Pastoring the postmodern frontline (part 2)

Attitudes and approaches to the postmodern mind.

Samir Selmanovic, Ph.D., is a teaching pastor at the CrossWalk Seventh-day Adventist Church in High/and, California.

Mark suggested to his wife, Jean, that they visit an Adventist church. "I'd like you to see the kind of a church I grew up in," he told her. "It'll be fun, like entering a time warp, like a walk through a museum!"

Mark supervises the computer division of a large Manhattan company. He goes to work in a T-shirt, jeans, and untied tennis shoes. He lives in a world of ideas. Jean is quiet, thoughtful, gentle. She's a journalist who grew up in an affluent family, an atmosphere of secular liberal humanism with connections to art celebrities and even the White House. The following Sabbath, as Mark had suggested, they came to observe the Adventist anachronism, the one in uptown New York.

I didn't notice them, not the first time they came and not for some weeks later. After attending for a couple of months, they wrote to me: "We want to become members, study the Bible, and contribute to the church in any way we can."

Within a year, Jean was baptized and Mark became a Bible Study Groups coordinator and a member of the church board. It was as simple as that!

Simple? Yes. But not so simple to under stand if you're steeped in traditional church growth literature. This couple never met the pastor before requesting membership. They were never reported as visitors and never became part of our database. So what made them decide to become followers of Jesus? It just doesn't fit the way we expect things to work, and they are not an isolated case. Dozens of disenchanted former Adventists and their secular friends have dropped by, found new faith, and joined our church.

My pastoring experience helped me identify three ways of ministering to contemporary people (postmoderns):

  1. Communicating through life
  2. Weaving the stories
  3. Questioning the assumptions

Communicating through life

Effective ministry to postmoderns doesn't just offer answers, it offers mysteries. It's a far-reaching ministry not merely a search for correct theological formulations. It's a search for truth and beauty and a search for a way of effectively introducing such beauty. As postmoderns maintain that the world is not there to be dissected, discussed, and exploited, but primarily to be cared for, enjoyed, and protected, so effective postmodern evangelism seeks to make sure that people are not there to be targeted and "statistically converted," but primarily to be valued and cherished.

When postmoderns find faith, they want it to be made of the stuff of life. Theology in the modem era lusted to emulate scientific certainty, and to give an objective, sanitized, and plausible explanation of God largely divorced from personal subjective variables. In modernity, subjective variables were considered a contamination in the process. So while we labored to put the "correct" map of Christian life together, we often excluded the data coming from the landscape of life itself. And life is always more complex, more perilous, and more beautiful than the maps our modernist theology has provided. For postmoderns, if the map does not fit the landscape, too bad for the map.

Look at the Bible. It is almost entirely made of poetry, personal letters, stories, and other forms of writing that include all the messy personal and relational variables. The Bible does not present situation-sanitized information about God. In modernity, this "messy"  form of the Bible was an embarrassment to us. To enhance our credibility we wanted the Bible to be more like a scientific textbook, a meticulously written, aseptic paper, a kind of legal, prescriptive code book. But what we have in fact in the Bible is a patch work, a marvelously woven composite of complex, down-to-earth, divine-human interaction, which has as one of its central messages: God comes to us not as an object to be studied, He comes into and through the stuff of our particular lives.1

We have tried to teach people to study the Bible removed from their biases. But to study the Bible without our subjective variables is to try to study it without ourselves! It is asking people to have a relationship with a series of concepts instead of with God Himself in whom "we live, and move, and have our being" (Acts 17:24-28).

For postmoderns, there is no such thing as an abstract truth. Truth does not exist apart from a person or a community. This is affirmed in the teaching of Jesus who said, "I am . . .the truth," and to the teaching of the New Testament that God's church is the embodiment of Jesus Christ (John 14:1-7, 1 Cor. 12:27; 1 Peter 2:4-12). Truth to postmoderns must be incarnated to be communicated. Many of us are uncomfortable with this because we want truth to be laid out somewhere so that we can pursue it, control it, and hire good presenters to give it to others. On the contrary, postmoderns rightly seek the "embodiment of the truth."

Jesus clearly approves of this approach. He repeatedly asks his fol lowers to judge who has the truth on the basis of their fruits (Matt. 7:15-23, John 15:5-8; 17:6-26). This is very unnerving to denominations that have based their claim to recognition merely on having a correct doctrine without a track-record of thoroughly changing people's lives. But the only truth that can actually be communicated to postmoderns is the one that is embodied in the life of a believer and in the life of a faith community.

Weaving the stories

The modernist mind-set was extensively influenced by "foundationalism." Modernist scientists and philosophers held that a scientific theory or philosophy must have a logical structure built from the foundation up. Postmoderns think differently. They can hold quite contradictory beliefs without feeling discomfort or dissonance. They might believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior, but not believe the Bible is inspired. Or they might believe that it's wrong to kill, while holding to the relativity of many moral principles. If they were to attend an evangelistic series, they might be convinced that the presentations are coherent and persuasive, but fail to think they should become believers. Why?

We assume that making rational arguments will convince people. We believe we can "corner" them by demonstrating that the prophecies have been fulfilled. Then we launch into further arguments of Christian apologetics. Traditionally, we have worked to discredit peoples' belief systems and then replace them with another one. Because we believe that belief systems are built on the foundational model, we launch an artillery attack on the belief systems of others thinking that they will crumble, and we are mystified when this does not happen.

Instead of using the modernist conception of building a foundation of belief and placing upon it further layers of teaching, today we can instead conceptualize a person's belief system as a web of belief similar to that introduced by American philosopher Richard Rorty.2

A web consists mostly of holes with its strength in the connections. The threads of this web are composed of hopes, feelings, events, dreams, statements, facts, observations, stories, and fears the elements of the daily experience of each of us, and such contradictory experiences do coexist in the personal web of a per sons' belief experience.

We often have the feeling that contemporary people always seem to be contradicting us. Actually, that's not the case. What they are doing is "weaving their web." They collect everything they hear, see, and feel and weave it together. But instead of compiling a list of concepts about God, they question us as they explore how we have woven God into our lives. They can't develop a relation ship with concepts, but they can let God and the faith community enter and change the story of their lives.

A deep abiding relationship with God is the most important experience we can share. It includes theology, feelings, and experience, in fact, everything our lives are made of. In a postmodern context, evangelism is "weaving our lives with nonbelievers," another metaphor for what Jesus described as being "salt" or "light" to and in the world.

Jesus was a master web weaver. With His parables, with His proclamation, with His care, with His judgment, with His blessings, He wove the kingdom of God into people's lives. He would say, "The kingdom of God is like . . ."In this way He said, "Let Me weave one more thread into your soul." We are to do the same. We ought to bless people's lives, their families, their businesses, their dates, their art, their hopes, by helping them connect these things with the kingdom of God.

When we transparently weave our lives into the company of other Christians and non-Christians, our sins and weaknesses become visible because the weaving takes place at close range. This is the sticky part, but it is the premiere work of the Kingdom. It is absolutely crucial to grasp that our imperfect, broken, individual lives are our primary apologetics. It leads to a whole new way of doing church.

Questioning the assumptions

Every worldview has its idols. Modernism's obsession with analysis, individualism, and technique has been replaced in postmodernism with a fascination for experience, personalized spirituality, the idolatry of art, and cynicism. One of the ways we can approach contemporary people is to challenge the idols of postmodernity and explore the underlying assumptions of their worldview.

As argued in Part 1 of this series, for postmodern philosophers, all truth is created for the service of the powerful. Nietzche, the grandfather of postmodern philosophy, taught that any religion, any morality, any claim, and any answers to any question are all forms of accruing power. As a result, postmoderns have been led to believe that they can stand in a lofty position above all such truth claims. But their position has a major flaw, for there is no greater power trip than the one which says that every truth claim is a power trip except mine!

Further, it is an illusion to think that people can live without commitments and beliefs. To believe that everything is relative, simply justifies a lifestyle without responsibility to anyone but oneself. To put it bluntly, the claim that everything is relative is a claim with profound religious implications; it is dogma. Those postmoderns who honestly analyze their relativistic presuppositions become aware of that reality. Such relativism easily becomes a self-justifying doctrine under which one can oppress any other, because by its nature it must also allow for a relativization of oppression.

To say that nobody can know any thing definite about God is itself also a statement of dogma. Such a person is sure nobody else can be sure. And to say, "You mustn't persuade others to believe what you believe" is a dogmatic statement affirming, "You ought to see things my way. I have a relativistic view of reality and you ought to accept it." Such people do the very thing they forbid in others. The only difference between relativists and Christians is that, although both have dogmas, Christians are open about it and relativists are in denial.

People do not doubt Christianity out of thin air. All doubt is rooted in a commitment to some other belief or viewpoint. Postmoderns will ultimately realize that they have been indoctrinated, that they have dogmas they believe in, and be ready to question them. Many are returning to Augustine's realization, "I believe in order to understand." Deep inside they are saying: "We have lost our faith in unfaith." And here is their great predicament: while despising religion, they are haunted by the need for spirituality. In modernity, their trust in organized religion has been destroyed, but they still want God. They feel the need for God, but have learned to mistrust anyone who teaches about God. What can they do with such a dilemma?

They can meet Jesus. Reflective and sensitive contemporary people often hate religion. And it is wise to listen to them. Why? Because Christians are not here to defend religion either. Christ did not defend it. He viciously and relentlessly attacked it as a way of self-salvation. We, as with any other human group, can become entangled in building a religious system instead of building the kingdom of God. We can easily shift our energies into defending and saving our doctrines, traditions, and organization, instead of saving people. Postmodern people have a nose for this and are able to detect it from a great distance. So they have a way of grabbing us by the throat and throwing us to the ground with their questions until we realize we have been enchanted with our religiosity rather than with God. And when we repent not only of our sins but also of what we consider our virtues, the only thing left to show them is Jesus Christ. And He is every thing they are looking for!

Suggestions for effective ministry in a culture of postmodernity

And so the question arises, How can we minister to these people? Below are a few points to consider:

  • As modernistic Christians we are immigrants in the culture of postmodernity. Instead of reaching for our techniques and imitating the success of others, it is better to "get stuck" with just the Bible and with the people we are attempting to reach. It will take more time than we might wish, but it is the shortest way. If we do this we must be ready to be considered unfaithful or impractical by many of our fellow Christians.
  • We should not think in terms of the postmodern mind. Instead we should think in terms of the post modern person. Experiences, feelings, intuition, and choices count as much as reason.
  • We must not merely try to make our church a more accepting and loving place. Cultural engineering is futile. Spending our energy and time changing and growing personally, deepening our community; this is what matters. We can work courageously on adapting organizational and financial structures if we remember that just working on appearances is counterproductive. We are to make disciples, not just nice people.
  • Postmoderns prize experience and need to "try on Christianity" before they can believe it. As they come into our churches, we can include them in activities, bringing them close to the fire next to which we warm our own souls. We can let them participate at the Communion service and prayer meetings as a part of their exploration. Participation always precedes transformation.
  • Be authentic and transparent. Invite nonbelievers everywhere, perhaps even including church business, planning, and general meetings. Invite them in. Don't spin-doctor anything about your local church or the denomination. Tell the story of your faith and your church that is unforced, unhyped, unedited, and unsanitized. Honesty always empowers ministry.
  • When guiding postmoderns on their journey to God, avoid giving direct answers and advice. That disengages their minds and hearts. Instead, help them to interpret their lives in the light of the stories of the Bible. Help them face themselves and God so that their lives can be woven into the story of salvation. Analyze less, identify more.
  • When they tell you that all stories and belief systems are relative, and therefore equally valid, don't panic, don't attack. Instead, ask them: "My faith commitment is grounded in history, embodied in the community of my Church and verified in my personal experience. What is the basis of your faith?" Wait for their answers.
  • Don't be anxious about their indifference or antagonism towards the doctrine. As they deconstruct their dogmas they will thirst for the power and beauty of clear teaching.
  • Remember that one of the great est needs of a postmodern person is spiritual: they are in need of a god (God) who can argue with them. Deep inside they fear that without something or someone to yield to, or submit to, they are running into the danger of having their own mind acting as God in their lives. And as they come to a realization that the gospel is made of something sterner than them, they hunger for it!
  • Come to terms with the fact that the Adventist Church exists to serve a larger reality than itself. We as pastors, our local churches, and the denomination exist to invite people to be a part of something far larger the kingdom of God. We are calling people to sign up in the fight against evil wherever it is found: evil in the world, evil in our own hearts, and evil in our own religious community. That kind of appeal will win their allegiance.
  • Don't present the Christian life only in terms of victory, clarity, and peace. We must let them see our brokeness, tears, and doubt. They don't expect or value simplistic answers. Only when they see our brokeness will they be able to discern the extraordinary hope, joy, and assurance that God brings into our lives. A crucial part of the witnessing process is enabling people to identify with our weakness and brokenness.
  • We need to resist the urge to just teach people what they need to know. We must conceptualize evangelism as a two-way street. They are seekers, and so are we. They are learning from us as we are learning from them. We need to think of conversion as a radical change that can happen at any time, any place, and in any manner.
  • The world is different from what most of us want to believe. We must think, with our churches, about what we are going to do with such a world. We need to ask God to give us the humility to learn and serve contemporary people, and the courage to walk out of our subculture into their world, as Christ walked out of heaven and entered earth. Postmodernity is not good or bad. It simply is. It is the water in which we catch fish. And we have to catch them on their own terms, where they are, not where we want them to be.
  • Finally we are to remember that God does not subscribe to modernism, postmodernism, or any other worldview we humans have constructed. The genuine article of Christianity is far ahead of the times. For us, the ultimate reality is the one of the kingdom of God. It is real, present, and it is going to completely take over one day.

1 Brian McLaren, "Honey, I Woke Up in a Different Universe!: Confessions of a Postmodern Pastor," Mars Hill Review, No. 15. Fall 1999, 35-46.

2 For an accessible summary of his ideas see chapter 6 from Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996).


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Samir Selmanovic, Ph.D., is a teaching pastor at the CrossWalk Seventh-day Adventist Church in High/and, California.

September 2001

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