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Disciplemaking in a Postmodern World

The postmodern is biblically illiterate, skeptical, unconvinced that truth exists in absolute terms, and personally adrift, but it is possible to reach and disciple these new kinds of people.

By Earl Creps

Sidebar: Can Sunday School Reach/Teach A Postmodern Culture?

If the thought of a kid with green hair and tattoos occupying the front row of your church is unsettling, you are not alone. This person represents more than just the latest in body piercing. He or she is a symbol of an emerging culture that requires the church to rethink how disciples will be made in the 21st century.

After a year of field research on cultural trends and the churches that are responding to them, I have reached some preliminary conclusions. There is reason for concern, but even greater reason for hope. It is possible to reach and disciple these new kinds of people. In fact, they make marvelous Christians when given the opportunity.

My argument is simple: real disciplemaking today is a missionary enterprise, and every effective missionary operates on the principle of contextualization.

Specifically, we are called to make disciples in a world increasingly influenced by the philosophy of postmodernism. If that sounds daunting, don’t worry. Everyone feels that way. Len Sweet describes this challenge: "All leaders are now anthropologists. The dying Industrial Age paradigm is being replaced by a new culture that requires the fieldwork skills of an anthropologist, the dedication of a missionary, the patience of a saint, the learning curve of a child, the cunning of a thief, the stamina of an athlete, and the resolve of a coast guard sailor."

The good news is that all of us are learning together on this issue, so there is no shame in being new to it. There are also no experts, only fellow learners. The bad news is that postmodernism can be hard to define. But the effort is well worth it.

Defining Postmodernism

The term postmodern is used in so many ways that theologian Tyron Inbody calls it "intellectual Velcro dragged across culture" that "can be used to characterize almost anything one approves or disapproves." Even some of its staunchest advocates resist attempts to define the philosophy on which their own careers are based.

Being unable to define a concept, however, does not mean it has no effect on our lives. Scientists cannot explain gravity, but its invisible force does keep us glued to this planet. Similarly, postmodern philosophy has an unseen effect over millions of people who have never heard the word.

Many in ministry sense that something powerful is shifting in our culture, but have trouble identifying it specifically. What was once confined to coffee houses and university literature classes has found its way into the mainstream. If you sense this, you have taken the first step toward developing disciples among the new kind of people we are serving.

The modern person

Postmodernism is a reaction against the values of the modern world as shaped by the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. The modern worldview is characterized (in the West) by several key traits:

This orderly sense of the world as a predictable mechanism brought with it the scientific method, the industrial and information ages, and the now-controversial idea that there are absolute truths that can be known. In fact, these assumptions have been so controlling in the Western world for the last three centuries that we are largely unaware they are operating. They seem so natural and obvious most of us have felt little need to examine them. Moreover, many of these concepts became foundational to evangelical Christianity with its insistence on strong moral values and its systematic approach to understanding Scripture. Ironically, the same type of thinking has also funded secular, scientific skepticism about the supernatural.

These foundations have now been excavated and are being demolished by several forces. Literary criticism has fostered skepticism about the motives behind any form of communication. History has deflated our confidence in endless progress by making the 20th century the bloodiest ever. Debate within the scientific community has called the reliability of their investigations into question. Technology has confronted us with instruments of mass destruction. Corporate life is becoming increasingly soul destroying. Artists of every sort have abandoned traditional ways of thinking about their craft in favor of highly personalized work. Travel and immigration have shown us there are many ways to see the world and many different ways people view truth.

Meanwhile, the church has mostly stood on the sidelines either ignoring the transition or condemning those participating in it. These responses are simply not an option for any ministry that is going to make disciples today. This new kind of person must be engaged, won, and grown.

The modern world is not gone. It is more accurate to say that modernity and postmodernity have collided and are now struggling for dominance. There is little question that modernity is losing, but it is not clear that postmodernism will become the sort of philosophy that capitalism or democracy is. In fact, postmodernism may be not much more than the label attached to the current period of transition—a naming of our anxieties. The actual replacement for modernism may be something else. In any event, modernist people and institutions will be with us for at least our lifetime, while postmodernism will likely continue its campaign of attrition.

The postmodern person

The struggle between the two forces can be seen clearly in the many opinion surveys conducted on the values of Americans. While this research finds sizeable majorities no longer committed to absolute truth in general, more specific questions reveal that most Americans believe in God, trust the Bible, and pray frequently. Recent research by George Barna finds that we tend to shape our values pragmatically—bending our choices more toward what accomplishes our goals rather than adhering to some abstract religious code. We live in a culture, then, that is struggling to reconcile a deep personal hunger for reality with an equally profound skepticism over whether such reality can ever be found. If science has brought us anthrax, if politicians have brought us scandal, and if religion has brought us bigotry, where do we turn?—to postmodernity.

We can think of the postmodern person (postmodernism is the philosophy, postmodernity is the cultural landscape influenced by it) as tending to have a mix of traits in various combinations. While this person would likely be North American, the influence of this mindset is spreading rapidly around the globe, due to the training received in the North American and Western European universities in which postmodernism is almost an article of faith.

The average person influenced by postmodernism may never have heard a lecture or read a book about it. Nonetheless, the traits that embody the philosophy are all around us:

The sunny, straightforward, things-are-as-they-seem world of modernism is being submerged in a darker, more complex perspective that is bringing a different kind of person through the doors of our churches. This person is biblically illiterate, skeptical, unconvinced that truth exists in absolute terms, and personally adrift.

It is doubtful that conventional teaching methods will form this new sort of "raw material" into a devoted follower of Jesus. Futurist Tom Sine puts it bluntly: "Typically, the young watch at least 20 hours of TV a week, plus spend a huge amount of time with CDs, video games, and the Internet. It is a joke to believe that an hour of Sunday school a week will have much influence against this . . . onslaught. We will need to create much more serious approaches to Christian nurture that involve families and communities."

The day is over when we can rely on a fairly conservative society, and a church experience being in almost everyone’s background, to do much of the work for us. Now we have to actually do Christianity if anything of substance is to result.

Discipling Postmoderns

The spiritual formation of postmodern people will require the efforts of the entire church rather than being delegated to a department or program. Making disciples (rather than running programs) will have to become what the church does, the core reason for its existence. Only a commitment of this magnitude will see the congregation through the steep learning curve and inevitable failures that will be negotiated along the way. In other words, this is about more than adding videos or PowerPoint slides to Bible teaching. It is about the core of our mission. Discipling postmoderns will involve several assets, all of which are available to anyone who loves people.

Authenticity: Get up close

Postmoderns are skeptical of institutions and suspicious of anyone who appears to be advocating a monolithic or exclusive view of the truth. This is a dilemma for Christians who believe Jesus is the only way to the Father. However, because postmoderns are highly pragmatic and deeply spiritual (without being religious), they are open to any message that is working in the lives of their peers. As a consequence, there will be no substitute for a lived-out faith in the 21st century.

This is more than an issue of personal holiness. It also concerns the need to be honest and forthright. We do not have all the answers. We are weak. We do fail. While a traditional, modern audience might be aghast at these admissions (After all, aren’t you the teacher because you’re better than we are?), postmoderns will regard the absence of brutal honesty as an indication that you are not real. They want the same level of honesty in the message itself. But if the messenger is not authentic, the message will have little effect, no matter how direct.

A disciplemaker, then, must be an authentic, flesh-and-blood person who is willing to expose his or her life to observation. Clearly there is an enormous opportunity here for one-on-one and small-group mentoring. Especially exciting is that forming these bonds can (and often must) begin long before conversion. Postmoderns find faith through authenticity and grow in faith the same way.

Community: Get together

While modernism exalted the individual as the knower of truth, postmoderns are more likely to depend on those around them for a frame of reference. This "tribal" view of life has important implications for the structure of disciplemaking. The notion of rows of chairs filled with attentive listeners with a specialist lecturing from the front is fading fast. Rightfully so. This vision of Christian education tends to be not much more than a baptized version of the public school system. While strong Bible teaching should always be a mainstay of congregational life, the context for learning will need modification for postmodern audiences.

Postmoderns discover truth most effectively in highly interactive group settings in which there are real relationships. Disciplemaking will need to be structured so fellowship is a central aspect of the experience. While there is no one-size-fits-all prescription here, the principle remains that learning for this new person is an act of shared discovery lived out in a close network of relationships. In other words, we will make disciples among postmoderns by being the church rather than trying to do church. Unless all of the pieces are present, none of them will function. This holistic sense of how disciples are made requires a whole community.

Experience: Get to the point

Modern audiences often find a great teaching outline to be satisfying in an almost aesthetic sense—"great lesson" often means "great analysis." The new tribe entering our churches is unimpressed with this, hungering for something more. Robert Webber notes the change this will bring to our educational efforts: "In the postmodern world, education will shift from the passing on of information to the passing down of wisdom through experience of Christian truth, which was regarded as propositional, intellectual, and rational, and will be experienced as embodied reality. Faith will be communicated through immersion into a community of people who will live the Christian faith." This new audience wants (and needs) to experience God in the discovery of truth and in the outworking of that truth in the world.

In fact, postmoderns will be much more reluctant to recognize a distinction between knowing the truth and living it. If the latter does not happen, the former has no meaning to them. They are interested in meeting Jesus and being conformed to His image rather than being receptors of ideas about Jesus.

Postmoderns will not be able to grasp a concept like hospitality without smelling chocolate chip cookies in your kitchen. They will not know what true worship is until they feel what Isaiah felt in the temple. They will not grasp healing until the sick are made well. They will not understand Pentecost apart from being filled with the Spirit themselves. And the Great Commission will mean little to them until they are missionaries in their own culture. Disciplemakers can no longer think of what they do as conveying content, with application left to the individual or to some other department of the church. It is all or nothing.

Acceptance: Get over it

Leaders tend to have unspoken expectations for the spiritual growth of those they serve. When these expectations are not met, the result can be discipline or disparagement. While these pressures toward spiritual success may have worked at one time, they are unrealistic and even counterproductive for postmoderns.

For one thing, these newcomers have spiritual starting points much farther away than did previous generations, with most having no Christian memories whatsoever. Timelines for spiritual growth should be abandoned or extended. Remember, you are now a missionary in an alien culture, and this is a completely new kind of person.

Ironically, there are ways in which we can expect more from this person as well. Postmoderns who find Christ will never be satisfied with a Christianity that is composed of church attendance, tithing, and avoiding felony-level sin. They want radical commitment to a radical gospel. But this takes time and patience.

Acceptance that promotes growth does not mean compromise. It means the opposite. Standards should be high—but for the right things. An atmosphere of openness must prevail, even when it elicits hard questions and harder issues. Postmoderns will respond more to the fact they are free to speak than to the authority of someone who pretends to have all the answers. Thus, the way for postmoderns to grow into what they can be is to be accepted where they are.

The Learning Curve

What I have stated so far may sound intriguing. But if you serve in a ministry built on modernist assumptions (as most of us do), knowing how to respond can be a challenge. Here are some things you can begin doing as soon as you lay down this journal.

Check it out

This thing really is happening—really. It’s not going away. The time to start reading is now. (See the list of books in the Resources sidebar.) This effort will equip you to understand for yourself and to train others. Chances are some of your leaders already sense that things are changing, but may lack the vocabulary to discuss the issues. Becoming the chief interpreter of these trends for your ministry makes you the leader, preparing for the day when that credibility may be necessary to lead your group in transition.

Talk it out

Remember, there are no experts. Find others with similar interests and begin a dialog with them, perhaps meeting once a month to discuss a book like Primer on Postmoderism by Stanley Grenz. Many opportunities exist on the Internet for this sort of discussion. (See the discussion groups in the Web-based resources section of my Emerging Culture/Emerging Church resource list.) Group discussion will catalyze your thinking, making it possible to wrestle through things much more quickly than you could ever do on your own.

Work it out

There is no substitute for experience. Take a field trip to a congregation that is discipling postmoderns. (See the "Churches" section of my resource list.) If travel is not possible, a telephone interview is an excellent substitute. In my field research, I have found leaders of these groups to be very cooperative and gracious. You will quickly discover there are no universally applicable formulas.

Try it out

Reaching postmoderns requires a learning curve—implying that climbing involves effort and risk. With an appropriate level of internal consensus among your leadership, don’t be afraid to try new ideas. Read the next sentence three times: There are no fixed answers guaranteed to work in every situation. The Spirit who forms disciples will give you a way to touch postmoderns that is appropriate to your situation. Generally, this is best accomplished by adding to your ministry, rather than by altering a current format that has spiritual and emotional currency among your modernists.

Some commentators feel that postmodernism is a dagger aimed at the heart of the church. They are wrong. The clash with modernity is creating one of the greatest missionary opportunities ever. This season requires an all-or-nothing kind of Christianity, a practical faith filled with the power of God and the love of God’s people. If we cannot supply this, we have no right to be called "the Church." By the power of God’s Spirit we can be this. We must.



If I could only read three books on postmoderism, they would be:

Grenz, Stanley. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996. This short book is still the gold standard. An insightful and mercifully brief overview of postmodernism with some implications for ministry.

McLaren, Brian. The Church on the Other Side. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000. Brian transitioned his church for the postmodern world. A thoughtful work with a couple of clear chapters on postmodernity and the importance of radical discontinuity. You’ll probably disagree with some of his comments on revivalist Christianity.

Hunter, George. The Celtic Way of Evangelism. Nashville: Abingdon, 2000. This book is on my all-time top 10 list. A marvelous combination of church history, missionary theology, and practical application. A powerful synthesis that clarifies many of the issues.

Emerging Culture/Emerging Church

Emerging Culture/Emerging Church is my select listing of around 1,000 resources on this theme. It includes books, journals, and a large section of annotated Web sites. The list can be used online, or downloaded free as a PDF file. You will find it at the AGTS web site.


For an outstanding example of an Assemblies of God church that is effectively reaching postmoderns, check out Capital Christian Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Only 4 years old, this church plant has grown to over 400 in attendance on Sunday. You will find them on the Web at:

Earl Creps

Earl Creps, Ph.D., is director of the doctor of ministry program at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri. For more information, contact the author at:


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