been living in a hole the last few years, you've come across the
term "postmodern." In my office, the concept has become the butt
of jokes, the target of scorn, and the cause for an increase in
Truth is, nobody
knows what postmodernity "is" because it is a set of emerging and
often contradictory cultural elements. It's two parts philosophy,
one part pragmatism, and seven parts mystery meat. The name even
tips us off to the truth that we know something is happening that
we cannot yet define. If you think about it, it's pretty postmodern
to have something that can't even be labeled, but it's also a big
challenge as churches try to figure how to minister to postmodern
people (aka "pomos").
There is no
easy way through this little situation in which we find ourselves.
Sooner or later, the planet will be overrun with pomos and we'll
have plenty of pomo-friendly churches (who will someday struggle
to be relevant to popomos). But for now, most churches are pomophobic.
For the good people of Red Brick Baptist Church, a rising tide of
de-constructing truth-questioners who have sincere reservations
about the relevancy of RBBC's mere existence can be quite scary.
Change usually comes to the party with his ugly sister Fear, and
fear is one of the major factors causing the church to stumble and
bumble as it tries to deal with the pomos.
It would be
nice if we could take the Modern approach to postmodernity. Then
we could define it, dissect it, label it, and put it in a box on
the shelf and control it. We sure wouldn't have to fear it if we
could be in control. Only really big sissies are scared of the formaldehyde-soaked
frog in the biology cabinet, so it'd be great if we could somehow
put postmodernity up there with that frog. Well, give up on understanding
postmodernity to such an extent that you can have control over it.
That won't happen. But you might learn enough about postmodernity
so that you can lay off the TUMS a little. For those who don't have
a clue, here are some loose handles for getting at what it means:
You are a
postmodern person. Really, unless you died sometime in the 1970's,
you're a pomo. Don't take offense. It's not a bad thing. It's no
worse than being a Redskins fan - not by a long shot. You probably
don't even recognize all the ways that you're a pomo, but on the
spectrum from Modern to postmodern, you've been sliding toward the
pomo side since you started shaving. You'll keep moving that way
until you die -- then you'll have to deal with another big culture
shock, one way or the other.
relative. Don't get all bent out of shape over this one. You've
always believed this, you're just too afraid to admit it. Do you
believe the truth claims of Islam, or of Hinduism, or of Scientology?
I expect that you don't. You have always reserved the right to personally
dismiss the truth claims of other people, and they've always reserved
the right to do so right back at ya. The whole "truth is relative"
philosophy is really just a nifty way of saying that we don't all
agree and that no one truth claim can be proven. Another way of
thinking of it is that pomos believe truth to be internal rather
But wait a minute!!?!!?
Didn't Jesus say that he was the truth, and didn't he mean that
he was the truth for everyone? Yea, but you didn't believe him until
you believed him, and he wasn't the truth for you until you believed
him. Chew on that for a while and think about your neighbor while
to the world than meets the eye. Moderns interacted with the
world according to a scientific mindset. They proved things through
observation and such. If you couldn't prove it, it wasn't real.
Pomos don't buy that. They know that most of what gets us through
life cannot be seen, poked, prodded or sniffed. They are much more
into the spiritual, metaphysical, and intuitive stuff. Now Christians
should not have a problem with this one. But most do.
Neat is usually
a lie. Face it, life is complicated and most of the little systems
we construct to simplify life somehow falsify things. For instance,
there is not a great big line that separates the USA and Mexico.
Though we put up fences, elect different governments, and pass tariff
laws, the two groups of people (Americans and Mexicans) are intricately
connected. We claim that two nations exist, but that's an oversimplification.
Millions of people exist. Some give allegiance to a red-white-blue
flag, others to a red-white-green one, and others to neither or
both. But what makes someone a Mexican or an American? Is it place
of birth? What a little piece of paper says? Where they live? To
define what is means to be an American will distort the truth, because
it's just not that easy. The same is the case with a lot of things
that we try to classify, categorize and label. Life is too messy
for neat systems to be very accurate. They may be helpful, but it's
only because they enable us to cease thinking about complex things
for a while.
now exponential and unprogressive. If I hear one more person
say, "Things have always changed, that's nothing new," I think I'll
puke. Just reading that sentence makes me taste the pizza from lunch.
Pomos understand the world as a place of constant flux and blur.
The pace of change is now so high that we can no longer make easy
comparisons to the changes of the past. Change used to be incremental:
one change led to another, which led to a third. Change is now exponential:
this one change will lead to twelve others, each of which will lead
to twelve more - all happening in less than a month. Not only that,
but change may not even be leading us anywhere in particular. Though
pomos strive for change out of good reasons and intents, they are
not misguided enough to think that humanity is "progressing" because
of these changes. Moderns liked to think that we were getting somewhere
(overcome nature, overcome the uncivilized, win the war against
polio, and so on). Postmoderns seek change so that it will help
us get through today. Tomorrow we'll have to innovate and recreate
so as to adapt to those conditions. For pomos, nothing gets solved
for very long.
We could go
on and on, but those 5 statements will at least give you a foggy
glimpse of what postmodernism means. Isn't that nice? Maybe, but
the question you really want to ask is "What does it matter?" I
told you that you were a pomo (pomos are very pragmatic).
what does it matter for a minister of the Christian gospel? Obviously
it matters a lot and in a lot of different ways. After all, postmodernity
is a huge shift in the way people think, behave, and relate. It
ought to effect how ministry is done in, among, and by pomos. Now
it would be very non-pomo of me to give you a list of hard and fast
rules for doing ministry in a postmodern world. If you see such
a list, burn it and eat the ashes. But I think we can agree that
there are some general ideas for how ministry ought to adapt to
what we know thus far. Here are four broad strokes for ministering
them. Seriously, quit preaching them the way you've been doing it.
Sermons that explain the truths of Jesus will get about two inches
out of your mouth before becoming totally useless. Sorry to tell
you, but nobody gives a rip what you think about Jesus. They care
a lot about Jesus, and they want to know him, but they don't really
want to know what you think about him. That's because your experience
with Jesus cannot be transmitted to them. Your truth is not their
So don't preach
explanation-based sermons. If you persist, pomos will laugh at you
and then they will laugh in your face. That's because pomos believe
that preachers who have "figured it out" and are now imparting their
great knowledge to the poor, uneducated fools in the pews ought
to be taken out and shot. This was a hard lesson for me (I'll show
you the bullet wounds!). I like being right, and I like being considered
an "expert." But what does it mean to be an expert on God? How preposterous!
Maybe the goal
of preaching is not to get facts A, B, and C from the preacher's
head to the congregation's collective head, but to let God proclaim
himself and let the mortals deal with it. This will be uncomfortable
as hell (that's a theological statement, so quit your crying), but
it's needed. It will be uncomfortable because we like to wrap up
things before noon on Sunday. We present an issue, connect it with
Jesus and then spout out a resolution - all in twenty minutes. Face
it, you cannot explain the Trinity (or any other real topic) in
a sermon or a series of sermons or a lifetime of sermons. It cannot
be explained! But the truth of the Trinity can be encountered, and
that's what the pomo sermon will do: it will provide an encounter
speaking, I think this means that sermons will be more narrative.
In other words, you will tell the story that's in the Bible and
then begin the process of dealing with it. You might use the sermon
to introduce people to various characteristics of God as a way of
getting them started. But for heaven's sake, don't finish the conversation
And for the
love of God, don't use a sermon to give pomos five steps to a better
marriage (or happiness, or prayer, or winning on the stock market,
or whatever). This might work for late Moderns, but pomos will take
this kind of stuff for what it is: empty, inauthentic, oversimplified
The same is
true for powerpoint-based outlines for your sermon. That kind of
stuff just comes off as unreal. Life is not fill in the blank. God
is not fill in the blank. A more productive use of technology for
sermons is to use a single projected image as a backdrop while you
preach without ever making reference to it. For instance, if your
text is on the birth of Jesus, use an image of a newborn with all
the gunk and blood and stuff. That's real.
Again, be authentic.
Obviously worship is not off the cuff, but a super well-choreographed
praise team routine is an abomination. And if your praise team wears
matching shirts, just go ahead and bring out the barf bags. How
fake. The only thing more fake is that insipid "wrist clap" that
the praise team member does while she holds the microphone. That
kind of stuff belongs in Branson, Missouri or Leisure World, California.
want musical performances, but they do believe that music is an
avenue to God. They really do. They also believe that drama, dance,
art, pop culture and nature can be avenues to God-but only if these
are done with authenticity. There's that word again! To help make
worship authentic, try to make the music an experience more than
a performance. Allow musicians to dress like the people who aren't
on stage. Allow them to speak like normal people, not in some Howdy-Doody,
"Gee, it's great to be here," sort of voice.
You can also
use technology to bring people closer to God in worship. The best
use of technology in worship that I've seen recently was at Sanctuary
church in Capistrano Beach, CA (www.sanctuarychurch.com). They put
the words to the songs up on screens, but the background image was
a video of a changing nature landscape. The video took you into
nature and provided a wonderful backdrop to the words of praise
that we were singing to the God who created the landscapes. They
did this by using two video inputs, which enabled them to change
the words on the screen without affecting the background video.
It was very cool, but not cool for cool's sake. It helped us worship
God. The same needs to be true for video clips, drama, etc. If it
doesn't help people think about God or connect with God, then don't
do it. I've seen way too many movie clips and drama skits that were
done just for the sake of doing it.
By the way,
don't be afraid to bring secular stuff into worship. For pomos,
all the world is sacred. That song by Kid Rock might be just the
voice of God in today's service. At the same time, don't devoid
the service or worship space of that which you might consider sacred.
Instead, go ahead and use sacred symbols like the cross or religious
art to help people encounter God in worship. Pomos tend to have
not demarcated the world into sacred and secular categories, so
don't bring in that kind of thinking to your worship or you'll miss
providing some avenues to God.
pomos that I've encountered are eager learners. They want to know
about God, Jesus, the Bible, and even the history of the church.
Now they also want to learn about Feng Shui, voodoo, yoga, and how
to brew their own beer, but that's beside the point. These are people
who hang out at Borders Book Stores for crying out loud. Obviously
they are sponges. However, they are not sponges who will sit idly
by and let you spout out a lecture without ever asking a question
or considering your claims. In fact, I think one of the keys is
for us to use language such as "These are the claims of Christianity,"
not "This stuff is true and if you don't believe it you're going
to burn in …" - well, you get the point.
Since all truth
is proposed truth prior to being personal truth, churches will need
to help pomos take ownership of the truth claims of Christianity.
This won't be easy or quick, and I think the process will hinge
Give pomos a
set of relationships within which they can explore the truths of
the gospel. This set of relationships used to be referred to as
a "church." However, that term has shifted in meaning and now means
"a place where people who know it all come to remind themselves
of what they know." That's not really the setting we're going for.
Instead, you might create safe communities where spiritual topics
can be discussed. The key is for the relationships to be safe, honest,
and beneficial. This is a community where people can test, try and
practice the whole "love thy neighbor" thing. It's a community that
mutually explores the claims of Christianity and is really in search
of meaningful knowledge.
Pomos are doers.
The only way that pomos are going to grow closer to God is through
following Jesus. This means that the church must seek out ways to
let people follow Jesus and not just sit around and talk about him.
Remember, experience is the means of making proposed truth turn
into personal truth. Churches who build Habitat houses and stuff
like that are giving postmodern people a grand opportunity to follow
a big rub though. The problem is that a lot of people might join
you in ministry and not join you for the Sunday morning check-in.
If you're measuring your success based on the pew population, you're
going to lose. However, if you measure success based on people who
do what Jesus did and do it in the name of Jesus, you might just
It might even
be that the old ratios are reversed. That is, it used to be that
only a portion of the worshipers got involved in ministry. In these
postmodern times, you might have far more people doing ministry
than attending worship. I have a friend who complained of a family
in his church who helped in every ministry imaginable but who wouldn't
"join the church." It seems that we might have to redefine what
it means to be a part of the church to include those who minister
and not just those who sign up.
Okay, there's a stab at why all of this really matters. But here's
the kicker: half of what you just read is wrong, and I really don't
know which half. You see, this whole pomo thing is really so imprecise
that none of us really know what we're talking about. We can't speak
too boldly about what postmodernity means or what it matters. In
fact, I say be aware of those persons who peddle their easy answers
to the pomo situation!
pooled ignorance need not breed fear or apathy because there is
a fundamental truth on which we can rest, namely this: pomos are
people and God loves people and God has called/equipped/empowered
the church to reach people (including pomos) in his name. The church
will succeed in reaching pomos because God will not be stopped -
not even by his church. So, fear not. Postmodernity simply means
that God is going to use a whole new set of methods to bring people
into his saving presence. Knowing this matters a great deal for
those who want to be onboard with God as he pulls this off.