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Kingdom Opportunities in a Postmodern Culture

Len Hjalmarson

I was sitting with an evangelical pastor listening to his story. His associate, ten years younger than he, felt that their church needed to experiment with new styles and new music. He wanted to see greater participation, more use of media, and a less structured order of service.

Postmodernism is seen by some as a huge threat and by others as a tremendous opportunity. Two opposite positions. Is one true and the other false, or are both true?

The older man feared that in changing the forms the functions might be lost; he also feared that connecting with postmodern culture meant abandoning truth. The younger man feared that the forms limited function; he also feared that not connecting with postmodern culture would mean a dying church, disconnected from the real world.

The two men parted company, both perceiving a cultural gap.

'Postmodernism is a huge threat. Advocating the impossibility of knowing truth, it throws off all limits and casts us adrift in a sea of doubt.'

'Postmodernism is a tremendous opportunity. It offers the potential for the rediscovery of spiritual reality and the integration of faith in everyday life.'

Two positions. Two opinions. Is one position true, or both?

A Critique of the Modern World

On one tenet most interpreters agree: postmodern culture represents a profound critique of modernism. Since the western church is a modern institution, the postmodern critique of culture also represents a powerful critique of the church. That critique, for a variety of reasons, is threatening to many of the old generation of leaders.

Postmodernism is a threat to some because they fear what they fail to understand. Imagine a Christian from the first century walking into a contemporary church service. Separated by 2000 years of history and culture, our modern church would be unintelligible to Peter or Paul. Similarly, moderns are a worldview distant from postmoderns.

For others postmodernism is a threat because they have no first hand experience of it. They rely on modern interpreters who are reacting in fear. As a result, many modern leaders only hear a caricature of postmodern positions. They see only the negative, and not the possibilities.

Some concerns are legitimate. In postmodern culture there is no possibility of objective truth, and no absolutes. It is critical to distinguish between postmodernity as an intellectual movement deconstructing modernity's assumptions and postmodern culture with its particular set of values, like tolerance and moral relativity.

In his book Retrofuture1 Gerard Kelly indicts the established church for working overtime attempting to create a rational prepositional faith in order to become acceptable to modern culture. Postmodern Christians do not reject the historic faith or the reality of revelation. Instead, they reject modern assumptions and embrace paradox and the postmodern critique of culture. Often this is done with the hope of stripping away modern distortions and recovering the ancient faith once delivered. They understand that in order to move forward, we must reach back.

Modern society was a culture that consumed its own past. In contrast, postmodern pilgrims honour the bones of the dead and make those bones live. Leonard Sweet.2

When church leaders reject the postmodern movement, they risk becoming isolated from the culture they live in. This in turn guarantees that the church communities they build will gradually stagnate and die, becoming museum communities rather than missional communities. Instead, modern leaders must listen to the tolling of the bell that indicates the death of the modern world, and not ask for whom the bell tolls.

There are many tenets of postmodernism that offer a unique opportunity for the Gospel, and we'll consider some of them here and others in two subsequent Reality articles.3

The Spiritual Nature of Life

The gospel pleads a message of grace, and still Christians live as if they are 'G rated' people offended by an 'R rated' world. John Fischer.4

The New Age has been almost as big a bogey-man as Gen X for the past 20 years. We've invested a lot of time 'proving' that New Age mysticism is leading thousands into a Christ-less eternity. The reality is that they were going to a Christ-less eternity anyway, with or without the New Age.

Shows like X-Files, Millennium, and Highlander (to name a few) have shown a new acceptance of spiritual reality. Witness the sense of the sacred in Highlander, where ancient cathedrals are considered 'Holy Ground' on which bloodshed cannot occur.

The good news of the New Age and rise of mysticism is that people are open to the reality of the spiritual realm, including Jesus called the Christ. Most people aren't against God or Jesus, they have a problem with Christians, or more precisely, their stereotype of what Christians are like (consider images in popular media and televangelism).

Far too many people outside the walls of the church only experience Christianity via popular media, or the example of a well meaning Christian whose life failed to match the faith they professed. Fewer still have seen an example of real Christian community, where believers care for one another as if they are family.

The good news of postmodernism is that the paradigm of attending church on Sunday without giving 'religion' another thought the rest of the week is a foreign concept. Postmodern society assumes a more holistic, integrated approach to spirituality and everyday life.

Desire for Community and Connection

Community is the place where the healing of our own lives will become the foundation for the healing of the nations. Jim Wallis.5

This 'fatherless' generation, however much it expresses itself in violence at times, is more open to relationship than ever before. In what seems like a paradox, the emerging generations want to be individualistic, but to do so in a community. Consider the popularity of Friends and Party of Five, where young adults are trying to make life work, not as rugged individuals, but as a community. Even older television shows like Cheers touched a nerve with the question 'Wouldn't you like to go where everybody knows your name?'

This is a great opportunity for those who are willing to invest in relationships with cross-generational intent to actually become spiritual 'fathers and mothers' and help create a 'family of faith'.

After twelve years as a typical church trying to become relevant to the community outside the walls, Robert Girard's community gave their building back to the denomination and started meeting in homes. 'We no longer have the structures of meetings, programmes and vision to hold us together as a church. The only structure holding us together is relationships; if we fail at love, there will be nothing left.'6

In the late 70s Norman Kraus argued that the defining experience of Pentecost was not tongues of fire and new languages, but the creation of a new community: the laos of God. While the new community was not completely disconnected from the old - God had had a people before Pentecost - the new community was filled with the Spirit. The Spirit empowered them both inward, in community, and outward, into mission. The empowerment to be a community was immediately demonstrated in the desire to share the world's goods with those who lacked 'that there might be equality'.7

It is evident that this new people share much more than a Sunday gathering. In fact, they share a life that is characterised by a quality of relationships that was unknown in the ancient world. Jim Petersen comments:

'Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together' is our refrain. We are good at congregating. Where we have trouble is with some of the other equally essential functions of the church. God's people are not, in essence, a congregation. They are community. 'Congregation' is frequently used in the Old Testament to describe the gathering of the people of Israel. 'Community' implies life together, a life of caring for one another that touches the full spectrum of our affairs.8

A friend of mine once commented on his life experience in church. He described his experience as 'rotating serial alliances' rather than friendships. The real measure of the success of a church may well be the quality of relationships that continue when the instruments are packed away and the lights are turned out.

The images of the church in the New Testament are communal - we are a 'living temple', a 'body', and a 'people'. In the quantum world of Neils Bohr and David Bohm 'the whole is greater than the sum of the parts . . . ' and the community is more real than the individual. Perhaps then the body is more real than the Christian. Maybe the isolated Christian doesn't really exist.

Desire for Experience over Knowledge

We are only now emerging from a long ice age during which an undue emphasis was laid upon objective truth at the expense of subjective experience. AW Tozer

We were in trouble as soon as the Gospel entered the Greek world. We lost the Hebraic perspective on the integration of being and act, and the wholeness of truth in life.

The separation of sacred and secular led to the objectification of truth and thus the scientific revolution, and finally the technological revolution. While the benefits are countless, the long-term impact on humanity and our world has been staggering.

Moderns became obsessed with knowledge and information. Some of the results have been confessionalism, fundamentalism and many other 'isms' that have distorted the Gospel. When truth became objective and propositional, we lost the connection with covenant and transformation.

It became possible to identify with the facts of Christianity while not allowing those facts to transform our lives or connect us to the Christian community.

Those who know don't have the words to tell;
Those with the words don't know too well.
Bruce Cockburn9

According to a recent US poll, 66 percent of Americans believe there is no such thing as absolute truth. Furthermore, 53 percent who identify themselves as 'evangelical Christians' believe there are no absolutes.

Where moderns believed in objectivity, postmoderns do not. Postmoderns maintain that objectivity is a myth, that the observer always becomes part of the equation. Furthermore, postmoderns are not content with confessions and creeds. They want to experience the truth to which the creeds and confessions are pointing. They are hungry for reality.

The corrective is useful. Truth was always meant to embrace both 'objective' and 'subjective' by becoming incarnate in life. Truth was meant to be personal. Thus when Jesus said 'I AM the way, the truth, and the life' he was giving us the heart of the Gospel.

Is the couplet from Bruce Cockburn above so different from that found in St John of the Cross?

This knowing that unknows
s mastery so great,

Should any sage oppose
blunder in debate,

Being no such advocate
now, not knowing, there
burst the mind's barrier.

We need to embrace the tension between the objective and subjective dimensions of faith. Paul's desire was that we become ministers of the new covenant, 'Not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life'.11Evangelicals tend to be well anchored in the word, but not always so open to the Spirit. Yet the Father draws us to an intimate union.

Journey and Process over Goal

We have a church that does not understand process and growth, largely because the people who understand these realms are not in any place of authority or real influence. Reason has replaced revelation. Graham Cooke12

One of the stranger realities of discipleship is hitting middle age and realising how little you know. But I've found some good company. Abraham had little idea what lay in store for him.13 I wonder what he told his friends when they asked why he was relocating his family.

'So, where are you going Abram?'

'I don't know.'

'Resigned from that cushy government job too, I hear. Hey . . . do you want the phone number of my therapist?'

In 1993 my wife and I both resigned from jobs in public service to move to a small town in the wilds of the Canadian Rockies, where the nearest centre was a mere 18,000 people and the nearest city of size was three hours distant. In 1998 we moved again, this time from the mountains to civilisation.

Then in 2000 we transitioned from Sunday services to Sunday parties. Translation: we stopped 'attending church' and started doing church in our home. That led to a process of personal discovery, a new journey with the Lord, and a journey in serving the poor.

In retrospect the roads less travelled look interesting, but initially tend to be confusing, uncomfortable and chaotic. Change is like that.

Purpose Driven or Process Driven?

While the general direction of kingdom expression is known ('to present every man mature in Christ' or 'the summing up of all things in the Head'), perhaps we have been too sure about some of the other goals. Postmoderns are very comfortable with process. They aren't as concerned about measurable results and outcomes. It's tough to argue that our concern with clear goals has really produced a better world or a world more open to the Gospel.

In emphasising the journey, postmoderns remind us that it isn't about what we do, but who we are and who we are becoming. Richard Rohr comments that

We give people 'who we are' much more than 'what we do'. The Latin saying had a clever ring to it: 'Nemo dat quod nor hat.' No one can give away what they do not have. And transformed people tend to transform other people - just by being who they are.14

Furthermore, postmoderns downplay results, and remind us that character is critical. It's a good reminder, because our world has become so obsessed with production that stress is killing us at an alarming rate. The call to find God in the process is a good corrective to our performance orientation.

All this throws postmoderns back to an 'I don't know, but I'm learning' position, one that isn't radically different from Abraham's position when he went out, 'not knowing where he was going'. That place of blind faith can be a radical dependence on God.