Back to index of articles

A Postmodern Approach to Church

Len Hjalmarson

Many of the tenets of postmodernism offer a unique opportunity for the Gospel. Len Hjalmarson explored some of these in his previous article "Kingdom Opportunities in a Postmodern Culture"[1]; here he suggests how a postmodern approach might affect church life.

Order is always birthed out of chaos.
When chaos surrounds us,
the Holy Spirit broods over us . . .
and God is creating a new masterpiece.
[2] — Graham Cooke

Many of the tenets of postmodernism offer a unique opportunity for the Gospel . How might a postmodern approach affect church life?

Participation not Spectator Mentality

Postmodern gatherings will look chaotic to most modern leaders. In fact, in a postmodern gathering we may wonder who the leaders are.

Where traditional gatherings are leader-centred, postmodern gatherings tend to be community-centred. Furthermore, where traditional gatherings tend to be ordered and linear, postmodern gatherings tend to be non-linear, painting a picture rather than building clearly toward an end. They rely more on spontaneous connections and serendipity than on control and planned outcomes.

Strangely, this sounds a lot like a Spirit-led gathering, or like the description of the meeting outlined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14. (For an argument that this outline is normative, see Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God.)3

A few years ago an intriguing proposal made the mailing list circuit. It carefully detailed the resumé of a certain fisherman, offering him as a pastoral leader for any growing church. The resumé included his lack of education, and his tendency to impulsive action. Somehow the Apostle Peter didn't sound like a good candidate for apostolic or pastoral ministry!

Not long afterward, a friend forwarded me this excerpt from Second Thoughts on Missions, by WC Lees.

Let me picture for you a jungle friend of mine. He is five feet two inches in height and pug nosed. Two enormous wild bear tusks stand out like hat pegs from his punctured ear lobes. His heavy earrings are of brass. Since childhood, they have stretched the lower part of his lobes, until now they are two inches longer than mine. His only covering, apart from a loincloth, are festoons of beads around his neck, and black grass bands around his legs just below the knees. He is just literate, which is a notable achievement, for literacy comes with the gospel.

It is easy to think of him as a quaint hangover from the past — a 'wild man' from Borneo. Yet he is a pastor, and one well able to use the Scriptures — his only book. He is emphatically a better pastor than I am. He has not been to a bible college, nor attended school. There were none to which he could go. He is, however, a man who is relentlessly obedient to every scrap of light which the Scriptures bring him. To such God keeps his promise and gives further understanding . . . . (John 7:17).

We desperately need the cross-cultural perspective to remind us that our professional approach to ministry has more to do with our own cultural values than with a biblical standard. Our high value set on knowledge, a particular gift mix, predictability, order, and in particular, excellence all push us toward the professionalisation of ministry. The result is decreased participation, decreased ownership and personal responsibility, boredom, and a spectator mentality.

If the 'medium is the message', the postmodern gathering may do more to empower a sense of peoplehood than the information and leader-centred gatherings we have commonly known.

This world of a simpler way has a natural and spontaneous tendency toward organisation. It seeks order. Whatever chaos is present at the start, when elements combine, systems of organisation appear. Life is attracted to order — order gained through wandering explorations into new relationships and new possibilities.4

The interactive nature of postmodern gatherings can help us recover the understanding that everyone is a player, and that too much leadership is as bad as no leadership. We have tended to emphasise control and rational structure, which may appear efficient while actually causing us to limit participation and thus neglect body life as outlined in Ephesians 4 where "every part does its work."

Truth in Paradox, Images and Story

The Third email of Paul to the Corinthians:

Paul, an apostle of Christ and a slave of the Lord, to the brothers in Corinth who are using e-mail accounts.

This is the third e-mail I am sending to you. Did you receive my other two? I have had no reply from you yet, and a 'fatal delivery' error message for the second e-mail, in which I wrote about love, faith and hope. I will send it again, just in case.

I sent my second message to the congregations throughout the whole of Asia Minor, but my service provider considered this to be spamming and closed down one of my accounts. To those who are using Web-based e-mail accounts, I will send Timothy to you with my message on foot. It will get there quicker.

Philemon and Titus send you their love. I found their e-mails amidst a flood of junk mail and get-rich-quick messages, in which there is no real profit.

Even though I recently upgraded my aging Pentium 90, I'm still getting an unknown WINDOWS error.

Look — I hope you don't mind, but I think I'll stick with the parchments next time.

While we are becoming comfortable with mystery and paradox, we also need to reconnect to the imagination.

Every preacher knows that simply reading from Paul and then summarising the main points makes for a quickly forgotten message. Instead, preachers and teachers make good use of metaphor and story to anchor their message in a living example.

Picture Jesus on the shores of the lake of Galilee. Can you see the water catching the reflection of the sky, while the seabirds wheel overhead? The crowd gathers by the shore as he steps into a boat and begins to tell a story.

Jesus used stories from everyday life, describing common events familiar to his readers like a sower sowing seed, or a fisherman casting his nets. Story continues to be a popular method for framing truth.

Tell the truth but tell it slant
Success in circuit lies;
Too bright for our infirm delight
The Truth's superb Surprise . . .

Emily Dickinson5

CS Lewis wrote "the imagination is the vehicle of understanding". The reason that story is so useful is that images impact the brain at a level different from mere propositions. Pictures communicate on a variety of levels, and appeal to a variety of audiences. Stories from real life capture our attention by appealing to both heart and mind.

Where the modern world tried to escape images in favour of 'pure' truth in propositions, we have learned that the old methods were the best. Many moderns were 'iconoclasts', trying to purge the faith by reducing it to the bare facts. Unfortunately, facts that are divorced from life are only facts. Jesus taught us by his incarnation that truth embodied in life will enter in at places that facts alone cannot reach.

The rediscovery of image-based forms is powerfully impacting our culture. Movies are the new vehicles of culture. Multimedia presentations are common as vehicles of the Gospel. The current generation was raised on images and the Internet is not only shaping the way we communicate but the way we understand ourselves and our world.

Worship is increasingly anchored in the physical world, with images, dance and drama. The only danger here is the professionalisation of worship. While no one wants to watch untrained dancers or listen to unskilled musicians, the pursuit of excellence has a way of taking us back to a passive spectator mentality where ninety-five percent of us watch while five percent perform.

In the modern world the watchword was 'balance', a Greek ideal. In the postmodern context the watchword is paradox, truth in dynamic tension. Sometimes apparently opposing truths must be held in tension. Jesus is both God and man. God is three in one. These concepts were boggling to moderns, who worked out elaborate formulas to explain the inexplicable. But the tension is not a problem to postmoderns.

While sixty-six percent of Americans believe there is no absolute truth, nearly three out of four Americans believe that "the Bible is the word of God and completely accurate in all that it teaches". Holding mutually inconsistent ideas is not a problem for postmoderns.

God is both immanent and transcendent. The kingdom is now, but not yet. God chooses us, yet we have free will. We are both spiritual and physical.

Is light a particle or a wave? It depends on the observer, according to the new physics.

Where moderns looked for the resolution of such tensions, often emphasising one side of the truth while minimising the other, postmoderns are comfortable with mystery and paradox. They recognise that truth is often multi-faceted, and they recognise that our knowledge will remain limited.

One of the well-known experiments that demonstrated the limits of our knowledge was performed nearly fifty years ago. Scientists attempting to measure a particle needed to know both its size and its speed in order to understand its reaction with other particles. When they stopped the particle to measure its size, they could no longer know its speed. When they measured its speed, they could not measure its size.

This is important, because the mystical journey of union with Christ often brings more questions than answers. Furthermore, personal knowledge has characteristics that differ from scientific knowledge. While we may describe someone in startling detail, and even offer a psychological profile, it is not possible to truly know someone apart from love. The truth may not always be apparent to our mind, when it may be transparently clear to the heart.

The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know.

Pascal, Pensées

Non-Linear, Fluid and Spontaneous Order

Fancy upsetting the clock-like, mechanical perfection of a great service with an outpouring of the Spirit! The thing is unthinkable!6

Martyn Lloyd-Jones' tongue in cheek comment on revival versus the lovely and efficient progress of a typical Sunday meeting is perhaps unfair in opposing the supernatural activity of God to the natural. But it is worth remembering that Lloyd-Jones saw the evolution of a technological culture at its height, and while the knowledge of clergy and laity increased, the church grew increasingly wealthy and spiritually cold.

The decentralised, non-linear experience in the context of face-to-face community is strikingly different to the institutional setting. In a home meeting, for example, an 'order of service' seems out of place. In contrast, the highly structured and linear programme of a Sunday public gathering has troubled me. Why?

The order that Paul describes in the New Testament7 seems spontaneous and controlled by the Spirit. It is highly participatory. Any time we rely heavily on structure and preparation, we risk losing something important.

In virtually any formal Sunday service participation is highly limited, and the order is linear and predictable: intro, call to worship, worship and praise, announcements, the sermon, blessing and dismissal. And some of us say we aren't liturgical!

In the postmodern setting, even as groups get larger than a couple of dozen, things are much less linear and much less predictable. For some time I feared that this would obscure the centre — the purpose of our gathering. In fact, the centre becomes clearer, but it's a different centre.

The linearity of the rational and structured model gives way to something much more difficult to define. Where modern Christian gatherings have a machine quality (though participation is severely limited) postmodern gatherings are more like a participatory art form, where everyone is a dancer or a painter. The centre is defined in the process, and not by the end product, and 'the whole is greater than the sum of the parts'.

If men and women today began by the thousands experiencing the depths of Jesus Christ in a transforming way, there would simply be no place for their expression of experience to fit into the present-day straitjackets of Christianity. Protestant or Catholic, neither one is structured to contain a mass of devoted people who long for spiritual depth. We are structured towards infancy.8

In the postmodern gathering it's no longer clear whether the centre is 'worship' or 'word' (listen and learn) or just being together. The designated leaders may not be easily identifiable, though they are still present. This is a very helpful direction in terms of the real work of the church and the purpose of our gathering, if we pay attention to Ephesians 4 and the dynamic Paul describes.

In a traditional gathering there may be space given to unplanned participation with testimonies or exhortations. Spontaneous elements can be integrated in a highly structured context.

But what about spontaneous connections? What about unplanned outcomes? The greater the structure and the greater the need for predictability, the more the outcome is limited by our own ability at engineering. Are we really so confident in ourselves?

In any gathering, particularly in a gathering where the Holy Spirit is participant, there are many more possibilities than one or two leaders can envision. These will often be excluded. But what if the Lord had a different outcome in mind? What if it had been his intention to engineer events or connections that we did not imagine? Margaret Wheatley comments:

There is a simpler way to organise human endeavour. It requires a new way of being in the world. It requires being in the world without fear. Being in the world with play and creativity. Seeking after what's possible. Being willing to learn and to be surprised.

This simpler way to organise human endeavour requires a belief that the world is inherently orderly. Life seeks organisation. It does not require us to organise it.9

As I reflect on the last year of our own meeting with the church in our home, I realise that when we left behind the traditional centre (the functions of word and worship and formal structures of participation) the centre changed to the people themselves. We all became players, and the whole world was our stage (apologies to the Bard).

While we gather on Sunday afternoons, our relationships continue through the week. We bring groceries to one family. We meet in small clutches over coffee. We connect via phone and email. We pray with one another when a need arises. We gather a gift for someone who needs help with rent. We have a complex network of relationships, but the centre is love for one another and for Jesus.

Our task is to help people concentrate on the real but often hidden event of God's active presence in their lives. Hence, the question that must guide all organising activity in the church is not how to keep people busy, but how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in silence.10

When we rely less on formalised roles and structure, something interesting happens. Information flows along unexpected pathways instead of from the top down. Individuals who we thought lacked leadership gifts suddenly take responsibility in unusual ways. Where we worried things were becoming chaotic or that we were losing control, a new order arises.

We don't need (managers) to make point to point connections to move information along linear pathways . . . . We've been inspired this way by mechanistic models of the brain. Newer theories describe information as widely distributed, not limited to specific neuron sites. Instead, researchers have observed a more fluid pattern of electrical activity, with instructions distributed through a shifting network.11

In postmodern gatherings of Christians the model of a neural network is more appropriate than the model of a machine.