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“Postmodern” is Not a Dirty Word

If you could walk into a thousand, randomly selected, churches around the country on a Sunday morning, I bet you’d be surprised by two things. First, you would be struck by how segmented the church has become. Two hundred years ago there were only a few denominations, a hundred years ago there were a handful of denominations, but today, there are tens of thousands of denominations and independent churches, each claiming that their doctrine is correct, objective, and wholly good. Because of their differing beliefs and traditions, churches from different denominations conduct very different worship services. Compare a Sunday morning at an Eastern Orthodox Church to a Sunday morning at an Assemblies of God Church, or compare an Episcopal Church service to an Evangelical Free Church service. Or how about this one: walk in during a baptism at a Catholic Church, then, walk in during a baptism at a Baptist Church. What?!

But it’s not just doctrine and tradition that has splintered the church. Consider cultural and contextual differences within a denomination. You have your conservative churches and your charismatic churches, your black churches and your white churches, your poor churches and your rich churches, your urban churches and your suburban churches, your southern churches and your northern churches, and the division goes on and on. It will metaphorically blow your mind.

The second thing that will surprise you on your whirlwind tour of church in American is what you won’t see. At first, you probably wouldn’t even notice, but eventually it would become painfully obvious: young adults are nowhere to be found. The casual observer may dismiss this phenomenon as a normal part of the maturation process and that the young people will eventually come back to church once they have children. Experts, however, aren’t so sure. In the world of church leadership there is a growing fear that the emerging generation has left church, and they’re not coming back.

Why are young adults abandoning the church traditions of their youth? Have they given up on God?

The Next Generation of Christians

One of those non-church-attending young adults is an emerging writer and a growing voice of the next generation. His name is Donald Miller and in a recent blog titled, “I Don’t Worship God by Singing. I Connect with Him Elsewhere,” Miller confessed that he doesn’t attend church often because he doesn’t connect with God by singing, and listening to a sermon does not suit his kinesthetic learner style. He goes on to say that he’s fine with that because he connects with God in a different way: I connect with God by working. I literally feel an intimacy with God when I build my company. I know it sounds crazy, but I believe God gave me my mission and my team and I feel closest to him when I’ve got my hand on the plow. It’s thrilling and I couldn’t be more grateful he’s given me an outlet through which I can both serve and connect with him.”

As you might expect, many, many Christians took exception to Miller’s blog, posting comments and writing open letters arguing for the primal importance of Christians gathering together to worship God in church.

A few days later, Miller posted a follow-up piece titled, “Why I Don’t Go to Church Very Often,” explaining and defending his position.

In the opening paragraph of that follow-up post Miller made a passing statement that speaks volumes. He wrote, “…most of the influential Christian leaders I know (who are not pastors) do not attend church.” What?!

Let’s take a step away from the debate over whether it’s one’s Christian duty to be an active member of a local church and focus on the glaring implication of Miller’s statement (assuming that it’s accurate, which I believe it is). A significant percentage of influential Christian leaders do not even attend church. Forget the idea of their ministries being an outworking of the local church; their ministries aren’t even supported by the local church. And think about it, if the next generation of Christian leaders doesn’t attend church, what does that say about the next generation of Christians as a whole?

If you do a little research, you’ll see the issue with young adults not attending church isn’t that they’ve given up on God or Christianity; it’s that, like Donald Miller, they’ve given up on the institutional church, believing that they experience God more authentically out in the world, than they do inside the walls of a church building.

Why is that?

Postmodernism

In 1996, Stanley J. Grenz wrote a book — A Primer on Postmodernism — describing a cataclysmic philosophical shift that’s transforming American culture. At the end of the first chapter, Grenz offered this sober warning to the church of America:

“The transition from the modern era to the postmodern era poses a grave challenge to the church in its mission to its own next generation. Confronted by this new context, we dare not fall into the trap of wistfully longing for a return to the early modernity that gave evangelicalism its birth, for we are called to minister not to the past but to the contemporary context, and our contemporary context is influenced by postmodern ideas.

“Postmodernism poses certain dangers. Nevertheless, it would be ironic — indeed, it would be tragic — if evangelicals ended up as the last defenders of the now dying modernity. To reach people in the new postmodern context, we must set ourselves to the task of deciphering the implications of postmodernism for the gospel.

“Imbued with the vision of God’s program for the world, we must claim the new postmodern context for Christ by embodying the Christian faith in ways that the new generation can understand. In short, under the banner of the cross, we must “boldly go where no one has gone before.”

The evangelical church has, by and large, ignored this warning, and now, 20 years later, Grenz’s exhortation serves as a prophetic and painful statement of what has happened to the church in America. Instead of “claim[ing] the new postmodern context for Christ,” the church has fought against it. Instead of “embodying the Christian faith in ways that the new generation can understand” the church has dogmatically defended its modern structures and beliefs. As a result, the church is failing “in its mission to its own next generations.

Yet, today, across much of evangelicalism the term “postmodern” is still a dirty word; you can’t even say it in some Christian settings without somebody gasping. As a pastor for nine years and a Christian leader for thirteen, I have been consistently challenged, rebuked, and condemned for even suggesting that a postmodern worldview offers helpful correctives for the modern church. And now, as a writer, the assaults can come from any direction. That’s why many young Christian leaders with a postmodern worldview who minister to postmodern people have left the church; they’re tired of being misunderstood and demonized by the people who are supposed to love and support them the most. Do you really think the primary reason Donald Miller doesn’t attend church anymore is because he’s a kinesthetic learner? Read his follow-up post; it seems clear to me that he and his peers of Christian leaders are so tired of defending their postmodern worldview from the attacks of modern Christians that they don’t even want deal with the potential conflict that could come by attending church on Sunday morning.

So, in the end, if the church is really concerned about the next generation — if the church really wants young adults to come back — then it needs to stop preserving its modern institutions and embrace a postmodern Christian worldview. And if it’s able to do that, then the splintered church in America might actually become what it was always supposed to be — the one, unified, diverse, glorious body of Jesus Christ.

 

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