(January 2003 – Volume 9, Issue 1)
“Postmodernity and the Church”
At certain points in history the church has served as a rebuke to the secular mindset of society. At such times Christians have challenged and exposed the popular fads that ruled the day, revealing those fads for what they were, shallow and empty, mere “broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Sadly, now is not one of those points in history. Rather, the Christian community at the present time appears to be in lock step with the world system. Whatever the world is selling Christians seem to be buying. They may perfume it a bit, hang some religious ornaments on it, and throw some scriptures into the mix, but when stripped to its essence evangelicals frequently find themselves mimicking the world’s philosophy.
We find this true with regard to postmodernity. Rather than repel the forces leading this ungodly worldview, we have welcomed them into our camp, adapted their most appetizing features and structured our ministries according to their market research. What George Barna has to say carries considerably more weight in today’s local church than what the apostle Paul had to say.
Culture has always influenced the church, but in a real sense the postmodern culture has engulfed the church – and in many cases defined the church. We see its fingerprints everywhere we turn. We want to investigate some of the most obvious evidence of postmodernity’s influence within the evangelical community in this paper. It will not be a pretty sight. Then in our final paper on this subject we will address some of the means by which we can withstand the onslaught of this philosophical system.
In what ways has the postmodern worldview, which has only been in full bloom for less than two decades, impacted the evangelical community? Consider the following:
A Felt Needs Gospel
Gene Veith tells the story of an evangelical church which wanted to grow numerically and decided to use postmodern strategy. First came the market survey, which pinpointed a number of steps necessary to implement such growth in a postmodern age. For example, it was determined that the church must change its name because the term “Baptist” was a turn off in the community. And people would only come to church if it were convenient, so it was necessary to relocate to a prime location off the freeway. A modern facility was erected with all the bells and whistles that reflect a materialistic society. On the other hand religious symbols, such as the cross, were offensive to some, so the symbols were expunged. Not only symbols but words are offensive as well; it became necessary, therefore, to eliminate terms such as redemption and conversion. Of course, negative subjects such as hell and judgment had to be replaced with positive ones. “In abandoning its doctrine and its moral authority and in adjusting its teaching to the demands of the market place, the church embarked on a pilgrimage to postmodernism.”
What is happening? Having discovered postmodernists’ disdain for truth, the postmodern church has determined that the lost will never be reached through the offer of authoritative truth. To claim to be in possession of absolutes is viewed suspiciously today, since it is a thinly disguised power grab, so we are better off not playing the “truth” card too openly. In order to reach the citizens of this age we must give them what they want. And what do they want? They want to have their felt needs met and they want to have a religious experience. If we want to attract people to Christ these days, we are told, we need to understand their mindset. The old gospel of redemption from sin, righteousness in Christ and a future in heaven with our Lord, just doesn’t play well any more.
I have documented this mentality toward evangelism from primary sources in my book, This Little Church Went to Market, so I will not repeat those things here. But read some of the observations by respected Christian leaders who see what has happened. D. A. Carson writes,
Weigh how many presentations of the gospel have been “eased” by portraying Jesus as the One who fixes marriages, ensures the American dream, cancels loneliness, gives us power, and generally makes us happy. He is portrayed that way primarily because in our efforts to make Jesus appear relevant we have cast the human dilemma in merely contemporary categories, taking our cues from the perceived needs of the day. But if we follow Scripture, and understand that the fundamental needs of the race are irrefragably tied to the Fall, we will follow the Bible as it sets out God’s gracious solution to that fundamental need; and then the gospel we preach will be less skewed by the contemporary agenda…. If you begin with perceived needs, you will always distort the gospel. If you begin with the Bible’s definition of our need, relating perceived needs to that central grim reality, you are more likely to retain intact the gospel of God (emphasis in the original).
Douglas Groothuis laments, “Some Christians are hailing postmodernism as the trend that will make the church interesting and exciting to postmoderns. We are told that Christians must shift their emphasis from objective truth to communal experience, from rational argument to subjective appeal, from doctrinal orthodoxy to ‘relevant’ practices. I have reasoned throughout this book that this move is nothing less than fatal to Christian integrity and biblical witness. It is also illogical philosophically. We have something far better to offer.”
Veith is on the mark when he comments,
Instead of preaching that leads to the conviction of sin and salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ, the churches preach ‘feel-good’ messages designed to cheer people up. Some have described postmodernist culture as a ‘therapeutic culture,’ in which a sense of psychological well-being, not truth, is the controlling value. The contemporary church likewise faces the temptation to replace theology with therapy…. Evangelism, according to this model, does not involve proclaiming God’s judgment against sinners and His gracious offer of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Rather, evangelism simply educates people as to how much God loves them. God really does not want to punish anyone; He wants all to feel good about themselves, to lead a full life, to be happy. Those who turn away from God will miss out on this abundant life, though the Holy Spirit may well bring them to Heaven even though they never knew Christ.
It is no wonder then that Groothuis shares one of my concerns: “One great danger of postmodernity is false conversions and the consequently hollow praise offered to God for saved souls that, in fact, are not saved. Those holding to a postmodernist view of truth may appear very ‘spiritual,’ and to go along with Christian belief to a point, just so long as religion meets their felt needs. Nevertheless, unless one knows Jesus Christ and his gospel to be true, one cannot be a Christian at all. One remains entrapped in the kingdom of darkness.”
All the other ways that postmodernity impacts the church today are tied closely with this issue of the felt-need gospel.
Following closely on the heels of the new age gospel message is the necessary rise in the popularity of inclusivism, or the idea that the Lord has sheep in other religions – some who will never hear the name of Christ. Inclusivism teaches that adult adherents of other religions can be saved by being good adherents of their own religions. This is the natural conclusion of pluralism. If no one is right, then everyone is right. Who are evangelical Christians to make the absurd claim that only they have found the key to eternal life? Such an attitude we expect from the unbeliever but as postmodernism invades the church, inclusivism is rapidly being accepted there as well. We might expect Clark Pinnock, John Sanders and maybe even John R. W. Stott to be inclusive adherents but some are surprised to discover J. I. Packer and Billy Graham among the ranks. Packer writes, “We can safely say (i) if any good pagan reached the point of throwing himself on His Maker’s mercy for pardon, it was grace that brought him there; (ii) God will surely save anyone he brings thus far; (iii) anyone thus saved would learn in the next world that he was saved through Christ.” Billy Graham agrees. He stated in a television interview with Robert Schuller, “Whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they have been called by God. They may not know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something they do not have, and they turn to the only light they have and I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven.”
A Mystical/Pragmatic Faith
If truth is nonexistent, as the post modernist insists, then by default we are left with religious experiences, devoid of objective content, and pragmatism. Biblical Christianity has always run counter to both these errors. Colossians chapter two, for example, warns of trading in the substance found in the true knowledge of Christ for the shadows of mysticism and empty philosophies of a godless age. We dare not allow our times to mold our theology. Os Guinness warns, “Whereas both the Bible and the best thinkers of Christian history invite seekers to put their faith in God because the message conveying that invitation is true, countless Christians today believe for various other reasons. For instance, they believe faith is true, ‘because it works’ (pragmatism), because they ‘feel it is true in their experience’ (subjectivism), because they sincerely believe it is ‘true for them’ (relativism), and so on…. The Christian faith is not true because it works; it works because it is true. It is not true because we experience it; we experience it – deeply and gloriously – because it is true.”
Postmodern Christians have reversed this order and now evaluate all truth claims and doctrine by experience. The notion that we know certain things to be true (at least true for us) because we have had some experience is running rampant within Christendom. And woe to the one who would insinuate that someone’s experience does not meet the test of Scripture. Such a person is judgmental and critical, and worst of all negative. So when experience and mysticism become the litmus test for truth in our personal life, we would expect that it would shape our corporate worship as well – and it has.
If experience is the chief goal of our personal spiritual lives, then we should expect that experience would become the chief goal of our public worship as well. Too often the music, the prayers, and even the sermons are attempts to arouse emotions and provide an experience rather than convey truth. Monte Wilson is correct when he writes,
For the modern evangelical, worship is defined exclusively in terms of the individual experience. Worship, then, is not about adoring God but about being nourished with religious feelings, so much so that the worshiper has become the object of worship. When we study the ancient approach to worship, however, we see that the church did not overly concern itself with feelings of devotion, but rather with heartfelt and biblically informed obedience…. Probably the majority in modern American evangelicalism – having utterly neglected any commitment to the content of the Word and have ended with narcissistic “worship” services where everyone drowns in a sea of subjectivism and calls it “being bathed in the presence of the Holy Spirit.” These people come to church exclusively to “feel” God (emphasis in the original).
Postmodernity has even changed the preaching. In an article advocating leaving expository preaching for story-telling, George Barna says, “Busters are non-linear, comfortable with contradictions, and inclined to view all religions as equally valid. The nice thing about telling stories is that no one can say your story isn’t true.” And so Christian postmodernists advocate leaving the authority of the Word of God because Busters will not believe it, and replacing it with the authority of “my story.” We have to wonder, as the modern unbeliever takes a look at the modern church, are they seeing anything but their own reflection?