Post-Modern Possibilities

A Primer on Kingdom Opportunities in a Post-Modern Culture

"We wake, if ever we wake at all, to mystery." Annie Dillard

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. 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.

One man could not envision life in the future. The other would not live in the past.

"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?

As I began researching the postmodern movement, I came across a host of opinions and observations, many contradictory. Furthermore, even postmodern advocates disagree as to definition. What is postmodernism anyway? Is it a cultural shift, or a worldview? What are its main tenets? And does postmodernism represent a crisis for the church, or an opportunity?

A Critique of the Modern World

If we can't have definition, we can move toward understanding. Leonard Sweet comments on Thomas Kuhn's "paradigm shift" that,

When Thomas Kuhn introduced the language of "paradigm change" in The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, I wish he had used another phrase for "paradigm:" metaphor change.

They mean the same thing. Paradigm is another word for "root metaphors." When the root metaphors change, so does everything else. The imaginative architecture of the modern world has collapsed, is in ruins, and a new imaginative architecture is emerging. (Interview at GINKWORLD.NET)

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 world-view distant from postmoderns.

Postmodernism is a threat to others 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 hear only 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 Retrofuture Gerard Kelly indicts the established church for working overtime attempting to create a rational prepositional faith in order to become acceptable to modern culture. Post-modern 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, post-modern pilgrims honor the bones of the dead and make those bones live." Leonard Sweet, Post-Modern Pilgrims

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.

What are some of the facets of postmodern culture that offer a unique opportunity for the Gospel? Let's list them:

  • recognition of the essentially spiritual nature of life
  • openness and desire for community
  • rejection of authority in position and acceptance of authority in relationship
  • emphasis on participation over spectator mentality
  • leadership by wisdom and example not knowledge or position
  • emphasis on practical answers, "walk" over "talk"
  • emphasis on journey and process over goal
  • desire for experience over knowledge, the "subjective" and mystical dimension
  • spontaneous order over rational structure, webs of connection and meaning
  • recognition of truth in paradox, images and story

Let's consider these items one by one.

The Spiritual Nature of Life

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

The New Age has been almost as big of a bogey-man as Gen X for the past 20 years. People have 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 beyond our finite existence. Witness the sense of the sacred in Highlander, when ancient cathedrals are considered "Holy Ground."

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.

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.

We are also witnessing the death of the paradigm of attending church on Sunday without giving "religion" another thought the rest of the week. Postmodern society assumes a more holistic, integrated approach to spirituality and the everyday. For years, there has been a false dichotomy of "what I do at church" and "how I live the rest of the time" -- a thought process encouraged by a compartmentalized approach to life. But finally the sacred/secular myth is coming to a well deserved end.

For postmoderns, it's not an "either/or" decision regarding their everyday "mundane" life and their spirituality, it's a "both/and" concept. If spirituality (whether Christian or otherwise) doesn't have an effect on the whole of life, then what's the point? This presents an exciting opportunity to develop a "24-7" construct of seeing ALL of life as spiritual.

Over the years we have seen many Christian teens, on fire for God, "lose their faith" at an institution of higher learning. We assumed that this was due to the evils of secular humanism.

What if that was the wrong diagnosis? What if they "lost their faith" simply because (in the midst of being heavily involved in all the youth programs of the church) they never developed or matured in their faith? What if we, as their leaders, were responsible for promoting a model of ministry that kept them busy at church activities but failed to truly disciple them? Furthermore, what if they learned from us that Sunday was sacred but the rest of the week wasn't that important? Postmoderns won't accept that false dichotomy.

A New Desire for Community

Community is the place where the healing of our own lives will become the foundation for the healing of the nations. Jim Wallis, The Call to Commitment

This "fatherless" generation, however much expressing itself in violence at times, is more open and desirous of relationship with others than before. In what seems like a paradox, the emerging generations want to be individualistic, but to do so in a community. Look at 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 shows like "Cheers" touched a nerve with the question "wouldn't you like to go somewhere where everybody knows your name?"

The good news is that 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 "community of faith." Furthermore, it helps us to discover the meaning of the Gospel call to community, almost lost in our individualistic and ego-centered western world.

After twelve years as a typical church community 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, programs 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." (Robert Girard, "Brethren: Hang Together")

In the late 70's Mennonite author Norman Kraus argued ("The Community of the Spirit") 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" (1 Cor.8).

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

We hold strong convictions on the importance of the gathering of the church. "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. Church Without Walls

A friend of mine once described his church experience as one of "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.

It's tough to escape the rugged individualism of our culture. We have even individualized salvation, following the arguments of Descartes and the explorations of Newton's physical world. Where rationalism led us to dissect the world into its smallest parts in an effort to increase our physical control, the world of quantum physics emphasizes the whole over the parts, since the parts actually represent only "probabilities."

This seems to fit well with Scriptural teaching on the nature of the church. The images 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. In fact.. maybe the isolated Christian doesn't really exist.

We may not entirely like the implications, particularly those of us who were raised in the "modern" church and who had our trust abused. It's easy to reject the concept of covenant because it was used as one more means of control rather than as a means of release. As we rediscover the call to be a "people" of God, and as we rediscover authentic relationships, covenant community may once more become part of our experience. Apart from committed relationships we won't experience the transforming power of the Gospel.

"The ability of people to move to a new place tomorrow depends on the love and acceptance they feel today . . The only thing greater than our awareness of each other's sins is the awareness of God's love for us and God's desire to see us healed and made whole. The principal lesson of community is that God breaks in at the weak places." Jim Wallis, The Call to Commitment

Rejection of Authority in Position

Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant.    Phil.2:5-7

The empowerment of the early Christians by the Spirit of God sounded the death knell of the old priesthood. Suddenly all God's people were directly connected and had direct access to God.

Postmoderns reject authority in position in favor of authority in relationship. They do not buy into hierarchies, and they tend to assign authority only when it is earned. They don't respect leaders who are "over" but not "among." This aligns with the NT teaching on the priesthood of believers and Jesus teaching that "the greatest among you must be the servant of all."

Where the modern church echoed Reformation doctrine on "the priesthood of believers" most priestly functions remained in the province of a specially trained professional class. The priesthood remained in force, limiting participation to the few rather than delegating authority to the many. As a consequence, the church as a whole has asked men and women to open their wallets and shut their mouths. Since the medium is the message, it's no wonder that believers do not feel empowered to reach their world!

Postmoderns recognize that hierarchy appears to be structural efficiency, but that model is from the technological world. In the biological world (postmoderns prefer the organic metaphors), life loves redundancy. Why not have fifty pastors in a community of two hundred adults? New models of leadership are rising among postmoderns. Peter Senge writes,

"In the knowledge era, we will finally have to surrender the myth of leaders as isolated heroes commanding their organizations from on high. Top-down directives, even when they are implemented, reinforce an environment of fear, distrust, and internal competitiveness that reduces collaboration and cooperation. They foster compliance instead of commitment, yet only genuine commitment can bring about the courage, imagination, patience, and perseverance necessary in a knowledge-creating organization. For those reasons, leadership in the future will be distributed among diverse individuals and teams who share responsibility for creating the organization's future." Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Some are building on the concept of team leadership to look for more open models. Some postmodern leaders adhere to the metaphor of air traffic controller (ATC). An ATC doesn't fly the airplane, he only directs them. The primary function of an ATC is to clear aircraft for takeoff and landing, and ensure they stay on the safe path once airborne. The ATC is almost an invisible part of the process, but his or her role is essential in enabling the flight.

Some prefer the metaphor of symphony conductor.

"A good conductor does not merely tell everyone what to do; rather he helps everyone to hear what is so. For this he is not primarily a telling but a listening individual: even while the orchestra is performing loudly he is listening inwardly to silent music. He is not so much commanding as he is obedient."

"The conductor conducts by being conducted. He first hears, feels, loses himself in the silent music; then when he knows what it is he finds a way to help others hear it too. He knows that music is not made by people playing instruments, but rather by music playing people." Isaac Stern in China

Still others like a metaphor borrowed from the philosophical underpinnings of postmodern thought: the narrator. John O'Keefe of GINKWORLD.NETtalks about the story:

No matter the story, no matter the ending, truth is in the narrative. All story is valid, all story - both individual and group - can add to the collective of the community. When we see life as simply a collection of story, we start to understand both our humanity and God's divinity. The narrative allows for creative, adaptable, nonlinear thinking with group input and an interactivity based on transparency and a living worldview. The narrative is, if you will, a new operating system for the church in the new millennium. It is both virtual and non-virtual, and it leads us to the future revitalizing the church. Some may view this style of vision development as "vision by chaos," and they would be right. But out of chaos, God creates order.

In this context listen to John's thoughts on the role of leadership:

Postmodern people are not looking for a CEO, CFO, COO CIO, or any other 3-letter combinations you can think of that starting with the big "C." Today, we are looking for the poet, the prophet, and the storyteller - the narrator. We don't "lead" people as much as listen to the needs of people and guide them along the path of faith. (The community direction is not based on the desires of one person, but grows from the leader's understanding of the collective vision.)

John's cores in the narrative include the following:

Postmodern leadership to me is like looking at a lava lamp, it keeps changing as it gets hotter and hotter (closer and closer), and while it is simply a stupid lava lamp, you just can't keep your eyes off it. To lead a postmodern people one must keep that fluid nature in mind.

I think primarily, you don't lead, you example. Notice I did not say, "you lead by example" - because that is somewhat impossible, and all the time doubtful. To "example" you simply are you.

One of the first things we need to do as a postmodern narrator is to let people function, and not just "give" them a function. This means you need to help people find their calling and gifts and let them develop that call and gift to best serve God, themselves and the community. It requires that you spend time with the people of the community, and not just a select few.

I believe that for a postmodern narrator to truly understand the community of faith they serve, they must believe in them. Modern leaders usually require that you believe in them as leaders, postmodern leadership requires that we, as leaders, believe in the community we serve.

Furthermore, why use titles and labels that separate people in our community from one another? Why "pastor Bob" instead of just Bob? Labeling one person by their function damages the wholeness of the relationship, and limits the recognition that many others may be functioning as pastors in their workplace, or in other circles of connection.

At a deeper level we assume that leaders have more to give than others, and that those who "follow" need us more than we need them. In reality, the strong offer one gift, and the weak another. Until we die to the idea that we are somehow "ahead of" or "above" the community of faith around us, we will continue to be frustrated in our attempts to have an authentic community that combines real relationships with real discipleship. Jean Vanier writes,

"We do not want two communities-the helpers and the helped; we want one. That is the theory, but in practice there is a tendency for the assistants to make their own community and be satisfied with that. Truly to make community with the poorest and identify with them is harder and demands a death to self. " Community and Growth, p. 30

Many leaders suffer from the tyranny of the felt pressure to "grow workers", so that they cannot form genuine relationships with those around them. They fear that the weaker ones don't represent a good "investment" of time because of the lack of "return" for the organization. This pressure leads to isolation, and many experience burnout or the failure of their most intimate relationships. In turn many around them feel rejected and unwanted because leaders prefer the company of the more "useful" followers.

Jesus' choice of disciples is stunning from this point of view. When leadership is less about power and authority and more about connection and character, then we all become pilgrims on the same journey.

Leadership by Wisdom and Example

The only way to propagate a message is to live it. Jim Wallis

Postmoderns respect love and wisdom, but are quick to reject the connection between knowledge and authority. Since knowledge is always limited and conditional, wisdom has more value. Wisdom always has practical application. As St. Francis put it, "Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words."

Modernism (and much of what was called "discipleship") stressed "getting the right answer" (as if knowing something automatically transfers to lifestyle); post-modernism stresses "does it work?" It is important to give people space and time, within the context of a community of faith, to journey with us. Thus, a teacher of great worth in post-modern society isn't the one with the right answers, but the one who can ask the right questions, and then walk the road of discovery with others.

The good news is that proclamation and demonstration of the reality of Jesus Christ has always been an integral part of New Testament teaching. Paul did not come proclaiming "persuasive words of wisdom, but with demonstration of the spirit and power" (1 Cor2:4) If we choose to adapt to postmodern possibilities, we will find ourselves in a unique position to have great effect in the cause of Jesus Christ.

Where modern leaders were often valued for their knowledge and their delivery (read "sermons and tapes") postmodern leaders tend to be valued for their example. It's tough to argue with this as a more biblical position, since the NT values character over gifting (1 Cor.13).

Where moderns trust the expert, postmoderns tend to respond or react to a person's energy or person more than to what he or she actually says or does. If postmoderns trust the WHO of someone, the WHAT is negotiable and open to maturation. Postmoderns will go along for the ride and enjoy the process even when the goals are not clear so long as the WHO is trustworthy.

The open-ended question of how we follow Jesus in a post-modern society can best be dealt with in the Hebraic learning tradition, which views the teacher (leader, pastor, narrator or whatever) as a co-traveler with the learner on a shared journey towards truth. For the post-modern person, there is as much value in the question as there is in the answer.

An old exercise in the dynamics of leadership goes like this: a group is asked to (quickly!) write down the titles of the three sermons that most powerfully impacted their lives. Then the same group is asked to note the names of the three people who most powerfully impacted their daily walk. Guess which list was quick, easy and encouraging, and which list prompted blank looks, head-scratching, and a certain level of anxiety?

An axiom of the educational and consultant circles is that we learn the least from the "lecture" method of teaching. Involvement and participation in the learning process has always been far more effective than simply listening. Maybe that's why Jesus took the twelve with him wherever he went.

"Tell me and I may forget,
Show me and I may remember,
Involve me and I will understand."

The modern leader was the CEO, the manager of people and systems. Larry Crabb, in "The Safest Place on Earth," comments that we have a choice: we can be either managers or mystics. Most of us feel somewhat out of place in community: we don't always feel safe and community itself is a mystery. We prefer structures we can understand and control. The problem is, God is less interested in predictability and control than we are! Or, from another perspective, He wants to be the one in control, and He doesn't always tell us in advance what He is up to! Or yet again, He may be more interested in the process than the goal; as leaders, we get fixated on goals.

But how then do we establish order and avoid chaos?

First, what appears to be chaos may hide an incipient new order. We may not see the new order as it is emerging.

Second, quantum physics is teaching us that we don't need to understand and control the variables before order emerges, and leadership often arises spontaneously where it isn't expected.

Leadership theory is now benefiting from new metaphors arising in the world of quantum physics. "Strange attractors," in the world of physics cause order to emerge from apparent chaos. Research is showing that leadership may have more to do with finding meaning than in managing systems and programs.

"Strange attractors" are guiding principles or values, and research is showing that these have more impact on individual behavior than good management. Postmodern leaders resist taking control because they know that focus is more important than individual behaviors. Furthermore, postmodern leaders don't mind fluid structures and are comfortable with chaos because they are more interested in finding meaning than in building structures or establishing order. Wheatley comments that "We instinctively reach out to leaders who work with us in creating meaning." (p.135, Leadership and the New Science).

When we focus on what we can quantify and what we can control, we are like the captain of an ocean liner who carefully steers around an iceberg.. forgetting that what we don't know and can't control makes up the greater part of the unseen reality. Working with the unseen elements of growth requires intimate connection and comfort with process and paradox.

Go to Part II

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• © 1999-2002 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on July 17, 2002