It goes without saying that the world is very different to what it was fifty years ago. There’ve been changes and developments – both positive and negative – which have turned the West into a very different society. A major factor has been the rise of post-modernism, and unless the Church learns to engage a post-modern context, we’ll continue to lose traction with today’s world.
Post-modernism emerged as a reaction to aspects of modernism. Modernism is a way of seeing the world that promised humanity would progress to the point of attaining utopia if we embraced rationalism and threw aside the shackles of a spiritualized worldview. Instead, modernity delivered two horrific world wars, genocides and death camps, the Great Depression, Hiroshima, oppressive and totalitarian fascist and communist regimes, a widening gap between rich and poor, and frightening ecological deterioration. The Vietnam War was the final straw, after which a post-modern way of thinking began to emerge, with more emphasis on feelings, emotions, intuition, creativity, imagination and fantasy. Yet the Church has struggled knowing how to relate to post-modernism and therefore to the emerging generations who have grown up in an entirely post-modern context.
As Chaplain of St Andrew’s College in Christchurch from 1989 to 2010, I witnessed a remarkable rise in the view that if something was right to you, it was truth. This right for quite different points of view to co-exist as ‘truth’ is something postmoderns fight for with a passion. During discussions, if I challenged a student’s point of view, there would inevitably be push back from the group: ‘you can’t say that what she said isn’t true sir. If it is true for her then it’s true!’ This is the generation for whom Harry Potter was a formative text. Towards the end of the last book, Harry asks Dumbledore ‘Is this real, or has this been happening inside my head?’ Dumbledore’s reply is archetypally post-modern: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Opportunity or Threat?
Though the post-modern position of different ideas co-existing may sound threatening, it actually gives the Church a wonderful opportunity to engage in new and creative ways. Theology and the reading of Scripture become ongoing, imaginative and important rhythms, with worship being purposefully transformational. Change doesn’t happen through arguments over doctrine and morals alone. Change actually takes place through conversations that offer new ideas, models and images of how this all fits together in a particular place for a particular community.
But is the Church courageous enough to move beyond the matrix of modernity? Do we have enough confidence in the biblical text to let it be what Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann calls a fund for the post-modern imagination? If not, then perhaps the Church is sentencing itself to disappear with the rest of modernity!
Speaking with a Post-modern Accent
Carlton Johnstone identifies some helpful ways to communicate well with this generation: Be less directive and more open ended. Allow for questions, struggles and doubts. And communicate in a way that’s relevant, applicable to life and has depth and authenticity. Leonard Sweet states that this kind of preaching will ‘draw fewer conclusions than it does entertain possibilities.’
The night services at Hope Presbyterian seek to communicate in this style. One evening the service leader was met at the door by two people in close succession, each with very different perspectives of what had happened. The first was of the older generation and lamented that the sermon had left too many loose ends – the young people would not know what to think. The second person was a young adult who came out raving about the fact that the service had given him so many questions to ponder during the week. The difference between the generations (and between post-/modernism) was palpable.
The Church is in trouble if she doesn’t adapt to post-modernism. Philip Yancey was inspired to write his recent book, Vanishing Grace, when he discovered the plummeting respect for Christians in the USA. He writes that “in 1996, 85% of Americans who had no religious commitment still viewed Christianity favourably. Thirteen years later in 2009, only 16% of young ‘outsiders’ had a favourable impression of Christians and only 3% of evangelicals.” My experience with similar ‘outsiders’ in New Zealand suggest similar trends here. I believe this is largely the reaction of a post-modern generation to a Church still communicating out of a modern paradigm.
The rise of post-modernism means the way we do church and Christianity needs to be reshaped. In this new context we need Christians who are pilgrims (on the journey alongside others), activists (expressing faith through deeds) and artists (connecting faith and the human condition authentically and creatively). The Church needs to find ways to connect with the growing number of non-Christians in this post-modern age of questions, dialogue, pluralism and tolerance. We must learn to engage a generation who are seeking answers, longing for meaningful conversation, and searching for peace and harmony amongst difference.
Hamish Galloway is Senior Pastor at Hope Presbyterian Church, Christchurch. This article is based on a Study Leave report completed in July 2015 on the topic of young adults and the Church. It can be downloaded from hopechurch.net.nz/media/publications
Can postmoderns feel at home in the Church in NZ? What about in your church?
Exploring today’s missional issues from a variety of angles, each edition of Intermission will equip you and your group to engage with God in your community and beyond. Why not take up the challenge and start using Intermission in your community? For more information or to order copies click here.