. Christianity is seen as exclusionary in an inclusive world.

It is not uncommon in the United States and Canada at this period of time for an individual to identify oneself as a Christian and yet not believe that Christ is the only way to God. Within modernity, this was recognized as an impossibility. In a postmodern culture, however, there are many narratives, and these narratives all have a truth claim.


Which theological paradigms of ministry are “ripe” for postmodernity?

Community

The first theological paradigm that works well within postmodernity is community in the context of the Kingdom of God. There is a renewed focus on making the Church visible in society even as we recognize the interdependency we have within the community of Christ’s body.

Whereas the Kingdom of God was viewed through the lens of the Church ruling through the government for much of Christian history, the fact that we now live in a post-Christian, post-Constantinian society has caused renewed interest in pre-Constantinian (or Classical) Christianity. There is a renewed identification with this period of Christian history. After all, these early Christians faced many of the same challenges that the Church is facing in this century. There is a renewed appreciation of history as we acknowledge that the road to the future goes through the past. We must study the past in order to discover why we are who we are and who it is that we will become.

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Missional message

While modernity supported the core values of Christianity in many ways, postmodernity’s emphasis on pluralism, relativism, and subjectivism pose a threat to many of Christianity’s core values. Thus, it is actually dangerous to adopt a seeker-sensitive model of ministry in a postmodern society. A missional model, however, will seek to communicate the universality of the gospel message within the context of the culture. We must see ourselves as missionaries and stay focused on our missional message that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one can come to the Father except through Him. We do not compromise our biblical worldview but instead seek to communicate that worldview in the language of culture.

Incarnation

Lastly is the idea of incarnation. Dictionary.com gives two definitions of incarnation:

  1. A bodily manifestation of a supernatural being.
  2. One who is believed to personify a given abstract quality or idea.

Jesus, for example, was the bodily incarnation of God. However, we see throughout scripture that Jesus calls us to personify Him in this world…the Church is to be His Body. We are to be His hands and His feet. We are to personify His truth. We are His good news incarnate.

Postmodernity in discipleship

Although we must remain acutely aware of the many negative aspects of postmodern philosophy, it is also our task to focus on how postmodernism can be used to our advantage in discipling emerging generations (keeping in mind that discipleship would undoubtedly also need to include safeguards against the pitfalls of postmodernity):

 

Community
Interconnectedness with a local Christian community will be key. Emerging generations (EG’s) thrive on genuine, vulnerable relationships. They need to know they are respected and considered to be “equals”. Because credibility must be earned, these relationships will be characterized by strong ties.

EG’s are reluctant to give respect to those who have not earned their respect. Thus, this generation is often characterized by disrespect. This will be a challenge for the church and the Biblical notion of authority.

Longing for the Supernatural
A willingness to rely on and experience the Holy Spirit in ministry will strengthen all aspects of service. This, however, must be balanced with the discipline of personal responsibility.
Experiential Focus
Because EG’s will not accept that God is merely a set of ideas that no one ever experiences, they will embrace a focus of Christianity that goes beyond external behavior. In placing faith in God, they will literally pant after Him as a deer pants for water because they will want to experience for themselves the active, exciting God of the Bible. Artistic and symbolic expressions are also a means of discovering where their story intersects with God’s story.

However, because of the lack of emphasis on absolute truth, there is a risk of Christianity becoming too experiential and basing truth on experience rather than on God’s Word.

Spirituality
This generation wants to be part of something that is bigger than themselves. Recognizing a spiritual void within themselves, they long for genuine encounters with God in a personal and meaningful way.
Subjectivity
Out of an acute awareness of life’s complexity comes a willingness to struggle with gray areas. They generally don’t want to be told what and how to think but desire to discover Truth on their own. It is within these gray areas that faith in Christ is realized and strengthened.

 

How does the evangelical church respond to postmodernity?

We just saw that postmodernity has created an environment in which there is a felt need to return to pre-Constantinian (or Classical) Christianity. Thus, in many ways, postmodernity is evoking a desire to return to our Christian roots and to interact with these roots with a new appreciation.

We previously viewed Webber’s comparisons between the modern worldview and the postmodern worldview. Now, we will add Webber’s suggested Classical/Evangelical response to the postmodern worldview brought about by these revolutions. (Note: this table has been slightly modified. 1)

Modern Worldview Postmodern Worldview A Classical/Evangelical Response
The Scientific Revolution
§  Mechanistic world §  Mysterious world §  Recovery of the mystery of Christ and a Christocentric worldview
§  Knowledge is attainable §  Knowledge is not attainable §  Knowledge in community
§  Facts are objective §  Facts can be interpreted but they can not be looked at objectively §  Apostolic interpretation
§  Universal truth is based on the scientific method §  Everything is relative – there is no universal worldview §  Christianity rightly understood and embodied is the universal faith for all
The Philosophical Revolution
§  Distinction between subject and object §  All things are interrelated §  Christocentric worldview – Christ interrelated to all things
§  Optimistic view of humanity §  Recognition of the conflict between good and evil §  Spiritual warfare
§  Individualism §  Importance of community §  Primacy of the Church
§  By reason, we can find one overarching metanarrative that speaks the truth about the world §  The world is full of competing metanarratives, none of which are universal truth §  Restoration of the Christian metanarrative in worship
The Communication Revolution
§  Conceptual knowledge §  Symbolic knowledge §  Pre-analytic and pre-experiential knowing
§  Fact-based (knowing as individuals) §  Return to images, metaphors, stories, analogies (knowing in community) §  Communal knowledge and authority
§  Knowledge as information §  Knowledge as wisdom (no universal “right” answer for every situation) §  Education and nurture as character formation
§  Language corresponds to truth (each word has a precise meaning) §  Language carries with it social meaning (individual words must be looked at in context) §  Universality, antiquity, and consensus “establish rule of faith” within the Christian community

How has postmodernity changed the way that younger evangelicals think about the Church?

In “The Younger Evangelicals”, Webber observes the following positive characteristics about emerging generations of Christians 2.

  1. Grew up in a postmodern world
  2. Marked by a post 9/11 era
  3. Are aware of a new context for ministry
  4. Differ with the pragmatist (seeker sensitive) approach to ministry
  5. Minister in a new paradigm of thought (mystery, symbol, community as opposed to analytic thought and reason)
  6. Stand for the absolutes of the Christian faith in a new way
  7. Recognize the road to the future runs through the past
  8. Committed to the plight of the poor, especially in urban centers
  9. Willing to live by the rules
  10. Highly visual
  11. Communicate through stories
  12. Grasp the power of imagination
  13. Advocate the resurgence of arts
  14. Appreciate the power of performative symbol
  15. Long for community
  16. Committed to multicultural communities of faith
  17. Committed to intergenerational ministry
  18. Attracted to absolutes
  19. Ready to commit
  20. Search for shared wisdom
  21. Demand authenticity
  22. Realize the unity between thought and action

Webber also notes that younger evangelicals have different attitudes regarding their approach to ministry than evangelicals who are rooted in a modern worldview.

Comparison of traditional, pragmatic, and younger evangelicals:

Traditional evangelicals would primarily characterize “The Greatest Generation”; Pragmatic evangelicals would primarily characterize Baby Boomers and Gen -X; Young evangelicals refers to Christian born around 1980 or after.

As you look at the following tables, consider the impact of modernity and postmodernity on the attitudes of the different groups of Christians. Don’t just read them. As you look at each attitude, ask “why?” Why and how did these paradigms meet the needs of the culture at that time? Where do you see these approaches to ministry evidenced in the Church? Why does that characterize that particular group of Christians?

Attitude toward History and Tradition 3
Traditional Evangelicals Pragmatic Evangelicals Younger Evangelicals
Approach Retain Reformation distinction Start something new; innovate The future runs through the past
Attitude toward Ancient Church The true church began with the Reformation Best form of Christianity begins with 20th century seeker movement Restore the ancient church; connect with the entire church
Attitude toward Catholics Anti-Catholic Evangelicals and Catholics go together Work, worship, and evangelize with Catholics
Interpreting Scripture Authorial intent (inerrant) Bible in one hand, culture in another Scripture interpreted within community of church throughout history
Worship Maintain tradition of your denomination Break with the past to introduce chorus driven worship Converge all (even ancient) traditions of worship
Spirituality Read Bible, pray, church, witness Small group accountability Restore ancient traditions

 

Approach to the Missional Church 4
Traditional Evangelicals Pragmatic Evangelicals Younger Evangelicals
What is the Church? Church is a place for private faith Church is a place to meet everyone’s needs Church witnesses to the Missio Dei (mission of God) by word and deed
What does the Church do? The church serves culture as its religious voice The church reaches out to the seeker The church is a new creation, a vision of the future Kingdom in a broken world
How does the Church function? The church is a guide for moral behavior The church is a place to repair humanity The church functions as a counter cultural community
Who runs the Church? Professional clergy A business model of hierarchical leadership Clergy and people are united in common ministry
How does the Church help people connect with the world? Provides resources to enable people to minister to others Consumer mentality; There is something for everybody; Meets needs The church embodies the reality of the new creation
How does the church change? Change occurs incrementally Change reflects culture; management principles; “Church growth” Change reflects the nature of the church’s mission; Spirit-driven change

 

Which attitudes did you identify with? Why? Did you see any things you weren’t comfortable with? Analyze your response and ask: why is that?

Conclusion

Postmodernity has not only changed our culture, but it has also caused the Church to reevaluate our paradigms of ministry. Is there supposed to be such a thing as a modern Church and a postmodern Church? Should the Church (the Body of Christ) be defined by a cultural worldview? Or should the Church exist and be defined on a plane higher than culture? Think back to the key components of postmodernity: What would be the characteristics of a postmodern Church as opposed to a Church that ministers within the context of a postmodern culture?

These are the questions that Christian leaders have been exploring for the past two decades and will surely continue to explore as we continue navigate this significant cultural shift that is sure to shape the next few centuries of Christianity.


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Notes:

  1. R. E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 1999), page 37.
  2. R.E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), page 54.
  3. Ibid., 82.
  4. Ibid., 145.

About Amber Mann Riggs

Amber Mann Riggs

Amber Mann Riggs is the Dean of Administration for Artios Christian College and holds a B.A. in Youth Ministry and a M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction, both from Colorado Christian University. She is a home-school mom to four young daughters and a smitten wife to her husband, Bryan. You can follow her on twitter @ambernriggs.