It may be a little more ironic, but the first time I ever hear the term postmodernism was not in a classroom or a book, but in a church. It was about 15 years ago in a small church in central Texas, and the pastor was decrying the evils of this new philosophy. He instilled fear and urgency into the hearts of his congregation when he spoke of the dangerous, new line of thinking infecting this upcoming generation of young people. From the way he described it, I was appalled myself that anyone would subscribe to such a godless worldview. This is probably the way many of us first heard of postmodernism.
Postmodernism Versus Modernism
Over the last few decades this idea of postmodernism has been developed, studied, demonized, and questioned extensively. Most people identify this movement as a shift in our culture that concerns the philosophical underpinnings of how we understand our existence. It is not necessarily a philosophy per se, but rather a collection of philosophies aimed primarily at intentionally reacting against modernism. While modernism holds to things like certainty and authority, postmodernism philosophies are characterized by deconstruction of traditionally held ideas, skepticism, and ambiguity. We are first introduced to postmodern thought in some of the art, literature, and architecture in the early part of the 20th century where the normal rules that governed those disciplines were circumvented for the sake of avoiding convention. Many pastors and Christian writers have outlined the evils of postmodern thought, since one of the most well-known tenets of this movement is a rejection of the possibility that truth can be absolute and eternal.
Interestingly, while many Christians speak boldly about the dangers of postmodernism, they are waist-deep in their tango with modernistic thought. The modernism we have become so closely acquainted with over the past few hundred years has glorified humanism, economics, and other social structures that are just as oppressive and un-Christlike as anything postmodernism could throw at us.
The important thing to remember about cultural paradigms like modernism and postmodernism is that they are both worldly systems of understanding existence. Since Christianity and the kingdom of God is, in many ways, counter to the culture in this world, we need to find methods to engage our world by understanding how people think. Then, we must clearly communicate the gospel in ways they will understand. Think about John the Baptist seeing Jesus at the Jordan River and calling Him “the Lamb of God.” John used a metaphor that his world could understand, since they were mere miles from the Temple mount.
Picture it like this: The church and the world are on two opposite sides of a city, separated by this river called postmodernism. One of the things we can do to reach a world insulated by their own beliefs is to build bridges across the river. For example, Christians were able to capitalize on the emphasis in education that came with modernism to do a great deal of ministry. Although postmodernism (along with any other worldly system of thought) has its inherent dangers, we need to look for bridges.
Following are a few postmodern values Christians may be able to use for bridge-building.
1. Creating authentic community.
Over the last 100 years, Americans have become increasingly more isolated. We may not have realized it, because the isolation was even being built into our infrastructure. We had left the row houses and the close quarters of our cities for the wide streets and front lawns that separated us from our neighbors. But now there is a flight back to the city and back to community. Postmoderns understand that independence is not the goal; interdependence is. They value the gifts and contributions of carious members of the community toward collective growth. So it is time for the leaders of our churches and denominations to take off their priestly robes and lose a little of the decorum in exchange for some human authenticity. Express your own struggles, deal with the real issues, and stop the show. Young people today are all little human lie-detectors. They’ve been inundated with marketing and salesmanship, and they can spot a phony a mile away.
2. Rediscover your story.
Postmoderns tend to have problems with “meta-narratives,” or overarching explanations for everything, since they see the value of everyone’s subjective experience. In other words, what is a valuable experience for one person might or might not be for another. So, instead of vague religious platitudes and Christian sayings, we need to rediscover how to tell our story – and not just the good parts! We need to be honest about the ugly details like the times we doubted, the questions we still have, and the difficulty in following a God we can’t see. Isn’t this how Jesus communicated the Kingdom? He told stories. Pentecostals have been doing that for a long time, but we called it “testimonies.”
3. Admit we don’t know it all
Postmoderns have been excoriated by Christians because of their denial of absolute truth. However, the run-of-the-mill postmodern doesn’t really believe there is no absolute truth. It is more likely they believe that while absolute truth may exist, we just can’t know it all. Mystery and uncertainty are part of the postmodern understanding in this world, and the church needs to get in touch with the fact that faith is not always equal to certainty. We often pretend we have all the answers. In that sense, it seems more like the church who is building the “tower of Babel” – not the world.
4. Value diversity.
This new generation of millennials is the first generation to experience multiculturalism as an integral part of their whole educational process. While multiculturalism had its downfalls, when it comes to teaching unquestioned tolerance of any ideas, it does have some virtue in teaching us to value a diverse community. It has been said that the Sunday morning worship hour is the most segregated hour in America’s week. Now we are seeing more diversity being welcomed in churches. That gives us broadened perspective on the world and brings a whole new set of gifts to the table, making the body of Christ that much richer.
5. Collaborative leadership.
Maybe Dorothy was the first postmodern when she exposed the man behind the curtain masquerading as the great and powerful Oz. The days of the pastor being the one who goes up on the mountain and receives the tablets to bring down to the common folk may be numbered. Thirty years ago, when a pastor had an indiscretion it could have been covered up and swept under the rug. Today it is broadcast on local news, six different 24-hour news channels, Internet new services, social media, and countless Internet discussion boards. So it is no accident that postmoderns value a collective leadership model. Not only does this put protections in place, but it draws on the experiences and giftings of a wider group of people. Many pastors are doing this already when it comes to sermon preparation and other important church leadership tasks.
Speaking Their Language
Churches spend a lot of time celebrating themselves for correctly exegeting the Word of God, and rightfully so. However, when is the last time we spend serious effort on exegeting our culture? We have committees working on planning out Easter play, but which committee is exploring ways we can cross the river of postmodernism? Doing these things will require some difficult groundwork and shifting. But if we don’t do it, we are simply lazy. Why hasn’t the Church of God been able to reach cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, and Austin? The answer could be that we are speaking a different language, and we haven’t taken time to learn how to communicate with the “natives.”
Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias tells a story about his experience with postmodernism. While at Ohio State University, he was given a tour and shown the Wexner Center for the Performing Arts. He was told that this is the fist postmodern building in America because it had pillars with no purpose and stairways to nowhere. His response to the tour guide was, “Did you do the same with the foundation?” The point is that no matter what cultural soup we are swimming in, our foundation must remain strong in Christ (1 Cor. 3:11). However, our ministry methods and styles must be like Paul’s, who was able to preach Christ in synagogues by expounding the Law and days later preach Christ on top of Mars Hill in the philosophy capital of the world. Only this level of agility will give us what we need to reach the postmodern natives in our world.