by Steve Cornell
Times have changed and churches must be aware of those changes if they desire to be faithful to the mission of Christ. A generation has come up that doesn’t see the world the same way their predecessors see it. But how much should the church adjust? And, at what point does adjustment become misguided accommodation or a betrayal of the gospel?
A needed warning: “It is good to be willing to innovate and adapt for the sake of the gospel, but when sociological reality is taken as the given to which church strategy and tactics must adjust, the church is in danger of becoming market-driven in an attempt to create a particularly attractive religious boutique within which a variety of goods and services must be offered for personal choice.” (Joseph Small)
What is this sociological reality? Three areas of cultural expectation affect Churches in relation to three aspects of Church life:
1. Building: Creature comforts are expected in affluent cultures.
2. Program: Entertainment-driven (the wow factor!)
3. Message: Mitigating absolute truths and morals
Postmodern times involve these cultural realities but also include some other issues. I plan to frame out a broad description of these issues but first I offer what I believe to be the key alternative for postmodern times.
It is to be humble, loving, truth-telling Christians in community.
“If the Biblical story is told truly, it will subvert the alternative stories. But to tell it truly, you have to be living it” (N. T. Wright). Or, to tell it with effect, you must be living it.
And the church is a community that cannot be deconstructed when it is a community of love. Jesus’ words in John 13:34-35 take on powerful meaning in postmodern times. And Jesus’ words followed His example (John 13:1-5 and 12-17). Jesus set the tone for what a community of Christ followers should look like. When lived, it is a community filled with mutual affection and honor.
We’ll come back to this but let’s review the path to postmodernity and some prominent features of it.
I. Pre-modern era – religion is the reigning voice of authority for truth and reality.
(God is a given of pre-modern culture.)
II. Modern era – science is the reigning voice of authority for truth and reality.
(God is pushed to the outside in modern culture.)
III. Postmodern era – rejection of any single defining source for truth and reality.
(God is accepted in all variations equally in postmodernity)
Modernity enthroned science and dethroned religion.
Modernity adopted a grand story of human progress based on measurable realities of scientific, technological and social advances for the good of humanity.
Modernity became an assault against all things supernatural with humanistic naturalism as the reigning ideology.
The old grand story of religion was no longer needed and actually considered unsustainable in the face of scientific progress. Sweeping and rapid changes seemed bound to make the world a better place as mankind took over and human reason reigned. But hopes of the utopian dream of modernity soon became a human nightmare as the 20th century became the most violent one of human history—-without religion to blame (see: The Most violent Century).
“The supposed objectivism of science easily became a cloak for political and social power and control.”
“The growing skepticism in regards to anything supernatural was matched by growing faith in human ability to know the world, control it, and reap the inevitable benefits. The “Big Story” of the world was not given by revelation; rather, it was to be discovered and perhaps even determined by science, reason and technology. This major transition was at the heart of the modern period.”
“However, from our 21st -century perspective, it is clear that the predictions of utopia guaranteed in the modern period never materialized. Instead, modernists became disillusioned as military increase brought world wars, failed development policies led to class oppression and colonialism, economic idealism resulted in communism and the Cold War, and our best science created nuclear weapons and the threat of global devastation.”
“Postmodern writers, beginning with Nietzsche, began to question the integrity of modernism’s metanarrative of progress. In fact, the main casualty of a postmodern perspective is the very idea of a metanarrative. Postmoderns are skeptical of any and all claims to an authoritative comprehensive worldview, absolute truth about reality, and an overarching purpose to the human story.”
Why? Because of a basic untrustworthiness of humans—a tendency to manipulate, control and oppress.
“…postmodernism has cast a large shadow of skepticism (and has offered a strong dose of humility) on the modern belief in the efficacy and near inerrancy of human reason. As was seen during the modern period, human reason can be quite productive, especially in the arenas of science, medicine, and technology. However, human reason can also be manipulative and destructive, especially when it produces the totalizing ideologies (e.g. communism, Nazism, colonialism, etc.) that characterized the modern period.”
“…postmodernism has demonstrated that objectivity and certainty are not exclusive to the realm of science as was claimed during the modern period. In fact, science is often quite biased and agenda- driven, and is therefore in no place to claim to be the final arbiter on all matters of knowledge.”
Note: The overreaching use of evolution as a philosophy or religion doesn’t settle well with postmoderns.
Finally, “…postmodernism rightly reminds us of the power of our culture, and especially the language of our culture, in creating our frames of reference. The modern period demonstrated that this power can be used to marginalize and oppress others at the personal and the systemic level. For the Christian, then, care should be taken to distinguish scriptural teaching from our cultural perceptions.”
(Quotes above compliments of John Stonestreet at Summit Ministries. This is a revised excerpt from Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, co-authored by William E. Brown, W. Gary Phillips, and John Stonestreet. Used with permission)
Be sure of this:
Legalistic churches won’t make it because of their use manipulation and control. Loving and truth-telling churches will flourish.
The Christian or Biblical worldview agrees with important major concerns of postmodern thinkers:
- limitations of unaided human reason
- effect of the fall on objectivity and certainty
- the human tendency toward evil and oppression.
But the Christian worldview clearly offers one overarching story for all people. And on this, N. T. Wright noted:
“Postmodernity is bound to object: metanarratives are controlling, dominating, and we all know the ways in which this story too has been used politically, socially and personally to bolster this or that power-trip. But the Biblical metanarrative itself resists being abused in this fashion, because it is the story of love. The Biblical metanarrative offers itself as the one story which cannot be deconstructed, to which the criticisms of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud are not relevant. (Look at Jesus on the cross-was he doing that for money? Was he doing that for power? Was he doing it for sex? It was an act of love.) The story speaks from first to last of a God who did not need to create, but who did so out of overflowing and generous love. It speaks of a God who did not need to redeem and recreate, but did so as the greatest possible act of self-giving love.”
“Somehow if we are to address contemporary culture with the message of the Bible we must get used to combining two things which are normally at opposite poles—humility and truthtelling.”
“Somehow we have to tell the truth but to tell it as the liberating story, the healing sory, the true story. And of course… the best way we can do this is by telling, again and again, in story and symbol and acted drama, the biblical story, focused on the story of Jesus himself, the true story of the Word made flesh. (That is why the great symbol at the heart of Christianity is the symbol of the eucharist; it is the symbol of that story.
But, “it is our task not just to tell but to live out the story—the model of God’s self-giving love in Christ must be the basis for our self-understanding, our life, and our vocation.” (N. T. Wright)
We must be humble, loving, truth-telling Christians in community– a community filled with mutual affection and mutual honor: “Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other” (Romans 12:10, NLT). When our fellowship is filled with people who treat each other with honor, esteem, deference and humble service (foot washing love), we offer the badly needed alternative to the uncertainty, anxiety, and angst of postmodern times.