Resolving Conflict Between Moderns and Postmoderns
“On the last day of summer, 10 hours before fall my grandfather took me out to the Wall.
“For a while he stood silent. Then finally he said, with a very sad shake of his very old head, ‘As you know, on this side of the Wall we are Yooks; on the far other side of this Wall live the Zooks.’
“Then my grandfather said, ‘It’s high time that you knew of the terribly horrible thing that Zooks do. In every Zook house and in every Zook town every Zook eats his bread with the butter side down!
“ ‘But we Yooks, as you know, when we breakfast or sup, spread our bread,’ Grandpa said, ‘with the butter side up. That’s the right, honest way!’
“Grandpa gritted his teeth. ‘So you can’t trust a Zook who spreads bread underneath! Every Zook must be watched! He has kinks in his soul!’ ”1
Today, Dr. Suess’ book is shelved in the children’s section of the library, but in 1984, years before the Berlin Wall came down, it topped the New York Times bestseller list. The Cold War threat of nuclear war led adults to search for the solace and simplicity of childhood.
Now the Wall is gone, or is it? Sometimes the familiar geographical, ideological clashes of old seem almost desirable compared to the complex cross-cultural differences presently facing our world. We continue to stumble over differences in personality, generation, and religion, especially the differences presented by the modern and postmodern cultures.
When these two cultures meet in church, the result is an environment ripe for conflict. It is not a simple matter of young versus old, liberal versus conservative, or contemporary versus traditional. The Yooks and Zooks no longer fall into distinct categories. Instead, the church will encounter moderns and postmoderns of all ages, and more commonly, a hybrid of both.
Modern culture is characterized by linear thinking, appeals to reason, and, adherence to absolutes. Postmodern culture tends to shun these things and instead, embraces life subjectively. The postmodern prefers possibilities to propositions, inclusiveness to restrictiveness, and the supernatural to the rational.2
Postmodernity presents some of the greatest challenges and opportunities the church has ever faced. Interaction with postmoderns has already birthed conflict. Some try to demonize this cultural shift and view it as something to take a stand against. Others encourage embracing the change, but may not have the understanding needed for true effectiveness. Neither approach will work. It is senseless to deny or denounce what has already impacted the church.
Then why study church conflict through the lens of postmodern culture? Christian leaders must examine the issue because the stakes are higher than ever. Churches that dare to fulfill their God-given mission will create conflict, and they must know how to use it to their advantage. To mishandle this opportunity is to risk a permanent disconnect at a cultural nexus holding too much promise to ignore.
Fail-Safe Ways To Create Conflict With Postmoderns
In growing relationships, we gradually learn more about one another. Identifying things that set someone off or press a hot button equips us with knowledge that must be handled responsibly. We can use this information to purposely irritate someone, or we can use it to build healthy relationships. Clearly, we want to help our congregations, where modernity is still predominant and postmodernity is beginning to emerge, avoid obvious relational pitfalls. The following areas are the easiest to avoid:
Act like an expert
If asked, none of us would pretend to have all the answers. We know our limitations, and we are honest about them before God. In front of others, though, we often try to validate our competence with a veneer of authoritative confidence. While there is nothing wrong with competence or confidence — both are ours through the Spirit — neither is there anything wrong with being honest. We need to avoid simplistic answers that do not take the realities of people’s lives into account.
Refuse to listen
Listening to an opposing opinion is not compromise; it is smart. It is smart to demonstrate common courtesy, gather as much information as possible, and then allow the Spirit to lead as you learn the other side of the issue. Taking time to allow another person to be heard does not compromise the gospel or our witness. Rather, they are enhanced dramatically when we take time to listen to others. If newcomers are expected to fall into step, we essentially deny them their rightful place in the body of Christ — a place that adds value to the Body through diversity and unique giftings.
Lead like a dictator
Though your leadership style may not seem dictatorial, you may want to check for dictatorial-like actions. Some of the worst, yet easy to adopt, include making most decisions solo, brushing off suggestions for improvement without any serious consideration, and believing — even jokingly — that you are superior in any way to the people you lead.
Be a gatekeeper, not a door opener
A gatekeeper keeps people out; a door opener allows people in. Which one are you? Your staff? Your congregation? Allowing people a seat at the table requires more food, not less. This means you present the full gospel, not a watered-down message. Being a door opener guarantees that the potential for productive multiplication in evangelism, discipleship, and ministry is highly probable.
Expect unquestioning followership
A question is not a sign of disloyalty. A question is not a denigration of the past. A question is not necessarily indicative of disagreement. Rather, questions can provide an opportunity for deeper commitment, better performance, and spiritual growth. Any culture where questions are not welcomed and thoughtfully handled is one where conflict will be kindled and, worse, growth crippled.
Potential Sources Of Postmodern Conflict
Good news. All of the relational pitfalls listed above are preventable. If we seek accountability, a fresh perspective, and the help of the Holy Spirit, we can change habits that cause cultural conflicts. Then we will be ready to function as the New Testament church — almost ready, that is.
Shedding behaviors that cause conflict is only half of the battle. The real test comes in learning the new culture — the good and the bad. The nature of postmodernity lends itself easily to both.
Understanding and discernment are required to resolve the conflict created when the fluid postmodern culture encounters the rigid structure of the modern.
Tolerance is a plank in the postmodern platform. It allows postmoderns to be genuinely glad for others who have found what works for them while simultaneously rejecting it for themselves. Churches will experience conflict frequently here, as tolerance affects life choices. Holiness will need to be taught from the basis of who God is rather than from historical traditions or membership codes of conduct.
When conflict erupts in this area, there will be opposite reactions. Tolerance tends to make postmoderns deal with conflict through avoidance. But tolerance may have the opposite effect on a modern who may, in reaction to his frustration, be more confrontational with a person who claims acceptance of everything. When modernism and postmodernism meet in the arena of tolerance, the result can be deadly to redemptive resolution.
Tolerance is not, in itself, an evil thing. It is important that Christians avoid the tendency to treat tolerance with disdain, especially in our reaction to the hypocrisy in which it is presented in the media. Publicly, tolerance seems to be available to everyone but the Christian. This is creating an entire generation of believers who consider tolerance a bad word.
On the personal level, however, where we have an opportunity to make a difference, we must remember the positive implications of tolerance. On the front end of redemption, its presence can ensure a fair hearing for the gospel. And in terms of ministry it ushers in an entire group of people who are open to both contemporary and traditional means of worship.
Postmoderns are actively curious about anything that may contribute to their well-being. Many practice pluralistic piety — picking and choosing the appealing elements from a variety of faiths. Conceivably, postmoderns could hear the gospel, ask Jesus to be their Savior, attend church faithfully, and still have not comprehended the exclusivity of Christ. This demonstrates the need for solid discipleship. Conflict will accompany this process of change as the value of pluralism is reconciled with God’s love for all and salvation through Christ alone.
The pastor or leader has unique responsibilities in managing church conflict. Unfortunately, leaders have the same dislike for conflict and tendency toward avoidance as most other people. That is why it is imperative for leaders — particularly with the challenges raised by postmodern culture — to understand their essential responsibilities.
Learn about conflict
Stir things up
Encourage good conflict
Coach without technical fouls
Capture the positive
Seize the opportunity
—Lori O’Dea, D.Min., Springfield, Missouri
Conflict resolution plays a huge role in this issue. Those who deal with conflict through compromise seek to legitimize pluralism. Postmoderns and fundamentalists, using avoidance, simply walk away from one another. Resolution will not come either way.
Pluralistic tendencies, like tolerance, nurture openness to the gospel and promote a teachable spirit. If we will demonstrate openness — not to the detriment of the faith, but to the interests of others — we will be able to prevent and resolve unnecessary conflict.
Postmoderns have an insatiable, even admirable, hunger for spirituality. Without the discernment of the Spirit, they can create pseudo spirituality through an eclectic approach to religion. Again, this will not stop at the doors of your church. Both seekers and believers are influenced by postmodern values and will undoubtedly carry those values into their relationship with the Lord.
The problem emerges when mixed values cripple the relationship by creating a false concept of spirituality rather than learning a true spirituality from the Lord. Telling people who think they are drawing nearer to God that their activity is repugnant to Him is sure to create serious conflict.
Spiritual communities have never existed without faulty versions of spirituality (think of the Pharisees and their modern-day counterparts). The postmodern cry for spirituality is for the real thing. Leadership is critical here. Help your constituents gain an appreciation for the spiritual hunger in this culture, instead of condemning the junk food used to satiate it.
Relativism creates a loose system of ethics and decision-making based on ever-changing variables. There is no inclination or awareness of a need to look for a higher authority. Though it is easy to see the downside of moral relativism, its prominence requires us to accept the challenges it offers as well. Assumptions, pat answers, and incongruent lives and actions on the part of Christians will not be taken seriously. Instead of resting on the shores of black and white, it is time for believers to wade into the gray waters of reality with integrity, reflection, and Spirit-filled responses.
If you think this complicates discipleship, get ready for the difficulties it can create within your ministry context. Relativism in leadership is the lead pastor who talks team, but practices hierarchy. In the team relationship, it manifests itself in departmental turf wars. Often, team conflict resembles the Paul and Barnabas controversy over John Mark. Both parties have valid points. Individuals on opposite sides think they are correct. Without conflict-resolution skills, though, parting ways may be the unnecessary outcome.
Now, for the identities of the opposition parties, insert your name and your staff member’s or your congregation and this Sunday’s visitors. Can you afford to lose this battle? If you define winning as the triumph of your opinion, you have already lost. Postmoderns will vacate the premises. But if you understand winning as a redemptive resolution — one where Jesus is glorified and relationships are strengthened — then you are ready for conflict management in a postmodern culture. The deed to common ground is available to those who take time to understand the culture and appeal to its strengths.
Resolving Conflict With Postmoderns
Cross-cultural conflict is inevitable. Leaders must be equipped and must also equip others to bring redemptive resolution. Unfortunately, there is no one right way to respond to conflict. Even Jesus did not respond the same way to the same kind of conflict. The Pharisees received bold confrontation, avoidance, open conversation, personal and group counseling, and other conflict-management techniques. It is a mistake to believe that pluralistic thinking will always be corrected by blatant confrontation or that circuitous conversation will always provide the proper solution. Conflict resolution is not that simple.
Instead, conflict management requires life-on-life literacy to proffer peace when cultures collide. This is the correct response to the biblical illiteracy of both moderns and postmoderns in our churches. It is daring to live and teach Christian truths in a way that attracts, not repels, the person with whom we are in conflict. This involves leading moderns and postmoderns to what they desire most — a genuine experience in God’s presence.
Waving a Bible, shouting opinions, and footnoting them with Scripture will not bring resolution. Arguing, even politely, through a rational syllogism that even Aristotle could not refute will not bring resolution. The only way we can bring redemptive resolution is to live according to God’s principles, and to teach and hold every believer we influence accountable to those truths.
By moving cross-cultural conflict to the common ground of shared values, we can find resolution. Below are a few of the preferred means of transportation:
Conflict is complex. It is rarely about one thing or caused by one part of our personality. Take time to recognize the contributions in the following areas.
Experience and Calling
—Lori O’Dea, D.Min., Springfield, Missouri
Become better listeners
A friend recently suggested that we needed to teach people how to listen better. The comment came after he had spent a significant amount of time with a group of ministers, listening to them share stories from their past experiences. I asked, “Do we need this lesson because we will learn so much from others or because the conversation resembled a wrestling match with each participant vying for the first opportunity to tell his story?”
He replied, “Yes.”
You have probably had the same experience. Everyone wants to express his point of view. It is a valid human response. Everyone includes the people who hold opposing views of the issue. Many of us, reacting from the mindset of modernity learned from countless sermons, react to conflict with a barrage of arguments. We forget dialogue and move to imaginary pulpits, and then expect others to listen in silent anticipation.
If we do not become patient listeners, we will not recognize conflict with postmoderns when it happens. The postmodern value of tolerance will validate your opinion without ever giving it serious personal consideration. Good listeners will see the subtle difference and recognize that conflict, not connection, has occurred.
The key to better listening is compassion. Do I care enough about the other person to make sure my relationship does not pivot on whether or not he mirrors my understanding of truth?
When Jesus saw the condition of the people, His heart ached with compassion for them (Matthew 9:36). Is your response the same or are you more likely to be repelled (even fascinated) by the ornamentation or attitude of the postmodern person before you?
Confront personally, immediately
“Pastor, my niece, who is a new Christian, has started attending our church. She was at the mall recently. She entered a store and was treated terribly by an employee, a member of the choir. My niece is so upset that she is considering leaving the church.”
I sighed on the inside, and asked, “Did your niece talk to the choir member?”
The answer was no. It never occurred to the niece or aunt to take this course of action. It rarely occurs to believers to deal with conflict at the starting point of Matthew 18:15, which gives instruction applicable to relationships. Conflict resolution demands personal confrontation. Delays and third parties only escalate the intensity of the controversy.
The key to personal confrontation is authenticity. No matter what your native culture, confrontation is rarely a natural first step. For postmoderns, though, it can be the difference between resolution and resentment. They could care less about rules, but they will pay attention to someone who is genuine. Confrontation done well (privately, immediately, carefully) provides an opportunity to speak openly about the issue causing conflict, but more important, it shows concern for the person, passion about the issue, and respect for the future of the relationship.
Speak the Truth in Love
One of the earliest lies we tell ourselves is, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is a vicious lie and a wholly inadequate response to conflict. The truth of the matter is that words do hurt. When a child slings a hateful accusation, it is a sign of immaturity. When a believer does this, the same is true. It is time to grow up.
Ephesians 4 contains indicators of spiritual maturity, among them a powerful admonition to speak the truth to one another in love (Ephesians 4:15). Long abused as a sanctified reason to let someone have it with both barrels, this instruction begs rightful resurrection. Words have a tremendous power to heal, but only if the words are true. Truth is the content of righteous confrontation.
The key to speaking the truth is doing it with love. Genuine love is irresistible; there is no argument against it. Love strains the poison of condemnation and tenderizes the heart of the hearer to receive the truth. Unfortunately, we have used another childhood teaching — “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” — as an excuse for avoiding confrontation. We fail to understand that the best thing we can do for another person is to confront him with the truth in love.
Open the Doors to Community
My neighborhood is typical of many these days. One by one, backyards are being surrounded with privacy fences. When and where do these neighbors meet? At the curb on trash day? There is a lesson for the contemporary church here. Where does the postmodern culture intersect with the modern? At the curb of conflict where we often view others as unworthy of redemption?
Do we understand that this is the statement we make when we choose to ignore conflict or, worse, perpetuate it? That is not the kind of church our Lord described. The postmodern culture needs to see the church as a place where diversity is welcomed, where it is safe to speak your opinion, where hardened hearts are transformed into teachable ones, where there is generosity of time and attention, and most important, where you can bring your garbage with you. A church schooled in the principles of cross-cultural conflict resolution is a prime place for this kind of community.
The key to quality community is participation. Community is never one-sided. It cannot be forced on a person. We must invite a person to participate. The believer steeped in the tradition of modernity wants a newcomer to agree to a common set of rules before participating. The believer skilled in cross-cultural conflict will welcome a brother or sister who needs to grapple with those issues in a loving, truth-telling community.
Are You Ready To Rumble?
The church needs to see more cross-cultural conflict. This will indicate engagement with the postmodern culture rather than withdrawal. Healthy conflict provides an impetus for positive change and the momentum for forward movement in our churches. Instead of backing away from a seemingly foreign culture, pastors need to embrace it with a fresh perspective on the cross-cultural conflict they encounter.
The cross-cultural challenge is not easy, but we cannot ignore it. We need an undivided heart (Psalm 86:11) that will not be torn by different cultures, compromised by conflicting viewpoints, or hardened by consternation during the discipleship process. Postmodern people “think with their hearts, and listen with their eyes.”3 In the raw environment of conflict, the right response by believers will provide plenty of worthwhile matter for the heart to ponder and the eyes to hear. Better yet, the right response will remedy the “kinks in his soul” to which Dr. Suess referred.
Dr. Seuss, The Butter Battle Book (New York: Random House, 1984), 1–6.
For one of the best books on postmodernism, read Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).
Ravi Zacharias, “One Week in October,” Apologetics and the Postmodern Mind, Oxford CA605.