Post-modern culture

Post-modern Culture: 'Living on the Fault Line'

The 'Epic' Experience

"We are living on a cultural fault line between two epochal periods. During our lives huge sociological plates have met and created the disturbances we have felt in our everyday lives and culture. These two periods are the modern era and the post-modern era, and we are living in the transition stage as the former gives way to the latter" (Chuck Smith Jr, The End of the World-as we Know it)

So, we have moved out of the modern era and now into the post-modern era. That is, away from a linear way of thinking where one position leads logically onto the next. In a post-modern age there are few absolutes. A variety of options are explored simultaneously and even apparent contradictions are accommodated. Below are some of the factors that gave rise to the demise of modern thinking and the emergent post-modern thinking. Post-modern thinking is often defined by what it has grown out of rather than what it is, as it has not yet fully evolved. The very name of 'post-modernism' implies this.

For over 100 years, through much of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, scientific progress was expected to unfold the secrets of the universe and eventually give a full understanding of the world from which logical directions for further progress would be obvious.

From the time of Einstein onwards, as scientists looked deeper into the very small sub atomic building blocks of matter or into the very large distances of astronomy or the time scale of cosmology, uncertainty and unpredictability appeared in place of the expected fixed patterns. Nature could not be explained with the precision that had been popularly forecast. The modern world, based on scientific thinking, did not give the expected answers. Scientific understanding has developed spectacularly during this century but the current models of how the world functions are not simple, and not very clear either. For example, the development in understanding the DNA molecule has resulted in starting to unravel the genetic code but this has produced more questions than it has provided answers. Science is providing much, but not with the clarity we had expected.

A widely quoted measurement of the modern era is that given by the theologian Thomas Olden, who claims that modernity was born in the storming of the Bastille in the French revolution of 1789, and lived exactly 200 years to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Modernists envisioned:

"A veritable utopia of prosperity and progress in which the whole human race would be united ... Human progress is not only possible but inevitable, we have come to believe, if only we allow autonomous reason the freedom to investigate our world scientifically. By this free and open investigation...humanity will be able to acquire the technological power necessary to control nature and bring about the ultimate human goal: Increased economic consumption and affluence, with resulting peace, fulfilment and security." (Richard Walsh and Brian Middleton, Truth is Stranger Than it Used to be)

We no longer believe this; and so are in a post-modern world, although all the elements that make up this era are far from clearly defined. This presents a real challenge for the mainline Christian churches, as Dr Michael Grimshaw, lecturer in religious studies at Canterbury University, explains:

"Where does Christianity fit in the rapidly changing world of the Internet and global economy? How can it relate to people under 40 who no longer have strong notions of progress, who question reason and rationality, and who distrust institutions and figures of authority."

Kevin Ford, in Jesus for a New Generation, asks the penetrating question: "How will you reach this post-modern generation-a generation that cannot conceive of objective truth, cannot follow your linear arguments, cannot tolerate anything (including evangelism) that smacks of religious intolerance."

To pass on the faith to emerging generations we must come to terms with post-modern culture. Paradoxically, it is quite close to the New Testament church.

Here is part of a well accepted list contrasting modern and post-modern attitudes. Perhaps you recognise some of the differences among different generations in your own family.

Modernism Post-modernism
Purpose Play
Design Chance
Hierarchy Anarchy
Distance Participation
Centring Dispersal
Root / Depth Rhizome / surface
Paranoia Schizophrenia

People of Generation X, those born between 1960 and 1980, are the first generation that strongly associates with post-modern culture. A summary of some of their attitudes is taken from Chuck Smith Jr's book, The End of the World-as we Know it, and provides a good summary:

  • Generation X is skeptical of institutions.
  • Family is vital for Gen X, but Gen X has redefined family (as reconstituted).
  • Gen X collectively and individually carries much raw emotion underneath a veneer of toughness.
  • The world of Gen X is "values free."
  • Gen X have an ironic and apparently cavalier attitude toward life.
  • Gen X is the first generation to be wired into the media.
  • Though Gen X people are spiritually open, they transform every religion they enter.

Incidentally, the tight logic of Christian theology is not as appealing to Xers as the promise of "experience" that mysticism offers

Worship from the modern era is far too wordy, having been built up during the print generations and using our ears and mind to interpret the message. Post moderns expect to use all their senses as they feel the message and respond to it in their hearts. Tom Wright, the contemporary British theologian, has expressed it this way: "The word became flesh and dwelt among us, said St John. The Church has now put the flesh back into word."

The methods of modern communication, including imminent digital technology, are well away from normal church communication methods. In addition, people under 40 have had most of their formal education in "pupil centred activities" where pupils are interactive in the learning process. The electronic interactive technology which is about to take over our screens will provide us with options far beyond our present imaginations and will enable us to select our own learning from a great array of options. Sitting passively in church for at least an hour, listening to leaders speak, will seem quite unconnected from other parts of our lives. Remember, also, that we retain about 10% of what we hear, but about 80% of what we do.

Kevin Ward, a Bible College lecturer from Christchurch, quoted on a similar point in the February 2002 issue of sPanz, expresses it this way. "Take what happens in services. Shaped by our Christian heritage the main fare is corporate singing and listening to a 30 minute monologue, with no opportunity to interact. Where else in society do we attempt to create a sense of belonging and community in this way?"

The 'Epic' Experience

In Post Modern Pilgrims, Leonard Sweet argues convincingly that we must add more "EPIC" to our worship experiences if we are to attract post-modern generations. He uses EPIC as an anagram for four dominant facets of worship to communicate with post-moderns: Experiential, Participatory, Image-Driven and Connected or Community. A key sentence about each mode, showing how it can be used to share the gospel, is included to whet your appetite.

The experience of a new story, the "feel" of a new consciousness, is the key to personal and social change.

Post-moderns want interactive, immersive, "in your face" participation in the mysteries of God. (Moshing?)

The lesson for the church is simple: images generate emotion, and people will respond to their feelings.

The paradox is this: the pursuit of individualism has led us to this place of hunger for connectedness, for communities not of blood or nation but communities of choice.

While a worship methodology that is more Experiential, Participiative, Image-based, and Connected will likely be classified as post-modern, its whole life and being inheres to the biblical tradition. In fact, this is one area where the post-modern takes us back to the past to find the future. For Jesus' truth was not propositions or the property of sentences. Rather truth was what was revealed through the participation and interaction with him, others, and the world.

Right now is the critical time to address these questions. Michael Grimshaw further outlines that in 2015 the last major block of church leaders, now in their 50s, will retire. They are reaching the end of their careers at a time when church numbers and interest in mainstream Christianity is declining.

When the age profile of the congregations is considered, the next decade inevitably will suffer a greater decline. Are the baby boomers, those who made a significant population bulge in NZ and who will start to retire in the next decade, likely to flock to church after a lifetime of scant interest? The current decline in church attendance is, therefore, about to accelerate.

Admittedly, several church leaders have been working hard to turn around this situation. Even to raise the consciousness of these issues is helpful as this is a necessary precursor for the action that must follow. As congregations get older, however, there is little wish to face up to these issues. In a voluntary organisation it is even harder than in a business to make changes that are threatening or challenging. Too often senior church members seem to be saying, "let me die in peace first."

Interestingly, the subtitle of Post Modern Christians is: First Century passion for the 21st Century World. Sweet highlights the epistle passages which refer strongly to faith being received, accepted, and expressed through all the senses. He argues that post-modern people are more closely related to those of the first century than to modern generations, whose church we have inherited.

We seem to receive the faith like first-century people but attempt to share it in a 19th century way. I find this a helpful signpost, indicating the direction to travel for relevant engagement with post-modern people.

What does all this mean for our churches?

How do post-modern people impact your leadership?

Are young people (about 35-45) part of your church leadership?

Who are the key people required for planning the likely future?

"Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches."