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By Jim Robinson                                                                                                                    Posted January 23, 2008


           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.

          “We 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  After all, nobody wants to be accused of being out of date; no one wants to be left behind as the Kingdom of God passes him or her by.

          The 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.”

          What 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.

          Though 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: 

o  Our church is not gaining new members; it must be due to our postmodern culture.

o  People are leaving the church; it must be due to our postmodern culture.

o  No one comes to Sunday school or Bible study; it must be due to our postmodern culture.

o  There is no life in the church; it must be due to our postmodern culture.

o  Pastors are leaving their pulpits; it must be due to our postmodern culture.

o  Church members have no respect for spiritual leadership; it must be due to our postmodern culture.

           And 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:

   o  If church attendance is falling, find new ways to bring people in.

o  If church services have lost their appeal, find new sources of excitement.

o  If service schedules and formats conflict with the culture’s directions, change the church’s schedules and formats.

o  If people do not respond favorably to sermons or teaching, find acceptable alternatives that will bring a positive response.

           So, 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.

          In 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.

 Where 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).

          Others 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.)

          The 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 “non-reason.”

 What Effect Has It Had?

           As 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.

          The 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.

          As 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.

          And, 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.

          None 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.

 What is “Deconstruction?”

           In 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.

 The Church’s Deconstruction

           The 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.

          The 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.”

          But, 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 New Paradigm

           Upon 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.)

          When 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.

 Questions, Questions

           The 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.

          Which 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 place?

 Is It Just A Game?

           For 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?

          What 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.”

          Do you think we’ll ever hear the following speech from a doctor to his colleagues at a future AMA convention?

 People are 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 die!

           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.

 The Same Message?

           Every “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.

          We can 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.

          And, 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:

 For 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 him. (2 Cor. 11:4)

           Paul 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:

 I 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. (Gal. 1:6-8)

           Verse 10 in that same chapter sums up Paul’s idea of proper ministerial orientation:

 For 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.

 Where 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 one.

          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 carnal man:

 For 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)

    That time has come.         What are your thoughts on this article?