Emerging Church

I finished reading Dan Kimball’s “The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations” this week and it’s given me some new perspectives on reaching out to today’s unchurched people. In order to set the stage for the rest of his book, he first set forth the distinguishing characteristics of what is called “modern” and what is called “post-modern” with regard to different worldviews today.

In his book A Primer on Postmodernism, Stanley Grenz tells how the term postmodern was used in the 1930s by writers and architects desiring to break out of modern molds and patterns of thought and creativity. The word postmodern … represents a change in worldview moving from the values and beliefs of the modern era to the new postmodern era, which rejects many modern values and beliefs.

[M]odernism actually produced wonderful things, great advances in the sciences, in medicine, and in technology. Modernism did line up well with many aspects of our faith. However, we need to understand how modernism also shaped some of our concepts of church and faith, concepts that aren’t necessarily biblical. The Enlightenment assumed that human thinking can solve everything. So when modernism then assumed we could figure out God and systematize our faith, we went astray. What we need to do in the emerging church is to rethink what aspects or values of modernism became more or less accepted standards, rather than Scripture, for how we go about ministry.

In the same respect, not all of postmodernism is bad… Of course, we need to be discerning and wise as we think through any cultural  change, whether it’s small or major, like postmodernism is. But at the same time, there actually are many refreshing aspects of going back to a more transcendent view of God, allowing for mystery, and bringing back the supernatural view of life. We need to be thinkers and theologians more than ever in this day so we can discern the good from the bad and what is Scripture from what is man’s methodology or philosophy, whether it’s modern or postmodern. The “post” part of postmodern doesn’t mean we reject everything from modernism. It just means “after.”

He goes on to give the following summation of these concepts:

Pure modernism held to a single, universal worldview and moral standard, a belief that all knowledge is good and certain, truth is absolute, individualism is valued, and thinking, learning and beliefs should be determined systematically and logically. Postmodernism, then, holds there is no single universal worldview. All truth is not absolute, community is valued over individualism, and thinking, learning and beliefs can be determined nonlinearly.

The “modern era” is also defined as the time period beginning back in the 1500s to approximately the end of the 20th Century, as the advent of the printing press enabled new ideas to be spread quickly and distributed widely, thus allowing for individualism to flourish. With respect to the shift from the modern era into the postmodern era, Dan illustrates how the culture has changed the way we think, but that it has been happening over the last century:

As architects and philosophers began rejecting the confining modern values of systematic thinking, they began shaping a new postmodern philosophy. No longer did architecture have to be designed purely for function, nor music or art have to be placed in previously known categories. … As artists, philosophers and architects rejected modern values and embraced postmodern ideas, this change was reflected in university classes, which in turn began influencing new literature, art, architecture and even educational methods… [and] we began seeing actual changes slowly surfacing in experimental forms of music, movies and the arts [and] on university campuses in the 1960s.

By the 1980s and 1990s, postmodernism no longer impacted only the academic realm or just the most politically active college campuses, nor was it embraced only by the most innovative artists and philosophers. Postmodernism was now fully making its way into pop culture, showing itself in fashion, music, television, movies, theatre, arts, graphics and literature…. The modern categories that we once knew and used began to shift and disappear as new postmodern ones formed.

He goes on to use country music as an illustration: you see a singer dressed in cowboy hat, boots and jeans that we neatly categorize as a country “look.”  They sing a certain way and have a country “sound” to their music. In other words, the image they project is country and the art or music style they produce is country, exactly what you expect because in modern thought, that is the neat little box that the package fits into. There is nothing contradictory about how the singer looks and how they sound. Using this example, postmodern would be to see that same country image and hear music coming out of that image being a contradiction, such as punk rock. What you see is not what you get, as in a living example of “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

We are now experiencing postmodernism in everyday life … our schools, television shows, movies, advertising, magazines and fashions. They have effected changes in the way we view the world, human sexuality, religion and spirituality… Image no longer needs to align with its original meaning (i.e., country music starts can look like rock stars)… The lines are fuzzy, if they exist at all.

The spread of postmodern culture is accelerated as parents who have embraced postmodernism now teach others and raise their children. It becomes more and more the normal way of life [and] impacts values, ethics, sexuality and virtually everything, including our view of religion and spirituality, which is where those of us in church ministry start coming face to face with the fruit of postmodernism.

Whereas in the past, our country was a nation based upon Judeo-Christian beliefs, even wars were fought with understood rules. All of that changed when our country participated in the Korean and Vietnam wars and our western understanding of ethics in war were assaulted by sniper tactics, bombs strapped to innocent children, unconscionable acts of cruelty to our soldiers in prison camps and more. The modern western worldview was knocked on its ear. During this same time period, the advent of rock and roll and the ‘sexual revolution’ directly challenged and spit in the face of much of America’s Christian values. It was contrariness and contradiction for the sake of the thrill, offending the structured, comfortable and systematic  worldview of the modern mind.

Throughout the rest of the first part of Dan’s book, he elaborates that there is not currently a line of demarcation as to modern thinking ending unilaterally and postmodern thinking beginning and that what we are in the middle of right now is the overlap of the two. He also points out that it is not easy to separate the two merely by age or generation since the movement began with “free thinkers” a century ago and that we have people in their 80s and 90s now who are postmodern in worldview and teens and young adults right now who were raised in the modern, Judeo-Christian values home and therefore have modern mindsets.

The unfortunate part of what we now have to face in Christian ministry and evangelization is that more and more, today’s generation reflects spiritual relativism as the norm and that what many of us would call hypocrisy by claiming spiritual beliefs but not acting on them, is now seen as one’s “personal viewpoint of God and Jesus.”

It isn’t uncommon to see someone hold to a bit of Buddhist teaching and a little bit of Christianity, with even a trace of nature worship added to the mix. The difficult part for many of us to grasp is realizing that there is nothing wrong or contradictory with this approach to spirituality to individuals in the emerging culture.… A feature article in Newsweek recently pointed out that “young people are openly passionate about religion – but insist on defining it in their own ways.” This is only a normal and natural response being raised in a postmodern culture. We shouldn’t be surprised.

I thought the most poignant illustration Dan made which really hit home for me as to how seriously we need to think out the way we try and relate to this new emerging generation came with this retelling of a conversation he had with an older pastor:

“I’m telling you, these generations are no different than when I was a teenager or when I was in college.” The pastor’s face was flush with emotion. “When I was in high school, I rebelled and rejected the church.” He leveled a heated gaze right into my eyes. “When I got to college, I even explored some Eastern religions and experimented with some drugs. But then I got older. I got married, and when we had kids, I returned to my roots and came back to church.”

Then he smiled, as if his case had been clearly made. “It’s the same thing with young people today. They are just like I was. One day they’re all gonna grow up and be back in church. All of this is simply a generation gap issue.”

I quietly listened, and when he finished, I said, “You said you had kids and returned to your roots.”

“Yep,” he answered, “just like they will when they get older and come back to the church.”

“What if their roots involved no church or Christian faith to begin with? What if the roots they put down while they were growing up were a pluralistic mix of world faiths, leaning toward more of a Buddhist philosophy? How can they return to their roots of church and Christianity if they don’t have any roots there to return to?”

He sat for a minute looking a little puzzled and then responded, “I don’t know what they will do then.”

It’s a good book and I highly recommend it as well worth reading. This Scripture verse sums up the huge challenge we as Christians face in trying to reach this emerging generation with the gospel message:

“After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what He had done for Israel.” – Judges 2:10

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