a new form?
Is Christianity in America thriving or is it dying? Are we, like Europeans, moving toward the abandonment of Christianity, or are we, like the megachurches, adopting a more comfortable form of Christianity? In the end, are both of these approaches simply the impact of modernity on the church?
Or are we moving toward a redefinition of Christianity—a new form of Christianity? As Christians abandon old forms and experiment with others, is there hope for a new reformation? What new shapes will Christianity take in the postmodern world? How will we conceptualize and experience the sacred in the new worldview? What would a postmodern faith that is honest to Jesus look like?
a different focus
In a postmodern world, where faith is built on experience more than on doctrine or rational proof, the focus will be on attitudes, behavior and lifestyle. The religious issue for postmoderns is not about correct beliefs or styles of worship practices—it is about a way of life. In that sense it is a return to the earliest days of the church, to the “followers of the Way.”
Postmoderns aren’t asking the questions that the fourth century creeds answer about whether Jesus physically rose from the dead or was born of a virgin. They are asking: “Why are Christians intolerant?” “Why do Christians suppress women?” “Why do Christians support warfare?” “Why do Christians persecute gay people?”
American youth are growing up in a diverse pluralistic society and are exposed to many different belief systems. A variety of religious paths appear to lead to the same God. For them, Jesus is “a” path to God, not “the” path to God.
Many Americans are very purposefully creating a do-it-yourself spirituality. They are searching for an experiential faith, a religion of the heart, not of the head. They are seeking a connection with the sacred. They downplay or reject religious doctrine and dogma, and seek direct experience of the divine—whether it’s called the “holy spirit” or “cosmic consciousness.” They typically view spirituality as a journey intimately linked with the pursuit of personal growth or development.
People of many generations are embracing an individualized spirituality that includes picking and choosing from a wide range of alternative religious philosophies. It’s not unusual for them to syncretically add a dash of Zen Buddhism and a dash of Native American religion to one’s nominal Christian or Jewish beliefs.
Some religious leaders talk contemptuously of “pick and mix” Christians and “cafeteria Catholics” who take what they want from traditional religious systems and ignore what is not appetizing. But postmoderns no longer trust authority figures and will not accept their definitions of acceptable belief.
experience, relationship and community
Writers and thinkers of the postmodern church say that the future of a life of faith will be marked by three elements: experience, relationship and community.
The natives of postmodernist culture are turning more to what could be called pre-modern methods of discerning meaning, such as storytelling, personal experience, and a tribalistic form of bonding into community. At the same time they reject the pre-modern worldview.
How this affects the church is significant, because it forces the church to reconsider its methods for presenting its message. Rather than trying to present a logical, rational apologetic for its beliefs, the church will have to become more relational and to talk about faith within the context of creating community, relationships and experiences—the things that matter to the postmodern mindset.
To some people, a rational Christian message presented by someone they do not know is a bunch of noise to be ignored, and is not a spiritual message at all. Despite having the answers to the very things secular people are looking for, the Christian message is often presented in ways that people won’t listen to.
The church will have to start telling the old, old story the way it was originally told—as metaphor, not by making a rational defense of its credibility. Credibility has to do with coherence and is difficult to prove.
But while postmodern faith will rightly expand the criteria for judging faith to include community, experience, and relationship, even postmodern Christians need to anchor their experience in a historical Jesus.
characteristics of a postmodern faith
In an article entitled Postmodern Possibilities, Rob McAlpine and Leonard Hjalmarson looked at ten points of contact between Christianity and postmodernity.
- Recognition of the essentially spiritual nature of life
- Openness and desire for community
- Rejection of authority in position and acceptance of authority in relationship
- Emphasis on participation over spectator mentality
- Leadership by wisdom and example, not knowledge or position
- Emphasis on practical answers—”walk” over “talk”
- Emphasis on journey and process over goal
- Desire for experience over knowledge—the “subjective” and mystical dimension
- Spontaneous order over rational structure—webs of connection and meaning
- Recognition of truth in paradox, images, and story
a return to a primitive Christianity
Most of these points of contact for a postmodern world reflect the nature of the church as it existed in the first three centuries, before the Constantinian shift.
Primitive Christianity was small and communal in nature. It was not hierarchical. Instead, it relied on broad egalitarian participation. The early church was not based on dogma, rigid moralism, and ritual, but on a way of life that embodied compassion and servanthood. Most profoundly, the Christian movement grew because at its core were small communities of compassion that integrated people from different social classes and provided comfort and care for the less privileged. This was the essence of the remarkable love that observers saw.
a religionless Christianity
A postmodern faith will most likely have these elements:
- more focus on Jesus, less on the church
- more about personal transformation, less about personal salvation
- more about lifestyle, less about doctrine
- more about service, less about worship
- more about grace, less about fear
- more communal, less individualistic
- more loving, less legalistic
- more accepting, less judgmental
- more compassionate, less moralistic
- more inclusive, less exclusive
- more this-worldly, less other-worldly
- more organic, less institutional
- more experiential, less intellectual
- more intuitive, less rational
- more about synthesis, less about analysis
- more open to mystery, less concerned with certainty
- more meditational, less magical
- more about listening, less about talking
- more about modeling, less about teaching
- more cross-cultural, less culturally bound
- more concerned about creation
- more concerned about human equality
- more concerned about human suffering
- more concerned about social justice
- more concerned about peace
- more actively resistant to war
- more actively resistant to empire
- more actively resistant to all forms of domination