Living Orthodoxy in a Dying World

We now live in the Postmodern Era, that period of time that comes after the Modern Era. The culture has been progressing toward it in various ways throughout the 20th century. Now, in the 21st century, postmodernism is the predominant worldview in the West. Those who reflect its values are called postmoderns. In general, Generation X (roughly those born in the 60’s and 70’s) was a transitional generation. They were raised by moderns in a postmodern world. Those born since the 1980’s, sometimes called Millennials, have been immersed in postmodernism since childhood. They are the first bonafide postmodern generation. Even so, postmodernism does not discriminate. Some people from previous generations resonate with it just as much as emerging generations. And some younger people do not resonate with it at all.

WHO ARE WE?

The postmodern mood is characterized by new ways of relating, thinking and living. Tony Jones, National Coordinator of Emergent Village,[1] points out a handful of sociological changes.[2] Three of them, which I also see in my context as a young adult pastor in Southern California, are the shifts to being communal, pluralistic and experiential. First, postmoderns have shifted from being individualistic to communal. It used to be that one of the most communal media experiences we could have was going to the theater. So many people share the same experience and can talk about it after, reliving their favorite scenes. Aside from a sports game, television was considered a passive pastime. Now, audiences vote in real time, through telephone, text messages, and email, for their reality and game show champions and participate in the outcome. Even news programs regularly read email feedback from viewers as they receive them. Online, communities like MySpace.com have become an addiction to millions who can now easily create profiles to express themselves and connect with a network of “friends.” In our neighborhoods, there is a growing presence of places like Starbucks where even those who go there to read a book and keep to themselves enjoy a sense of community.

Second, postmoderns have shifted from being unanimous to pluralistic. Just next door to me live Catholics from Ireland on one side and Muslims from the Middle East on the other side. I am an Evangelical from Southern California. Among my friends are Pakistanis, Slovakians, Palestinians, Hungarians, and Canadians. They are Christians—Pentecostals, Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Evangelicals of all shades—ex-Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Agers, Shamanists, and Smorgasbord Spiritualists. In a post-Christian culture, there is bound to be confusion. And in the absence of knowledge about religious beliefs most people default to religious pluralism where they can believe all their friends, being good people, are on good and valid spiritual paths. Even many Christians who believe the gospel may not believe it in terms of its exclusive claims. For many, religious belief may simply be an accident of upbringing that “works for them” but may not, and need not, work for others.

Third, postmoderns have shifted from being rational to experiential. With the Advent of the Internet, we are moving away from linear thinking. And schools are not helping. They regularly graduate mediocre students unprepared for college, thus lowering the bar of excellence for many higher education institutions. Most high school graduates do not know or care about what a liberal education is and see general studies as obstacles to their goals rather than part of being well-rounded individuals. The prevailing attitude about school is not that it can prepare one for life, but that a degree could lead to a higher paying job. That is not to say that everyone should go to college, but to illustrate the low value placed on anything not tied to making money or enjoying life. Thus, the reason bookstores like Barnes and Noble are flourishing is because they have made reading an experience. There is a new element of “vibe” that old booksellers like Waldenbooks never had. Experience really is the currency of our age. In such a pluralistic world, shared experience now replaces common belief as the most significant factor in bringing people together.

WHAT DO WE KNOW?

In addition to these sociological changes, a few epistemological changes have also occurred in the postmodern mind. First, in a world with such diverse thinking, we have lost a common metanarrative. The Christian heritage of the West is being increasingly disparaged as secularism takes rise in the public square. And nationalism is being attacked by the hobgoblin of cultural relativism. It remains to be seen if the “War on Terror” will be an enduring narrative to shape our global future. In the meantime, Naturalism is the most prevalent basic presupposition of our time. In short, the Theory of Evolution has given credence to the story that all life evolved from common ancestry and there is no reality beyond the physical universe. Even those who reject the story know it well and are likely influenced by it to some degree. It is unfortunate since this worldview robs us of meaning, purpose and moral accountability.

Second, part of the reason for our collective identity crisis is that postmoderns are quite skeptical about knowing anything. They have a deep-seated suspicion that we cannot see, much less understand, objective reality. We see through, not with, our senses. And what we know is limited by the language we use to describe it. The average person may not be able to express it in these terms. But when it seems like every other week a scientific study is published that debunks the last, their confidence in knowledge wanes. Subconsciously, they might figure that if they cannot trust the experts and authorities out there then they cannot trust themselves either.

Third, if there is no reliable objective truth, then, in the interest of sanity and social order, we must make up our own realities. At the very least, this means we need laws that everyone agrees to follow and for which there are agreed upon consequences for not following. However, if there is no objective standard on which to base those laws, then everyone will bring their own subjective interpretations. The practical result is the pursuit of power rather than justice, a society where sophistry feins principle and tolerance trumps truth. Anything can be challenged; everything is up for discussion.

WHAT SHOULD WE DO?

This is especially true in the area of ethics, in which postmodernism has made serious changes. Doing the right thing now means something completely different than it used to. Whereas before it meant doing what is right whether one feels like it or not, it now means doing whatever one personally feels is right. We follow other people’s standard of morality by way of social convention or so as not to unnecessarily offend anyone, not out of any actual moral obligation. Postmoderns live by two rules: Rule 1, do whatever you feel like doing as long as it does not hurt anyone else; and Rule 2, say whatever you feel like saying as long as you do not criticize anyone for following Rule 1. In other words, the new New Golden Rule is be true to yourself. The result is a me-centered, pleasure-seeking attitude toward life. No where else is this so exigent than in our view of sexuality, where marriage, sexual orientation, even gender, are being redefined in fluid terms. When fundamental moral choices are being treated as menu items at McDonald’s we are in grave times.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

In a recent article, Mark Driscoll, [3] founder of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, explains three categories of emerging leaders that are responding to postmodernism (proposed by missiologist Ed Stetzer): relevants, reconstructionists, and revisionists. First, “relevants are theologically conservative evangelicals who are not as interested in reshaping theology as much as updating such things as worship styles, preaching styles, and church leadership structures.”[4] These people see postmodernism as a reality of the current culture that needs to be addressed with the truth in new ways that appeal to postmoderns. This approach is epitomized by ideas like Dan Kimball’s “vintage faith” or Rob Bell’s Nooma video series. Second, “reconstructionists are generally theologically evangelical and dissatisfied with the current forms of church (e.g. seeker-sensitive, purpose-driven, contemporary). . . . They propose more informal, incarnational, and organic church forms such as house churches.”[5] These people are usually reacting to modern churches more than to postmodern culture. In fact, this may be the primary motivation behind many emerging ministries. Their main concern is to adopt new ways of doing church that are more effective at changing lives. Third, “revisionists are theologically liberal and question key evangelical doctrines, critiquing their appropriateness for the emerging postmodern world.”[6] For these people, it is more a question of “re-imagining” Christianity than simply re-contextualizing it. They are more likely to adopt a postmodern epistemology to interpret Scripture, calling into question even the most orthodox of beliefs. In effect, they have so internalized postmodern thinking that they now see Christianity in terms of their Postmodernism rather than seeing Postmodernism from a Christian perspective.

From these three categories, Driscoll has suggested some possible responses to postmodernism.[7] “If doctrine and practice are constant, the result is dead orthodoxy.” This is a danger for Modern Evangelical churches who do not adapt as moderns age out of them. “If both doctrine and practice are constantly changing, the result is living heresy.” This is the unfortunate trajectory of some prominent leaders in emergent circles who are revisionists. If practice is constant and doctrine is changing, as in many liberal Mainline churches, I would suggest the result is dying heresy. Their adherents would remain loyal out of a sense of tradition rather than any commitment to biblical Christianity. “But, if doctrine is constant and practice is always changing, the result is living orthodoxy.” This is the heart of the relevants seeking to communicate the enduring gospel to a new world. After all, as Driscoll reminds us, “the truths of Christianity are constant, unchanging, and meant for all people, times and places. But, the methods by which truth is articulated and practiced must be culturally appropriated and therefore, constantly translated.”[8]

The living orthodoxy of the relevant church is what our postmodern world needs. But even this is playing catch-up. It is a race to respond to an already established post-Christian culture, one born out of Christian marginalization. The Church is to be the light of the world. But having fallen behind, the world is racing ahead in postmodern darkness. We must catch up and run alongside those lost ones in need of truth and redemption. But we can, and must, do even more. We can light a new path ahead, reclaiming the lead in the shaping of culture. As the salt of the earth, how can we do any less?

It is much like raising a child. Good parents would be aware of and tend to her needs. They would not cater to her every fancy. Instead, they would teach her what is right. As she matured they would give her more and more freedom along with appropriate boundaries. When she reached adulthood they would trust that she will live up to the values instilled in her and pass them on to her children. Not only that, she would make a productive contribution to society. Postmoderns are like that child. A good church will meet their unique needs, but not entertain, or allow them to retain, their relativistic notions. Instead, it will teach sound doctrine yet not be legalistic or hold people to unrealistic standards. Then, when the moderns are with us no longer, the postmoderns will be able to faithfully pass on the Teaching and Tradition of the Church to future generations. And they will embody that truth in a redeeming way.

WHAT WILL WE BECOME?

What has been expounded thus far is simply scratching the surface of how we can make disciples who make disciples and make a difference in the postmodern world. First we need to realize that there is a postmodern exigency. Some aspects of the new cultural mood are simply different; others are dangerous. The best way the Church can respond is to take the eternal truth of scripture and make it relevant to the emerging culture. At the very least, what that means is that relevant truth must be three-dimensional, experienced as relational, propositional and incarnational. Much more can and has been said about precisely what this might look like in practical terms. A great place to start is The Emerging Church by Dan Kimball. But we must keep in mind that emerging ministry is still highly experimental. And there is no one-size-fits-all model. What we must guard against is associating ourselves so closely with postmodernism that we are left behind again when the next shift comes. Instead, part of the conversation we are having should be focused on how the Church can take the lead into the post-Postmodern Era, or rather be the Pre-Something Church.

[1] You can visit the Emergent Village website at emergentvillage.com.

[2] Tony Jones, Postmodern Youth Ministry: Exploring cultural shift, creating holistic connections, cultivating authentic community (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 27, 30-37.

[3] Read Mark Driscoll’s blog at http://theresurgence.com/blog/2.

[4] Mark Driscoll, “A Pastoral Perspective on the Emergent Church,” Criswell Theological Review 3, no. 2 (2006): 89.

[5] Mark Driscoll, “A Pastoral Perspective on the Emergent Church” Criswell Theological Review 3, no. 2 (2006): 90.

[6] Mark Driscoll, “A Pastoral Perspective on the Emergent Church,” Criswell Theological Review 3, no. 2 (2006): 90.

[7] Mark Driscoll, “A Pastoral Perspective on the Emergent Church,” Criswell Theological Review 3, no. 2 (2006): 90-91.

[8] Mark Driscoll, “A Pastoral Perspective on the Emergent Church,” Criswell Theological Review 3, no. 2 (2006): 90.

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One thought on “Living Orthodoxy in a Dying World

  1. Pingback: Personal Enrichment Really Isn’t | Institute of Christian Studies International

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