Church Response to PostModernism

Critically assess the ways in which the Christian Church has responded to postmodernism and its implications

Postmodernism is a term which arose in the second half of the twentieth century. The term is used to describe the alteration in the prevailing attitude and culture that the Church finds itself in. Understanding postmodernism and its implications and responding correctly to them is vital for the Church of the 21st century as it continues its efforts of fulfilling Jesus’ great commission (Matt 28:16-20).

For the Church to simply ignore this seismic shift in the general worldview makes those outside its walls to view it as, “enslaved to the past.”[1] The result is an institution consisting of irrelevant meetings, held in decaying museums, promoting outdated and arrogant teachings[2].

It is therefore imperative that Christian Churches correctly interpret this new age in order to continue to relate the gospel in meaningful ways to new generations. For this very reason there have been numerous attempts by Christian authors to define or describe postmodernism.

Postmodernism is a complex term to define comprehensively. However some broad observations of it will be sufficient to illustrate how the Church can respond to it and its implications.

At the heart of the term is the word modern and therefore to understand what postmodernism is, a grasp is needed of the change from premodern to modern to postmodern. Heath White summarises this movement helpfully, “Premoderns placed their trust in authority. Moderns lost their confidence in authority and placed it in human reason instead. Postmoderns kept the modern distrust of authority but lost their trust in reason and have found nothing to replace it.”[3]

Postmodernism then, is a term used to reference that which has come after modernism. Modernism, eminent since the days of the enlightenment, can be caricatured as the age of reason. Postmodernism can be caricatured as the rejection of reason. Hick provides a typical postmodern outlook, “If reason is our source of meaning, we have no meaning. If truth is to be found through reason, we can have no truth.”[4]

Modernism, with all it’s hope for the advancement in morality, science and global unity has failed to deliver in the eyes of eth postmodern. Their evidence is a 20th century bloodier than any other in human history. “It is no wonder that in the eyes of post-moderns, then, modernism has failed…as a result, postmoderns take distinctly anti-modern views.”[5]

For this reason it is often more effective to evaluate postmodernism not as a positive movement in it’s own right, but as a rebellion against the tenants of the modernism which preceded it.[6] A rebellion against reason alone and a rebellion against the ideal of absolute truth.

It must be said that the Church responded well to the rise in modernist thought and developed ways of presenting the gospel and speaking about theology which were intelligible to the modern type. Sermons based on rational arguments, apologetics which appear more scientific than theological[7] and discipleship programs with logical increments that a person will follow.

But as the cultural tide has turned such practices have become like a foreign language to large swathes of society and are even becoming a stumbling block to a number of Christians.

The principle of the Church adapting is found in the writings and practices of the Apostle Paul. In his first letter to the church at Corinth he made clear his desire to become all things to all men so that by all possible means he might save some (1 Cor 9:19-23). Such an attitude was also demonstrated in his willingness to preach different sermons at different occasions.

Another principle which must be borne in mind is found in Paul 2 Corinthians. When Paul explains why men do not naturally respond to the gospel and who it is that is at work when they do, “for the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers… [but God] mad his light shine in our hearts” (2 Cor 4:4-6). No matter how much the Church adapts or responds it is still God alone who is sovereign in the work of regeneration.

Held in an appropriate tension these passages shed considerable light on how the Church should be responding to the postmodern insurgence.

In his book, Postmodernizing the Faith, Erickson suggests there are three general components present in the Churches evangelism.[8] Firstly there is the postmodern person being evangelised, secondly there is the message, the gospel and the truth contained in it and thirdly there is the means by which the gospel is communicated to the postmodern person, the method. By approaching these three components in different ways Erikson suggests that there are four possible responses.

Firstly the Church can alter the gospel.[9] This comes from the conviction that the message must be relevant to the person being evangelised. The gospel must be suitable for the person to whom it is being presented. By making the gospel postmodern the Church is required to change its very content.

Practically this may appear as a refocusing of the gospels emphasis. For example the apostle Paul said that the gospel was the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16), but a postmodern rendering might say that it is the power of humanity to love one another.

This first approach forgets that the gospel is an offence to the hearts of unbeliever (1 Cor 1:18) and that any attempt to make it suitable is to remove its power. The result is rather than simply translating the gospel it is transformed.

Such actions are being practised by the Emergent Church, a recent movement which is seeking to redefine much of Christianity.[10] However their efforts often seem to come less from an evangelistic endeavour and more from a stubborn determination to join with postmoderns in their rebellion against institutions.[11]

This is clearly not what Paul has in mind when speaking about becoming all things to all men. It is Paul who is willing to change, not his message. A changed gospel is really no gospel at all.

Secondly the church can use postmodern methods to present the gospel in its unaltered form to the postmodern person.[12] This means that the message contains all the same emphasis and retains those things which are of first importance, but it is described in accessible language or presented in a postmodern way.

This technique of altering the Churches method is most like what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 9. For example it may switch propositional preaching for a more narrative approach[13], or changing the meeting venue of the Church in order to make it more accessible to those outside.

Adapting the Churches methods in evangelism is an altogether different response to adapting its message. If the Gospel is true universally, then it will be applicable in all contexts. Unfortunately this distinction is lost on many which has resulted in both the first and second response being adopted in a number of situations.

Sadly this has been the downfall of the so called Seeker Sensitive Church. So concerned with making the gospel accessible, not only has it contextualised it’s method of presenting the gospel, it has gone further and contextualised the gospel content.

The result is a Church which has been increasingly, “silenced in today’s culture.”[14] It has lost its distinctive voice. In essence a deal has been struck for the reward of success, the terms of which are, “for a one time confession of weakness, God’s eternal peace can be had.”[15] It is a gospel that allows us to have everything we want without the need to give up anything in return (Mark 8:34-38). The church which is indistinguishable from the world is not really a church at all.

The Church Growth Movement has displayed an even more striking naivety in its application of his second response. This naivety is summed up by Wells, “Once the barrier to conversion were removed, such as requiring a person to cross lines of race, class, language, or education, then conversion would happen naturally.”[16] As if the only barriers to mankind’s mass conversion are these cultural nuances. Where is the blindness of unbelieving minds in this thinking?

Not all Churches need embrace this second response and be considered a bad example however. Many positive examples are found in those churches that have embraced technology as a means of distributing sermons or lectures. While the postmodern mind may reveille at the thought of entering a church building, the simple act of downloading a sermon or lecture to an iPod is far more palatable. The result is a huge number of people who have heard the gospel faithfully preached, who would otherwise have not been reached.

One final danger to consider with this second response is that a church becomes overly niche.[17] It becomes so well suited to a particular situation and person that it ceases to display the diversity of people which was a mark of the early church. This is especially concerning in a postmodern world as the church loses the asset of diversity which is seen to be so appealing.

Thirdly the Church can ignore that the fact that the person being reached is postmodern at all. In this instance neither the message nor the method are changed.[18] The church will simply continue to do what it has always as far back as it can remember. Roger Wagner refers to such churches as ‘obscurantist’.[19]

This is a far cry from the spirit of Paul in 1 Corinthians.  Don Carson calls this an “endless nostalgia for the good old days.”[20] Unfortunately this seems to be the default position of the vast majority of churches and it perhaps a reason for the decline in church attendance that is being observed.[21]

This response is deeply self righteous rather than humble and loving, It is lazy and sinful and should be repented of. This is no doubt a major contributor to the perceived irrelevance of the gospel.

Fourthly there is the option of engaging the person on the topic of their postmodernism.[22] Instead of seeking to initially share the gospel, it is preferred to show the inconsistencies of the postmodern system in an effort to bring the person to a point where the conventional, modern techniques of evangelism can be employed.

This approach appears more concerned with propagating a modern world view than sharing Christ. It ignores the fact that the modernists’ dependency on mankind’s reason is unbiblical and assumes that the only real way to share the gospel is the rational, logical way the Church has developed since the enlightenment.

Is the Church called to restore the modernist worldview? Absolutely not. If postmodernism has gotten one thing right it is that modernism is a faulty world view. Reason alone is not enough. The comprehension of this can be of considerable benefit to the Church as it realises it needs, “to go one stage further back, and rediscover the pre-enlightenment concept of reason, where reason is not its own authority, but derives its ultimate justification from God.”[23]

The church is also uniquely placed to answer to some of the questions that postmoderns are asking. Why has mankind’s reason failed? The gospel can provide a coherent answer. Where can truth be found? The gospel can afford a consistent response.

While these four broad responses paint a picture of how the Church might and should respond, they do little to show how postmodernism can affect the church at a more grass root level and how it should practically be responding to its implications.

These implications include a denial of absolute truth or morals, something which is inconsistent with Biblical Christianity. Postmodernism breeds scepticism for uniformity of belief and practice, which was something that Christ himself prayed for (John 17:20-26).

This in turn undermines how the Church interprets the Bible. “A post-modern, sensitive to the dangers inherent in concentrated power, tends to resist intellectual consensus. Therefore, she tries to open up different interpretations of the evidence, intellectual narratives that will compete with the usual ones.”[24]

Can the Church function as God intends if it is intentionally dividing its own opinion on what the Word of God says? Churches, pastors and preachers must show how God’s character is an example of harmony and unity. They must teach that God’s unchanging nature is a foundation upon which true unanimity can safely and confidently be built.

The postmoderns distrust of accuracy as a legitimate goal in Biblical interpretation leads to the question, “is this accurate?” being superseded by the question, “is this liberating?” Such a development needs to be tackled head on. Can liberation be found in something which is untrue? Knowledge and intimacy with and unchanging God is ultimately liberating and so truth and accuracy in interpretation should be sought as the most liberating of pursuits.

From this implication of a disharmonious understanding of the faith comes an undermining of key doctrines. Moreover the discord causes confusion over appropriate behaviour and practices for believers. Questions do not only rise about what a Christian should believe, but what a Christian should do. Can I have sex outside of marriage? Can I call myself a Christian and deny the trinity? Can I believe in the power of the Cross whilst shunning Christus Victor motif?

A current example of the undermining of key doctrines is the raging debate over substitutionary atonement.[25] With many possible models of the cross such as a moral example for all people, an atoning sacrifice for sin or a case of cosmic child abuse, which interpretation you believe will largely depend upon your conceptual scheme. Anything goes![26]

The Church should be not be divided in this diversity but instead be united in it. The Cross has been likened to a beautiful diamond with many different faces, not competing, but complementing each other, all intensifying the beauty of the diamond.

Perhaps just as worrying as the above example is the growing trend to abandon historical doctrines in order to ‘rediscover’ them.[27] Historic doctrines of the Church, doctrines that have stood not only the test of time but the change in cultures and academic attack, are now fair game for all, regardless of competency in theology.

Historically such ignorance of the past has led to the birth of sects and cults such as the Jehovah Witnesses, with their heretical doctrines. As licence is given in the name of postmodernism to ‘find the truth yourself’ the Church is at increasing risk of being misled.

The response of the Church must be a robust defence of the part of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the believers, including those who have explored the Scriptures in previous generations. No Church and no Christian operates in a vacuum but must utilise the witness that surrounds it.

Finally the implication that Jesus cannot be the only way to God is perhaps the most troubling of all. The uniqueness of Christ for the task of making way for man to approach God is patent in John’s Gospel (John 14). At this junction it seems postmodernism and the Christian Church are at logger heads.[28]

Sadly some Churches are viewing this as an opportunity to undermine not only two thousand years of Christian witness, but the very teachings of Christ and the Apostles. By affirming this pluralistic view of faith and salvation, Churches are proclaiming that Christ is not unique. This is a tragedy as the Church which responds to post modernism this way stands alone and apart from any Christian Church in history.

The further implication of the above is that a faith which is only true for the individual is a faith which need not be shared. Where other than a conviction of the necessity of faith in Christ alone does the motivation to evangelise come from. The Church which does not seek to reach the lost is destined to die within a generation.

In response the Christian Church must teach an entirely Christian worldview, one where man alone is helpless through any action of his own to know God, one where God alone can reveal Himself and redeem Himself a people. Teaching of this kind would eliminate any postmodern notion that along with Christ there may be ‘another’ way. Such a response would not only see today’s Churches standing alongside each other, but with all the Churches that have shone a light of Christian witness for two millennia.

Conclusion

The Church has a responsibility to both examine the claims and concerns of a postmodern world and protect the integrity of the truth entrusted to it in the Bible. Marrying the two is a task which will require constant checks and balances.

Of the four general responses the idea of compromising the message or ignoring the person must be dismissed out of hand as they overlook both of the above responsibilities. Instead some mixture of contextualizing the Church’s method, whilst holding the veracity of the gospel, and showing a postmodern world where it has gone wrong, without aiming to convert to modernism, must be utilised.

Many of the implications of postmodernism on the teachings and practices of the Church are a temptation to compromise, to cheapen itself in the name of short term success. The Church must resist. Instead it must offer the authenticity to the postmodern that craves it so much. Consistently applying God’s revealed Word, an authority over and above, to all matters of life, faith and relationships.

The Church must also embrace the opportunity that postmodernism has presented it and learn from some of its observations. It must take its place and provide the answers to the questions of authority and the failure of human reason. That knowledge is only really attainable through God’s revelation and that sinful man alone will fail.


[1] Phil Hill, The Church of the Third Millennium (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1999), 11.

[2] Hill, Third Millennium, 11.

[3] Heath White, Post-Modernism 101 (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 41.

[4] Peter Hicks, Evangelicals and Truth (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), 36.

[5] White, 101, 45.

[6] Hicks, Evangelicals and Truth, 33.

[7] Lee Stroble, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapis, MI: Zondervan, 1998).

[8] Millard J. Erickson, Postmodernizing the Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 151.

[9] Erickson, Postmodernizing, 151.

[10] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).

[11] Mike Yaconelli, ed., Stories of Emergence (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003).

[12] Erickson, Postmodernizing, 152.

[13] Erickson, Postmodernizing, 152.

[14] David F. Wells, Above all Earthly Powers (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 314.

[15] Wells, Above All, 314.

[16] Wells, Above All, 289.

[17] Wells, Above All, 294.

[18] Erickson, Postmodernizing, 152.

[19] Robert Wagner, Tongues Aflame (Ross-Shire: Mentor, 2004), 92.

[20] D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant wih the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), 46.

[21] BBC, “Minorities Prop-up Church Going,” n.p. [cited Feb 2010]. Online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/5349132.stm.

[22] Erickson, Postmodernizing, 153.

[23] Hicks, Evangelicals and Truth, 36.

[24] White, 101, 109.

[25] Jonathan Stephen, “The current crisis in evangelicalism,” n.p. [cited Feb 2010]. Online: http://www.e-n.org.uk/p-3026-the-current-crisis-in-evangelicalism.htm.

[26] White, 101, 113.

[27] Steve Chalke, The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004).

[28] Marcus Honeysett, “Postmodernism and the Uniqueness of Christ,” n.p. [cited Feb 2010]. Online: http://www.theologynetwork.org/christian-beliefs/jesus-christ/postmodernism-and-the-uniqueness-of-christ.htm.

Bibliography:

Aguilar, C, V Bacote, A Crouch, C Crouch, S King, and C Simmons. “The AntiModerns.” No pages. Cited Feb 2010. Online: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/november13/7.74.html.

Carson, D. A., ed. Telling the Truth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.

Carson, D.A. Becoming Conversant wih the Emerging Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005.

———. The Gagging of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

Erickson, Millard J. Postmodernizing the Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.

Hicks, Peter. Evangelicals and Truth. Leicester: Apollos, 1998.

Hill, Phil. The Church of the Third Millennium. Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1999.

Honeysett, Marcus. “Postmodernism and the Uniqueness of Christ.” No pages. Cited Feb 2010. Online: http://www.theologynetwork.org/christian-beliefs/jesus-christ/postmodernism-and-the-uniqueness-of-christ.htm.

Stephen, Jonathan. “The current crisis in evangelicalism.” No pages. Cited Feb 2010. Online: http://www.e-n.org.uk/p-3026-the-current-crisis-in-evangelicalism.htm.

Wagner, Robert. Tongues Aflame. Ross-Shire: Mentor, 2004.

Wells, David F. Above all Earthly Powers. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005.

White, Heath. Post-Modernism 101. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006.

Yaconelli, Mike, ed. Stories of Emergence. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003.

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