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What Does It Really Mean To Be Postmodern?

By Stanley J. Grenz

How quaint, I thought as I spotted the bright blue letters on the white banner on the Bay Community Baptist Church in Birch Bay, Washington: “Missions Conference, September 5–10, 2004.” I had not seen a banner like this in years.

I am familiar with missions conferences. After harvest each year the First Baptist Church of Underwood, North Dakota, where my father pastored in the late 1950s, held such an event. During a weekend the church would have a banquet and hold extra services. As the pastor’s family we would host one or two visiting missionaries who were on furlough from far-off places like Cameroon, Japan, or the San Luis Valley of Colorado. During the service we would view a slide presentation that would invariably conclude with a slide showing the sun setting over the ocean in some exotic place. We were told that we held the answer to the grave question posed by the picture. Whether this day marked the sunrise or the sunset of the missionary endeavor depended on our commitment to pray, give, and even go.

The people of Underwood needed to hear the glowing reports of people who were converted from sin or cleansed from leprosy. It reminded them that even in their little congregation in North Dakota they were participants in spreading the gospel around the globe.

Missions conferences with sunrise/sunset slides may seem out of place in our 21st-century world. But we still need the reminder these events provided. In fact, postmodernism has increased, rather than decreased, the need to keep the missional character of the church in the spotlight. This third essay in our series explains how postmodernism offers an opportune moment to recover the age-old understanding of the church as a missional body. By treating postmodernism as an opportunity, I am enabled to set forth what I think it might mean to be a postmodern church. I will follow an indirect approach because this approach clearly shows being a postmodern church is the key to being a missional church in the postmodern context.

Mistaken Understandings Of Being Postmodern

Before I define a postmodern church, I must remove some clutter. Today, many values and impulses are seen as postmodern, but are clearly modern.

One mistaken assumption is that being postmodern requires adopting a universal formula imported from a successful church somewhere else. Many practitioners are under the illusion that finding the right program — a postmodern church tool kit — will help them have a successful postmodern church. During recent decades, North American Christians have gravitated to prepackaged programs, seminars, and conferences in a quest to catch the crest of the wave. A few years ago the Vineyard Movement was the way into the postmodern culture. But the cutting edge soon shifted and churches determined that the new missional context required being seeker sensitive. The purpose-driven model followed this trend. Since then, other buzzwords such as ancient-future and natural church development have come to the forefront. The most recent approach is to become part of the emergent church.

A second mistaken idea is that a particular outward form is definitive of postmodernism. “If we could get the form right,” many church leaders opine, “then we could be a successful postmodern church.” But what is the requisite form? Perhaps the most widely touted idea is that a church is postmodern if it features the right music, the right instruments, and the right leaders. To be postmodern, churches have replaced the song leader with the worship team, traded the organ for drums, and axed the choir.

Another popular idea is that a church is postmodern if it has the right worship format. Consequently, some churches have adopted the worship and Word formula; others, the new eclectic worship style; the hip have multisensory worship.

Perhaps another key factor is location. A few years ago we were told a church is postmodern if it is located in a shopping mall. But soon the action shifted to the warehouse, which was followed by the coffee house. Today it seems postmodernism requires that we meet in a bar.

Don’t get me wrong. These matters are important and every church must give careful consideration to each of them. Yet, these widely held proposals do not make a church postmodern. In fact, any suggestion based on the assumption that postmodernism is connected to a universally applicable, program-oriented, one-size-fits-all approach to church is not postmodern. Instead, it reflects a modern outlook that is antithetical to a central postmodern sensitivity — the focus on the local rather than the universal.

The Truly Postmodern Church

Being postmodern, then, has little to do with today’s faddish conceptions. Instead, the postmodern church is genuinely postmodern, genuinely Christian, and as a result, genuinely missional. The postmodern church is a community of faith that views postmodernism as a context in which biblical Christianity can occur. It allows the shaking of the foundations in our society to occasion an earnest listening to the Spirit speaking through Scripture as He leads the church to rediscover dimensions of the gospel that have been forgotten in the modern era. Above all, the postmodern church desires to be led by the Spirit so it might be effective in the context in which God has placed it.

Five values are endemic to postmodernism that the postmodern church takes seriously in its quest to embody biblical Christianity.

First, the postmodern church values holism and seeks to minister to the whole person. To this end, saving souls, a crucial hallmark of the evangelical church in the modern era, is coupled with a genuine concern for social involvement. Instead of focusing solely on reason and the cognitive aspect in worship, teaching, and preaching, the postmodern church finds ways to engage the whole person. It realizes that a person’s rational, emotional, and intuitive or imaginative aspects are inseparably intertwined.

Second, the postmodern church values diversity and celebrates it in various ways. Rather than cater to the preferences of one group, it seeks to reflect multiculturalism in its community. It desires to honor a variety of cultural expressions. The postmodern church is not multicultural because it strives to be postmodern, but because it strives to be biblical. It desires to attain the biblical ideal for the church. This ideal is evident in the grand vision that concludes the Book of Revelation. In this vision, a great host from every nation is praising the triune God and is bringing the treasures of the nations into the New Jerusalem. By emulating that vision, the postmodern church seeks to be a foretaste of what God will bring to pass. The church’s desire to be a multicultural people is evidenced by its intergenerational and multiethnic communal life, worship, and leadership.

Valuing diversity also means celebrating the giftedness and ministries of its members while promoting the unity of the Body. The triune God models this aspect of church life. The God we serve is three distinct persons and yet is truly one. In this vision for the church, leaders are examples, empowerers, and visionaries for the community. The church discourages dictatorial leadership that stifles the people’s input and participation. Furthermore, acknowledging diversity leads the church away from the modern idea that the entire congregation must participate in any prepackaged program the pastor might choose. The church is free to allow the Spirit to work in any way He desires to accomplish God’s will among and through His people.

Third, the postmodern church values relationships. It acknowledges the biblical truth that people are not self-sufficient, but find their identity through participation in God-honoring relationships. Valuing relationships affects the life of the congregation. It discourages the tendency to become an ecclesiastical enclave — a godly ghetto — and encourages fellowship with other congregations and with the surrounding community.

Fourth, the postmodern church values spirituality. It realizes that the goal of its ministries is not merely to impart knowledge, but also to instill wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to apply genuine knowledge to the situations of life to promote better living. The postmodern church realizes that its mission is to facilitate an encounter between God and people who are on a quest for God. The greatest ministry opportunity it has with contemporary society is not providing answers to life’s questions, but in its willingness to help others discover and live the abundant life that only God can give.

Finally, the postmodern church values community. This characteristic will be discussed next quarter.

The Bottom Line: The Missional Postmodern Church

The banner on the Bay Community Baptist Church was promoting what the congregation in North Dakota discussed each fall: the missional responsibility of the church. The postmodern church realizes that it is a people entrusted with a mandate to glorify God through worship, edification, and outreach. A genuinely postmodern church is inherently missional. In fact, it is less concerned about being postmodern than it is about being faithful to its calling. What makes it postmodern is its call to serve the present generation, which is a postmodern generation. A missional church, in submission to Christ and empowered by the Spirit, will accomplish its call as it seeks to understand the times and embody the gospel in the postmodern context in which God has placed it.

Because it seeks to fulfill its calling to be a missional church in the postmodern context under the lordship of Christ and by the power of the Spirit, the postmodern church can boldly go where no one has gone before.

Stanley J. Grenz is Pioneer McDonald professor of theology at Carey Theological College, Vancouver B.C. and professor of theological studies, Mars Hill Graduate School, Seattle, Washington.

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