“Postmodern” is a term that gets thrown around a lot and is little understood. The best that one can say is that the term describes a reaction against the assumptions of the Enlightenment that everything was eventually knowable and that progress was inevitable. The German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, put it this way, “Proponents of the Enlightenment … held the extravagant view that the arts and sciences would further not only control of the forces of nature but also the understanding of self and world, moral progress, justice in social institutions, and even human happiness.” Despite technological advancement, human happiness has not been the result. The twentieth century was a time of war and economic devastation. This was the reality that has caused humankind to react and reject modernity.
I suppose it comes down to what we value. We don’t wake up in the morning and say, “What are my values going to be today?” But over time the ideas and concepts that we value do change. For example, when I was a child, I was told to behave so that I would go to heaven when I died. This fit perfectly in a world in which hard work and deferred gratification were fundamental life principles. What was called the “Puritan work ethic” was the guarantee of success as a result of hard work. “God helps those who help themselves” was held out as a biblical truism (even though one can’t find it in the Bible). Today we see better the reality that life can be unfair and that hard work is no guarantee of success.
The postmodern church is evolving in ways that are not always predictable and are best seen in hindsight. But that evolution is on-going and represents a kind of twenty-first century reformation. Here are some of the signs:
- The postmodern church is relatively unconcerned with denominational heritage, though it does take stock of the gifts brought by heritage and values those gifts. Yet, the membership of every Christian church consists of men and women who grew up in different denominations or none at all.
- The postmodern church is deeply invested in dialogue and interpretation. These churches are more interested in discussing what the Bible means, then in being told the answer. Answers are understood to be hard to come by; questions are important.
- The postmodern church is interested in the earliest church, in what the apostles did and said after Pentecost and in what gave the church such vitality in its earliest days.
- Orthodoxy is not something to decry in the postmodern church. Rather it is something upon which to build. This leads the postmodern church to revere early forms of liturgy.
- The postmodern church understands that everyone’s destiny is inevitably tied to the destiny of everyone else. Hence, community life is more important that individual rights and heaven is a place where no one can go unless everyone goes. Diversity of every sort is honored above tribal affiliation.
- The postmodern church understands the creeds not as a set of beliefs to which the faithful must swear allegiance, but as an early attempt to describe the indescribable. They are therefore valuable as a starting point for the exploration of faith, but they are not the endpoint.
- The postmodern church does not believe that clergy have all the answers but that the church should be more like an open-source network and less like a hierarchical bureaucracy. In fact, hierarchical systems in general are discouraged.
- The postmodern church believes that the Spirit of God is at work in the world as we know it today with all of its ambiguities and uncertainties. The kingdom of God is not a future possibility, but a present hope and our work is to cooperate with God’s Spirit which is already hard at the task of goodness. And that is good news worthy of acknowledgment and discussion.
- The postmodern church doesn’t like to be called “Postmodern.” Nor does it like labels such as “Liberal” or “Conservative,” or labels like “High Church” and “Low Church.” Labels build walls that separate us from them. The business of the church is the business of tearing down walls and building bridges.
- Perhaps most importantly, the postmodern church believes that its very existence has little to do with growth for its own sake or prominence in the community and everything to do with mission. Church is a place to explore faith and to practice faith with fellow travelers in the way that Jesus taught.
In his book, The New Christians, Tony Jones sums up the post-modern church this way:
It is the practice of the (New Christians) “as Christ-centered people to understand the gospel in terms of Jesus’ radical, profound and expansive message of the Kingdom of God; as people seeking to be formed spiritually in the way of Christ, to learn historic Christian spiritual practices and to use them for the development of character, integrity and virtue which flow from true communion with God; …. (and) as lovers of God’s truth, to seek wisdom and understanding, which are the true goal of theology, and to engage in respectful, thoughtful, sacred conversation about God, world and church.”
The entire shape of the postmodern church is not clear. But one can say with some assurance that the main line Protestant churches that are growing and thriving are churches that have caught the flavor of this new, postmodern world. One can also say that the churches that thrive in the future are those that pay attention to this renewed understanding of faith and the practice of religion.
St. John’s can and must be attuned to this emerging church. For example, if the church that is emerging is interested in respectful, thoughtful, sacred conversation, it would be well for the church to adopt programmatic approaches that facilitate such conversation. Perhaps even more importantly, if church members, the “new Christians” are interested in historic Christian practices then exploring our tradition matters provided that we keep in mind that the goal of participants is “the development of character, integrity and virtue which flow from true communion with God.”