By Jim Robinson
Posted January 23, 2008
NOT REALLY SO MODERN, AFTER ALL?
We are hearing a great deal about Postmodernism in the church
today. Because of the word within the word—modern—and the fact
that the term’s usage is relatively new, most think this “phase” of
history is just now unfolding.
are now living in a postmodern society,” we hear the theological
experts say. “What worked thirty years ago will not work today,” they
assure us sagely. Change or die! is the mantra taken up by all
those in the know. And, change is taking place at a breathless pace
as pastors hasten to get their churches in the postmodern flow. After
all, nobody wants to be accused of being out of date; no one wants to
be left behind as the Kingdom of God passes him or her by.
fact is, however, Postmodernism had its beginnings long ago.
“New” discoveries usually take time to process from one culture to
another, from one generation to another, and from one institution to
another. The fact that something is “new” to one person does not
necessarily mean that it has just recently come into being; it just
means it is new to the person unfamiliar with it. So it is with
Postmodernism and the church: Current “postmodern” concepts are
not new at all; it is that the church at large (including evangelical
groups) is only now embracing those concepts. (It is interesting that
some of those same denominations/fellowships that once denounced all
things connected with “modernism” are wholeheartedly accepting almost
every facet of “postmodernism.”
is Postmodernism, anyway? Vaguely, it is speaking of a shift
in the way societal mores and belief systems are being developed.
Whereas once, people looked to rational thinking and accepted fact as
concepts to live by, now they place more emphasis on personal
experience, emotional feelings, and mysticism.
no one seems to have a solid definition of the term, almost everyone
can agree with what it relates to . . . and what it results in:
Our church is not gaining new members; it must be due to our
People are leaving the church; it must be due to our postmodern
one comes to Sunday school or Bible study; it must be due to our
There is no life in the church; it must be due to our postmodern
Pastors are leaving their pulpits; it must be due to our postmodern
Church members have no respect for spiritual leadership; it must be
due to our postmodern culture.
on and on. And, the obvious way for “experts” to deal with perceived
problems is to fix . . . the symptoms. New methods are devised to
change the outcome. New objectives are stated to cover up the
shortcomings of the failed objectives. In short (and where the church
is concerned), the entire concept has been turned upside down:
church attendance is falling, find new ways to bring people in.
church services have lost their appeal, find new sources of
service schedules and formats conflict with the culture’s directions,
change the church’s schedules and formats.
people do not respond favorably to sermons or teaching, find
acceptable alternatives that will bring a positive response.
the above methods have become acceptable, and even necessary, based on
the “fact” that we are living in a postmodern world. The problem with
that reasoning, of course, is that the church is making concessions to
the world around them (using the world as the model), rather than
being the standard (and model) for the world. The basic biblical
structure of the church is becoming irrevocably altered.
some third-world countries, one may see horse-drawn automobiles. The
engine has been removed, the doors taken off, the back seat and trunk
open and stripped bare for hauling, and all the “accessories”—the
heater, radio, lights, brakes—long since inoperable. In the strictest
sense, it could still be described as an automobile. Yet, the changes
that have occurred have made it into something far removed from what
it was intended to be.
Did It All Begin?
Postmodernism may be difficult to define in a way to suit
everyone, but the “seeds”—the basic concepts—can be traced back to the
ideas introduced by the “modern” philosophers and theologians.
Generally, up to the eighteenth century, the recognized “thinkers” and
cultural “shapers” could be described as rationalists. Also,
they tended to be optimists; that is, they believed that simple
reason could be employed to define and gain the truth that man needed
to better himself. And, they did believe that a standard of truth was
important and necessary, in order for man to be inspired to seek after
those better things.
However, somewhere along the way, something changed. Jean-Jacques
Rousseau (1712-1778) is considered by many to be the “father” of that
change, although it may be more accurate to say that he is remembered
as the primary spokesman. Rousseau turned against what he considered
to be the “restraints” brought on by the Enlightenment. He
advocated a return to the natural, more primitive state—where each
individual was free to live according to individual choices, rather
than by the “constraints” of the surrounding (rational, rule-making)
society. This became the guiding force of two major shifts in
thought: (1) that individual thought and behavior is more important
than societal norms or divine authority (humanism); and, (2)
that “truth” is “individually” defined, rather than adhering to any
standard that is absolute (existentialism).
in that time-period and through the nineteenth century eagerly
followed that lead. Hume, Hegel, Kant, and Kierkegaard became the
advance guard of many who would carry the banner of postmodernism into
their respective fields. Yet, the basic principles of those
philosophers would have never been taken seriously by a world still
guided by the Enlightenment’s reason except for the
emergence of one powerful ally in the person of Charles Darwin.
Darwin (1809-1882) wrote his book The Origin of the Species in
1859, and the world was changed forever. (Many say that much of
Darwin’s work was “borrowed” from his grandfather and others who
advocated evolutionary theory, but who had never thought of writing a
book on the subject.)
idea that man had “evolved” from lower forms changed the whole
perspective of “absolute truth.” After all, if man exists apart from
a Creator, the idea of a universal morality goes out the window.
Without any fear of eternal consequences, man shakes off the
“shackles” of religious and societal “bondage”—and determines his own
“truth.” So, ironically, Darwin’s “science” provided a “reason” for
the acceptance of philosophical ideas proclaiming the virtues of
Effect Has It Had?
the new philosophy began to filter throughout the pores of (mostly)
western civilization, almost every facet of culture began to be
affected. Music, once “standardized” by melody, harmony, and cadence,
became the product of individual “expression.” The same became true
in the world of art. The artists of the Enlightenment period
painted and sculpted to show beauty and/or reality. The
expressionists (and later, the abstract artists) gradually
gave less attention to form than to whatever emotion they were
attempting to convey.
Poetry’s flowery phrases gave way to verse without meter or rhyme, and
prose eventually became disjointed paragraphs of punctuation-less,
vitriolic, profane claptrap. Perhaps the most obvious illustration of
change is found in the stories (whether found in literature,
TV, or the movies). Once, the hero (representing purity and truth)
triumphed over the villainous evildoer to teach a moral lesson.
Today, that seldom happens. In the first place, the hero (or ideal)
has been humanized into an “anti-hero”—one whose persona continually
struggles with his own problems and angst. Secondly, the “villain” of
today is often a caricature of yesterday’s hero—one who was
“thought” to be pure, but, as it turns out, was really a hypocrite.
And finally, there is no moral lesson, because, in today’s world,
there can be no morality. After all, that is a judgment.
field of education was also affected. “Standardized” teaching methods
were thrown out as outdated and binding. Learning by memorization and
recitation was “boring” and constricting, according to the new Pied
Pipers so ready and willing to try out their “new” experiments upon
young minds. Phonics gave way to Word-say in reading,
and New Math confused every parent trying to help Junior with
his homework. History eventually became an exercise in
political correctness, rather than a course actually relating to true
events of the past. English classes began to de-emphasize
grammar, spelling, and sentence structure, while promoting books that
most people have never heard of—much less read. Geography was
generally regarded as meaningless and thrown out altogether by a few.
Content no longer mattered anyway, however, because exams
and grades were set aside as hurtful to (illiterate) feelings.
those elements of society were “dumbed-down” to satisfy the base,
ignorant, and lazy individuals of a civilization that had lost any
ambition to reach higher than eye-level, all motivation for better
things was lost. Kids stopped studying, and we passed them (which
made more kids stop studying). Bums stopped working, and we provided
welfare (which made more bums stop working). No-talent “artists” made
nonsensical “globs” and got a stipend from the National Endowment
for the Arts (which sends a message that “true art” is
“emotion-driven” globbing, rather than a product reflecting
thoughtful and practiced talent.
as spiritual pygmies stopped “reaching” for “higher” things—truth,
beauty, and Godliness, we entertained them, and, in the
process, brought Heaven down to Earth-level, and ignored eternity in
favor of a frothy present.
of those changes happened overnight, of course. And, society barely
felt their effects for many years. Perhaps that is why there is such
disagreement as to when postmodernism began. Some say it began
(as we know it today) in the 1920’s. Others say immediately following
World War II, or during the Cold War 60’s. Still others give the last
decade of the 20th Century as the real beginning.
any discussion of postmodernism it is important to note the
role of deconstruction. No matter what field, no matter what
era, nothing “new” came into being until the “old” was deemed
“unacceptable.” For example, Communism was the political system that
rose in “postmodern” Russia in the early 20th Century.
However, it remained only a meaningless philosophical concept—until
the peasants were convinced that the czarist system was, indeed,
corrupt and unfair. Only when the “old” system was successfully
“deconstructed” (along with Nicholas and his family), did the “new”
find an adulating and willing acceptance among the populace.
Various “new” movements through the years have followed that same
plan: criticize and tear down the old, and thus, make room for the
“new.” Novels that had moral heroes and good endings had to be
trivialized and trashed by the “new intellectuals.” The “common”
people had to be re-educated by the “experts” that music and art
pleasing to the ear and eye were to be disdained and shunned. Today,
somehow, the “popular” crowd, led by amoral Hollywood stars and TV
personalities, has convinced this generation that “neatness” is an
undesirable trait. So, our society has traded the “old” mores of
dressing nicely and looking neat for the “new” sloppiness of faded
jeans with holes. The “in” hairstyle is . . . to look uncombed. The
shoes of choice are flip-flops and sneakers. It doesn’t make sense .
. . until one understands the dynamics.
church world is a victim of those same dynamics. A few years ago,
evangelical churches had a fairly simple agenda: preach the gospel to
the lost, and prepare the saints to live biblically “down here” while
preparing for “up there.” That has changed. The change was a long
time in coming, but once it appeared, it picked up steam in a hurry.
conclusions of the philosophers/theologians of 150-200 years ago may
have influenced every facet of western civilization thereafter, but
the Christian church was the most affected, and in turn had (and, is
having) the most profound affect upon society. The universities and
seminaries of Europe—mostly in Germany—became filled with professors
of the new pseudo-gospel. Their message of “No Absolutes!” eventuated
into “God is Dead!” As word of the “higher-critical” intellectualism
drifted across the waters, America’s institutions, once built upon the
foundation of biblical truth (and originally founded to train pastors
and missionaries), brought many of those professors to help shape the
spiritual future of this nation. It was only a matter of time before
the leading seminaries were teaching “modernism”—which included the
ideas that God was whatever an individual wanted Him to be, the Bible
was one of the (humanly-inspired) holy books among many, and that
Jesus was merely a great teacher. The products of those seminaries
became the leading pastors and/or founding leaders of their own
seminaries and/or Bible schools.
Indeed, the beginning of the 20th Century was a turning
point in many ways for western culture. As Darwinism and
“absolute-less” philosophy were taking the world by storm, Emil Coué
was introducing to France, and then to the U.S., his “mind over
matter” mantra by repeating, “Every day, in every way, I am getting
better and better.” Sigmund Freud was opening the door to searching
out the intricacies of the human mind. In time, all these humanistic
concepts would infiltrate into the church.
Finally, in the latter part of the century, so-called “spiritual
leaders” (direct or indirect products of “enlightened” spirituality)
bought into what they called “the new paradigm.”
before this new paradigm could be installed, a “deconstructing”
process had to take place. This was done by systematically tearing
down the traditions and practices that were accepted and in place.
Customs that had been known as “sacred” were decried as
“sanctimonious.” Groups that held scripture in highest regard were
called “holier-than-thou” and “irrelevant,” and church services
reflecting order and decorum were ridiculed as “boring and cold.”
Attendees wearing professional or dressy attire to church were
attacked as “show-offs” and “hypocrites.”
Ministers were castigated for preaching biblical sermons lasting over
20 minutes. Hymns and testimony songs were hatefully represented as
out-of-date music that held no meaning to contemporary churchgoers.
Prayer services and Bible studies were taken from the sanctuary into
private conclaves where people could be taught “about” prayer, and
“about” the Bible. Missionary efforts and evangelical campaigns were
blunted by concerns about making (non-Christian) people feel guilty or
uncomfortable, or by assurances that “all religious roads (or lack
thereof) lead to God (if, indeed, there is a God).”
the rubble of the “traditional” church’s deconstruction were built the
new structures of Postmodernism. “Pastor Bill” now “relates”
to his congregation by being a “buddy” to each one—on a first name
basis. The meeting actually begins in a “fellowship area” where
coffee and doughnuts are served. At some point (usually as the music
begins), the people begin to filter into the “place of worship,”
carrying their contemporary translation or paraphrase of the Bible and
a bottle of water. They are dressed casually (some very
casually), and begin to move to the beat as they sing the lyrics
printed on the overhead screen. The musicians playing keyboards,
guitars, and drums are also very casual in appearance. There is
nothing casual, however, in the way they attack their instruments as
the “worship leader” exhorts the crowd, “Let’s have church!” As the
backup singers squall into their microphones, the “worshipers” respond
by swaying, clapping, and waving their arms. Some “designated”
dancers “worship” at the front and in the aisles. (“It’s not
just performance,” they clarify.)
it is finally time for the sermon, casually dressed “Pastor Bill”
moves to a stool on the floor. For twenty minutes or so, he offers
folksy social commentary, sometimes using a scripture here and there
for flavor. If he is truly avant-garde, there will be movie
clips and/or computer-generated illustrations accompanying his
presentation. At the close, the musicians provide a recessional as
the people make their exits, telling one another how much “better”
church is today—than it used to be. The pastor goes home,
congratulating himself that he is now “reaching” so many more people
than he did in the past.
obvious question is: “Are the services really better?” They are more
entertaining, to be sure—at least to those dissatisfied with
“traditional worship.” (Some groups even advertise that their
services are for those “who don’t like church.”) The one
glaring difference in the “traditional” and “contemporary” format is
where the emphasis is placed, as far as “worship” is concerned.
Yesterday’s church used music (usually two or three songs out of
the hymnal, along with a few familiar choruses and one or two
“specials”) as spiritual preparation for the sermon. The pastor took
a text from the Bible, preached with authority (from the platform,
mostly behind the pulpit), and called for a response—sometimes
involving prayer and interaction at the altar. Today’s church
has turned that around. The music (which has become synonymous with
worship) is the focal point of the service, with the ministry
of the Word tagged on as a barely-necessary accessory. And, to some,
prayer at the altar is just another musty relic of the past.
leads to another question: “What are we “reaching” them to?”
The coffee and doughnuts are tasty, the Taekwando and painting
classes on Wednesday nights are enjoyable, and the church has a
prize-winning float in the annual July 4 parade. But, are the people
growing spiritually, and being prepared for the coming of the Lord?
Are they developing a spiritual sensitivity toward the lost and dying
of our world? Is it enough to say that we are growing in numbers,
that the crowds love our services, and that our church is being
featured in our denomination’s weekly magazine next month? Do all
those things sufficiently justify the many changes that have taken
It Just A Game?
those in the “postmodern flow,” it seems to be such a light thing—to
change the entire church system, and to be guided by the whims of the
public. Is our spiritual well- being and eternal destiny so
unimportant that we can do whatever we find pleasing without having to
be concerned with consequences?
we believe and how we relate to God ought to be given at least as much
weight as our physical well-being. Yet, we would never think of
introducing and practicing “postmodern medicine” in the same way many
are practicing their “postmodern Christianity.”
think we’ll ever hear the following speech from a doctor to his
colleagues at a future AMA convention?
getting tired of hearing the same, tired message from us about eating
right, getting enough sleep and exercise, and giving up their bad
habits. For years, I had about the same number of patients as other
doctors in my area—until I discovered a whole new way of looking at
things. I did away with all those time-consuming laboratory tests and
office examinations. I have free Twinkies® and soda in the waiting
room, and keep first-run movies playing on a large-screen TV. I take
only 10 minutes of my busy patients’ time. I tell them how well they
look, and assure them that there is no need for concern. I don’t deal
with anything “negative,” and send them away encouraged to go on and
enjoy life as usual. I now have all the patients I can handle. I am
building a new medical facility to satisfy the crowds wanting to leave
their clinics to come to mine. I am also training other doctors to
become a part of this new paradigm. Colleagues, I am firmly
convinced that people aren’t going to stay with a doctor that deals
with medicine the way we have in the past. We must change . . . or
Ridiculous? Of course. But, fifty years ago, it would have sounded
just as ridiculous in the context of churches and pastors. The
downward slide has been gradual and subtle, but now—even in
once-biblically conservative churches—we have placed an emphasis on
doing whatever it takes to get people in the doors, and makes the
church grow. At the same time, we have “tweaked” our doctrines and
practices to accommodate that paradigm. Church is no longer a
matter of eternal consequence; it is an exercise in advertising,
public relations, and gamesmanship.
“church growth expert” touting the postmodern changes is quick to
assure one and all, “Though we must change the methods, we must
never change the message!” The fact is, though, as Marshall
McLuhan (the “Father” of Mass Communications) said long ago, “The
medium (method) is the message.” That is, the perception
left by the method becomes the message. Regardless of what the
church offers as (public) lip service, it is what the attendee leaves
with that has truly been communicated.
say that we believe in “taking up our cross to follow
Jesus”—but, if we are pursuing lavish lifestyles and involving
ourselves in worldly practices, we are sending mixed messages. We can
say that we believe in “reaching our world for Christ”—but, if
the church seldom gives time to missions or missionaries, our actions
speak louder than words. We can say that we believe in the
“coming of the Lord and eternal life”—but, if we spend all our time
telling people about “having an abundant life here,” the real
message comes through loud and clear.
there is the real problem of giving in to the postmodern propaganda:
We can say that we are not redefining the Gospel, and that our
modifications are merely an adjustment to better relate to the
changing world around us—but the results speak for themselves. Again,
this is not a “new” problem. The Apostle Paul was concerned about
those tendencies just a short time after the church was formed:
if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached,
or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or
another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with
(2 Cor. 11:4)
was responding to the “postmoderns” of his day who had displaced him
and his (simple) message in favor of “super-anointed” bearers of
change. The same thing happened at Galatia:
marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the
grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there
be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But
though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you
than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.
10 in that same chapter sums up Paul’s idea of proper ministerial
do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I
yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.
Paul never operated according to the “consensus” of
opinion, the popularity of “successful” preachers, or the excitement
of “new” discoveries. He was guided by the same eternal principle
exhibited by the prophets of old: Times may change, cultures may
change around me, and people all around me may change. But, I must
remain stable and steadfast, and so must my message.
That was the attitude that caused the cries of a multitude
to change from “Hosanna!”—to “Crucify him!” That was
the stance that brought many of the early Christians to martyrdom.
That was the mindset that kept revival fires burning as men of God
preached the true Gospel in graveyards and hillsides after being
“disfellowshipped” from their churches. And, that is the unshakeable
conviction and faithfulness needed today.
Are We Going?
The fruit of “postmodern” thinking has now become ripe, and
is being picked by almost every group that calls itself “Christian.”
Denominational barriers have been broken down to accept this new
paradigm, and Catholics, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and even old
“Mainline” denominations are joining together to deal with the
“important” issues of our world.
This “emerging church” preaches that “everyone is special,
with a purpose.” It reaches out to the fallen and needy with good
deeds and encouragement. It offends no one and presents a message
that we are accepted and blessed. It boasts that its members have
returned to the original intent of Christ—that all His followers be
It sounds so good. It is difficult to point out any one
thing as unscriptural or wrong. But, that, of course, is the real
danger. The New Testament writers (remember them?) warned of false
prophets bringing their false doctrines to deceive many. The church
has never been seriously affected by the ridiculous ranting of
off-the-wall-cults. As a whole, it has suffered little because of the
claims of the quasi-Christian groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses
or Mormons. However, it will be—and is being—deeply affected
by the “little-by-little” changes brought by the current extrabiblical
and unbiblical teachings and practices of postmodernism. Paul
urged Timothy to be cautious about making changes just to “satisfy”
members and experience growth:
But evil men
and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being
deceived. But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and
hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them;
that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures,
which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is
in Christ Jesus.
(2 Tim. 3:13-15)
Looking ahead through the lens of prophecy, Paul saw the so-called
spiritual leaders who would minimize doctrine, maximize
“inclusion”—and devise “new truths” to satisfy the basic urges of
the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after
their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching
ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be
turned unto fables.
(2 Tim. 4:3-4)
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