Characteristics of the Postmodern Culture
With the dawn of the “Emerging Church” in the early 90’s the focus of much study has been centered on cultural issues. Many label the current culture as “postmodern” which simply means “after” modern. It must be said that a wide variety of opinions are held about what specifically characterizes this new culture. Therefore, the following section will offer some cultural distinctions that most would agree upon.
First, the postmodern culture is skeptical of certainty. Some would call this an outright denunciation of absolute truth. However, Brian McLaren (a well known emerging leader) says that postmoderns do not reject absolute truth, but just refuse to believe that someone actually knows it. In other words, this new culture embraces those who will admit they don’t have all the answers and confess their struggles. Arguably, no Christian would boast he or she had all the answers, but as Mark Dever cleverly points out “the mere fact that we do not know everything does not mean we do not know anything.”
Naturally a culture that looks down on anyone who claims to know all truth will be sensitive to the beliefs of others. Therefore, a second trait of the postmodern culture would be the acceptance of diverse faiths. The basic need in this age of hopelessness is faith, but it is whatever faith might work. This thought pattern results in the postmodern embracing different forms of worship and a variety of religious practices. Some practices include: traditional liturgy, the use of symbols such as icons and crosses, reciting scripture, worshipping to ancient music found in Celtic traditions, and taking part in the monastic life of the Taize community in eastern France.
A third characteristic of the culture is the importance of community. Younger generations have experienced a lack of love which naturally results in a desire for authentic relationships. As McLaren says, “togetherness is precious” and both tolerance and diversity are appreciated. One can imagine that kids who are used to hearing their parents argue would value peaceable relationships. For the postmodern it follows that if a certain group of people demonstrates genuine love, then whatever faith they practice must be an acceptable path to a spiritual life. Simply put, broken lives seek to be repaired and authentic relationships found within a dynamic community aid in the healing process.
A fourth characteristic of the postmodern culture is its desire to experience a genuine spiritual life. Young people are weary of mere words and therefore tired of not seeing faith in action. Hypocrisy is out, authenticity is in. As McLaren proclaims, “Words of faith without works of love will not survive; no one will listen.” Gibbs notes that postmoderns are against spectator worship; they want to participate. For this culture, an authentic faith would refuse passivity and seek not only sweet fellowship, but also seek to consistently meet the needs of those around them. As Gibbs goes on to say even “doctrinal differences take second place to experiential authenticity.”
God still expects the Church to make disciples and impact His world for Christ’s glory. Certainly the message should not change, but the culture in which it is preached constantly does. The time to consider major changes in the way ministry is done is here. The Christian Church must be a people who are humble, open to dialogue, and never tire of showing unconditional love. This will require a commitment to listen, a dedication to Christ-likeness, and much patience. The culture today has little trust and virtually no respect for the Church. Many stories in the media of personal and spiritual failures in the lives of Christian leaders today result in trust that must be patiently earned. Unfortunately, no one can argue that hypocrisy to some degree is found in every church. Nevertheless, believers are called to be salt and light in a world that largely remains in darkness. As Gibbs so adequately says, “The gospel of God’s grace is the only message with power to radically liberate.”
One may ask how the suggestions for ministry can be specifically worked out in the local church. However, different church dynamics and circumstances will demand different approaches. What can be said is that churches must be very intentional about the following: 1) making the Bible understandable to believers, so they can easily share the message, 2) teaching believers about the current culture, and developing passion for the lost, 3) building authentic community, recognizing that mentoring the young and befriending unbelievers is the normal Christian life, 4) rejecting passivity by creating opportunities for service through special projects and meeting felt needs, and finally 5) being sensitive to new styles of worship, and willing to change for the sake of the culture. In one sentence, pastors need to “create a missional culture in their churches.”
Young people today desperately need spiritual direction and are hungry for the authentic Jesus. The challenges created by the current cultural shifts surpass the natural ability of man to meet. Although God’s sufficiency and grace were not mentioned above, they were surely not forgotten. Dever believes the most important lesson for the Church today is to learn that Christians alone cannot change a single heart. Only God can bring the spiritually dead to life. The author heartily agrees. Consequently, the Church would do well to remember that all major movements of God started with prayer and complete dependence on Him. The Spirit of Jesus is a missionary Spirit and only as believers are filled with that Spirit will lives be rearranged in order to obey the Great Commission. No doubt that as individuals make themselves available to the Master, trust in the Church will be restored and its members will once again be the “fragrance of Christ” for those who place their hope in Him.