Monday, June 2, 2008

Being the Church in Postmodern Times

On Saturday Morning of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, the guest preacher, Rev. Dr. Janet Forbes preached an eloquent, enjoyable, and thought provoking sermon on the need for the church to adapt to the changing cultural landscape. Describing herself as a "postmodern" she went on to describe postmodernity as the current era in which we live--a response to "modernity" leading to a new era which she estimated would begin around 2020 (she named this era, but I don't recall it).

Through a series of effective illustrations, she showed modernity to be a struggle between conservative and liberal, both of which rested on a core precept of modernity--that right belief is important and truth can be known. Likewise she showed postmodernity to be a cultural phenomenon in which authority is questioned, and truth is obscure and unimportant. In postmodernity, there is much access to knowledge and many claims to truth, but what is important is right actions. (I am sure I am not doing justice to her sermon, but this was the gist of a small portion of the sermon).

The call in the end was for the church to become postmodern in its ways -- a speaking the language of the new culture; a kind of modern (or postmodern?) pentecost.

As I reflected on the sermon, a few things struck me. The first was that Christianity is ultimately a claim to a particular truth. What would it mean to preach the gospel (the truth that Jesus came to die that we might have life and have it abundantly) in a postmodern way? The second was that by the time the church could effectively make such a conversion, we will be into the beginning of the next era and we will be trying to shed our postmodern ways. A final reflection was that projecting postmodernity as a path the church needed to travel runs against the postmodern assertion that there are many claims to truth none of which may be valid. The claim for a need to become postmodern is in itself a truth-claim that should be questioned by a true postmodern.

It seams to me that the least desirable moments in church history have been times that we have too closely reflected the cultural moves of the day. We can explain dark and gory depictions of Christianity with the mid-ages. The corruption of church leadership that led to a need for reformation was a time the church too closely resembled the feudal system in Europe. During the early/mid 20th century in America, Christianity became so entwined with American patriotism that it has become difficult for some to distinguish between the two. In short, perhaps the church is at its best when it simply is the church and doesn't worry about adapting to the ebb and flow of the surrounding culture. That isn't to say that the church doesn't engage culture, or that there is no overlap. Only that I don't know that we should be constantly trying to "catch up" only to find ourselves always behind a changing world and increasingly confused about our own identity.

Perhaps postmoderns are disillusioned by the church's claim to truth in part because we have become cloudy about what that claim is as we have tried to keep up with previous shifts in culture. The enduring 2000 year old story never ceases to be relevant unless we make it irrelevant by devaluing it every time there is a sociocultural shift.

(These are not researched thoughts, only my first reflections. Please feel free to correct me on the details of postmodernity or point out flaws in my rough thoughts on history).


Anonymous said...


Sounds like your reflection is right on. I would be interested to hear how we decide what are 'right actions'.

Of course, I am sure we can learn a lot from postmodern thought. I probably find some points of connect with them.

Pastor Blue Jeans said...

Your reflections seem to be similar to my own.

It was nice meeting you this past week. If you have a chance can you pop me off an email at I need to ask you a question.



Eric Helms said...


Thanks for the comment. You are right about learning from postmodern thought. In fact, it is probably a little bit of the postmodern in me that questions the idea of the church becoming a "postmodern institution." Seems like a paradox if we are inheritly skeptical of institutional authority.


congradulations on ordaination. It was good to meet you as well. Being fairly new to the conference, I am on an exponential learning curve in terms of getting to know other pastors. This was the first year I was able to feel like I knew a couple of the ordinands. The email is sent.

Raffi Shahinian said...

Poingant thoughts. I've posted on the same topic from a somewhat different perspective. Thought you might be interested.

Grace and Peace,
Raffi Shahinian
Parables of a Prodigal World