Moving Target

Reframing Discipleship for Postmoderns

At a recent meeting in Seattle, Washington, a friend and I were laughing about the stack of books dating from the early 1990s we owned that claimed to explain postmodernism. As a church planter, he had depended on these resources to help him navigate the future of his young congregation. I had used these materials, and had even written some of my own, to help Christian leaders come to terms with what another planter described as the epochal change racing through our culture.

As concern about postmodernism in the American church increased in the last decade, conferences and seminars began to spring up with titles that ended with the phrase: in a postmodern world. Pastors and other leaders flocked to these events to learn about leadership in a postmodern world, or children’s ministry in a postmodern world. The P word quickly became a way of summarizing everything in our society that seemed scary or incomprehensible. And so, young people with tattoos and church services featuring rooms illuminated only by candles were labeled postmodern.

Ten years later some of these early ways of thinking about postmodernism seem outdated and unhelpful. This article describes some of the changes in my own thinking about postmodernism, and suggests that discipling the citizens of this new culture depends on how we think of them, and the ability to morph that thinking as circumstances change. The ability to admit that my ideas have a shelf life cultivates a humility that will make following Christ attractive to those walking through this epochal change.

Reunderstanding Postmodernism

Getting a grip on a concept like postmodernism is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. So much has been written on this subject that one academic publisher now has a 400-page encyclopedia to provide an overview of the major ideas in circulation. Yet, understanding what is happening in our culture is a crucial part of discerning how and where the Spirit is leading us to reach it.

My point of view on postmodernism has morphed in many significant ways. Some of the conclusions that seemed obvious to me a few years ago are not as helpful any more, proving that the path to re-understanding is often misunderstanding. I can identify at least three shifts in my effort to re-understand the challenge of discipling those who are navigating the postmodern turn:

Shift #1: From the stock market crash to the Torino Scale

Some observers define postmodern turn to mean that the modern worldview (at least in the northern hemisphere) has been completely demolished. In this sense, postmodern means both after and replacing modernity. Everything from clothing styles to English literature classes to popular music is now somehow postmodern (whatever that means) and we can do nothing about it. The battle — if there was one — is already over.

This claim, common in the Christian literature of the 1990s, interpreted our cultural situation as something like a stock market crash in which the modern worldview lost its perceived value in a massive sell-off that essentially ended the modern world. The basic cause of this collapse was disappointment with the disparity between what modernity claimed to deliver (a technological utopia) and what it actually delivered (personal despair and environmental ruin). I found this idea compelling at the time and tended to see evidence for it everywhere I looked (something like the way you start noticing red cars everywhere as soon as you buy one).

Today I understand this perspective is much too simplistic. Modernity’s hold on our culture has been weakened, and a postmodern shift has happened, but the latter has not swept the former away by any means. For example, can you name anyone who refuses to take penicillin because it was discovered by modern science?

The analogy that helps me reunderstand this change is the Torino Scale used by space scientists to estimate the risk of our planet being impacted by celestial objects, such as near-earth asteroids. This 1 to 10 scale calculates both the likelihood of an asteroid strike and the degree of damage that would result, based largely on its size. A cataclysmic event, the subject of countless science fiction films, is thus placed in relative terms.

I now view postmodernism in the same way. The modern world is not gone. Millions of people still hold the modernist perspective with its optimism, faith in science and technology, and a logical approach to problem solving. Moreover, the impact of postmodernism has been far from uniform. Like the possible arrival of a cataclysmic asteroid, we need to understand the impact as relative to the location we are visiting.

For example, I have visited neighborhoods such as the U district in Seattle, Washington; Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado; and the Uptown area of Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I would rate the impact of postmodernism as a 10 on the Torino Scale. While some traits of modernity remain (for example, no one refuses to stop at red lights because they doubt their existence), the postmodern embracing of every form of pluralism is in full flower. On the other hand, my travels in other regions have found some regions much less affected by the larger trends in our society. Conservative politics, church attendance, and modern values are still the mainstream. A region such as this might rate a 2 or 3 on the Torino Scale — there is a postmodern impact among young people, but not enough (yet) to shift the cultural center of gravity. Survey research routinely turns up both locations.

The great benefit of the Torino Scale analogy is that it can help pastors develop a ministry strategy that is specific to their communities, rather than yielding to the fear that their entire world has been smashed and so they must discard everything they know about ministry and invent something that looks postmodern. Many of the ministries that went this direction a few years ago have had to retrench or are out of business. A knee-jerk reaction to a postmodern cataclysm is not the path forward. We cannot lead from a posture of despair or paranoia. Instead, making disciples depends on grasping how culture has been influenced where I am serving and then customizing my approach to that context. Think of it this way: Nothing works everywhere. Everything works somewhere. So where are you?

Shift #2: From bulleted list to black hole

Much of the early writing on the church’s engagement with postmodernism was analytical; that is, it focused on understanding the subject by breaking it down into its constituent parts. This autopsy model attempted to show what was inside the idea by pulling out the smaller ideas that made it up. The result was a small army of traveling speakers (of which I was one) who presented hundreds of PowerPoint slides with bulleted lists to depict the traits of postmodern people. While this method brought needed clarity to a murky topic, it also brought the penalty of labeling huge groups of people with generalizations invented by outsiders. Oddly the postmodern resentment of labeling in any form rarely showed up on anyone’s lists, including my own.

Slowly, I began to sense that my habit of describing postmoderns using a set of traits was not serving them or the church well. This is not to say that there are no such traits, but that we should understand them in a different way. A second analogy helped me place the various kinds of people influenced by this worldview into relationship with each other. I came to think of postmodernism as a black hole — a gravity whirlpool in deep space so intense that light itself cannot escape from it. The center of the black hole is the word no, a place where the existence of truth and the possibility of communication are denied. In other words, hard-core postmodernism can be thought of as a folk religion of no, as contrasted to faith in a God whose promises are “ ‘Yes’ in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20). Those closest to the center of this black hole are philosophical postmoderns who reject the possibility of absolutes in either truth or language. While this group is relatively small in my view, it seems to attract most of the attention from Christians. Farthest from the depths of the gravity well are look-and-feel postmoderns who, while largely uninterested in negative philosophies, are eager to adopt the cultural style of the era. Their fashion sense might say postmodern, but their attitudes and behaviors may be surprisingly mainstream. In between are the moderates who tend to see the style emphasis of their look-and-feel peers as trivial, while regarding the hard-core notion that truth can never be known as absurdly impractical. Yet they share the philosophical postmodern’s suspicion of power and authority. Breaking down the trait theory of postmodernism even further is the fact these three kinds of people can change positions in the black hole depending on their life stage and the issue under consideration.

The value of the black-hole analogy is that it lessens the tendency to stereotype all citizens of postmodernity as identical. The truth is the opposite: The central trait of this worldview is its lack of a central trait. Just as the Torino Scale helps us understand that our communities are affected in different ways, the black hole implies that we should think of individuals not so much aspostmoderns but as people who have been influenced by postmodernism in varying ways. Jesus did not die for worldviews; He died to save people.

Treating the natives of postmodernity as individuals rather than stereotypes also has great practical value. Early in our grappling with this subject I met many people who used this reasoning: Postmoderns like visual things. If we will add visual elements to our services, postmoderns will attend. In reality, this tactic usually accomplished little more than lowering the lighting or adding video clips to a service designed in the 1970s.

The citizens of the black hole were largely unmoved. As Sarah, a young professional woman, noted, “We know you have tried to get us to church. That’s part of the problem. Many of your appeals have been carefully calculated for success, and that turns our collective stomach. Take worship, for instance. You think that fashionably cutting-edge liturgies relate to us on our level, but the fact is we can find better entertainment elsewhere. The same goes for anything you term contemporary. We see right through it. It is up to date for the sake of being up to date, and we are not impressed by the results.” What if Sarah had been treated as an individual rather than as part of a target group or market segment? The relationship that could have been built with her as a person might have changed her entire perspective on the corporate meeting of God’s people.

Shift 3: From absolute relativism to Rubik’s Cube

Ten years ago Christians began discussing postmodernism as a threat equal to the black plague because it seemed to place individual perspective above absolute truth — leading to a lack of confidence in the authority of the Bible. I saw this potential threat as well. A complete undermining of truth is damaging to everyone — even to postmoderns. So, while I never embraced the extreme versions of the black-plague theory, I did tend to think of postmodernism mainly as a philosophy of total relativism in which the possibility of knowing truth shrinks to the vanishing point. This new worldview, I taught, has one primary effect on people: It immunizes them against absolutes, making it impossible to believe in anything.

However, my explanation of postmodernism based on absolute relativism was off-target because it had been influenced by European (rather than American) writings on the subject, and because I formed these conclusions in the wrong way: I based them almost entirely on research without listening to any citizens of emerging culture. The more I came to know postmoderns as people, the less credible my one-issue interpretation seemed. In reality, people affected by the postmodern worldview believe many things, especially in regard to spirituality. For example, actress Sarah Michelle Geller, best known for her TV role as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, said: “I consider myself a spiritual person. … I believe in an idea of God, although it’s my own personal ideal. I find most religions interesting, and I’ve been to every kind of denomination: Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist. I’ve taken bits from everything and customized it.” This revealing personal statement illustrates the compound spirituality so popular in emerging culture.

Being postmodern, then, is much less about believing in nothing than it is about believing in everything. Many friends who participate in this worldview are passionately committed to what they believe to be true, sometimes holding their positions with greater resolve than some Christians I know. The difference between these two groups is that the postmodern tends to assign value to things almost without limit. The one thing that may not be valued is any claim to an absolute account of the human condition, such as the claim that Jesus is the one mediator between God and man. As one student of culture put it, “The only enemy is the person who is not open to anything.”

By virtue of their openness to truth in almost any form, I now describe postmoderns as relative absolutists. While many who do not believe that truth can take an absolute form (despite the seeming contradiction of that statement itself), a more common view is that people have the right to choose which truths are absolute for themselves — today. A friend described this in his own life as “personal absolute truth.” From this point of view, for example, offering salvation to the world through only one means — the Cross — is unthinkable because it breaks the first commandment of postmodernism: Thou shalt not place any limit on what can be true for a while.

As my thoughts changed on this issue, the analogy of Rubik’s Cube helped me articulate my new perspective. The object of this popular game is to twist its multicolored facets until each surface of the cube has a uniform color. The only problem is that the potential combinations are so complex that winning the game became the province of geniuses and the clever. I found myself part of neither group.

Once we understand postmodernism is more than just relativism, the picture becomes more complicated. The Torino Scale analogy tells me that communities vary greatly, while the black hole analogy depicts how diverse individuals within those communities can be. The Rubik’s Cube analogy puts these two dimensions in relationship to each other, multiplying the number of potential combinations almost infinitely and making it impossible to draw simple conclusions about discipleship using only demographics or trend analysis. In addition, every time culture morphs, the cube is twisted, and the combinations change unpredictably. The more postmodern a person is, the less likely he is to believe that the cube can ever be returned to a uniform color on each surface.

This challenge reinforced for me our abject dependence on the leading of the Holy Spirit in forming disciples in emerging culture. I am reminded of the ongoing challenges faced for many years by missionaries trying to reach Muslims outside the United States. Recently, we have heard of the supernatural interventions among Islamic people that have opened doors of ministry that might have seemed impossible not long ago. We have the same need as we reach out to people influenced by postmodernism. Without the kind of leading that Paul received from a Macedonian man who appeared in a night vision (Acts 16:6–10), our methods and analysis will only lead us to futility, or worse, to ministries built on transferring in young Christians who prefer our music, creating a parody of real mission. Paul’s obedience to the Spirit’s leading brought the gospel to Europe. The same kind of obedience will be necessary to bring the same message to emerging culture.

Engaging Postmodernism

My wife Janet and I recently decided to become church planters in Berkeley, California. A friend immediately supplied us with a detailed demographic study of this liberal, pluralistic city of around 100,000. One of the most striking things to come out of this in-depth report is that almost 50 percent of the young (median age just over 30) mostly single population can be characterized as trend setters. These are the people who invent the urban culture that millions of other Americans soon come to accept as ordinary life. As a friend put it, “These people are post, post, postmodern.” In other words, they are pre everything, living perpetually in the run-up to the future they are inventing in real time. I call their lifestyle culturenext. Like the men of Athens whom Paul addressed, they spend “their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21).

If we view the people of Berkeley as simply underinformed about the gospel, then discipling them means choosing the right curriculum and arranging clever ways to expose them to it. If I choose to define them as enemies of the church, discipleship becomes a matter of confronting them until they see things our way.

But what would it mean if the people of our city were not underinformed or overly rebellious, but merely underexposed to credible representatives of the Christian faith? Making disciples would then mean living a witness among them — both personally and corporately — until the claims of Christ take on reality, until the power of the Spirit gives truth a pulse. Modeling how believers live and worship, then, may begin before conversion and continue afterward as a natural part of a spiritual friendship. Our gospel preaching will only be as effective as our gospel living in this community. While our message remains constant, we will need the Spirit to supply the gift of wisdom and grow the fruit of humility to adjust our approach in real time. With God’s help, even a moving target can be hit.