Where Do We Stand? Postmodernism, The Emergent Church, and Apostolics

By Rodney Shaw

There is a lot of shifting right now. We are on the fault line of an emerging age. Things are changing. Much of the change and unrest is directly related to the prevailing philosophy of our day, postmodernism. Postmodernism is the overarching philosophical framework by which many Westerners comprehend the world. Unlike the modern world that preceded it, which was built upon propositions, scientific law, and cause and effect, postmodernism denies absolute truth; distrusts authority, theories, and institutions; and has a deconstructionist approach to traditions and social conventions. Postmodernism has affected architecture, art, music, and most every other discipline including faith.

In a religious context, postmodernism challenges propositional truth, traditional expressions and institutions, and anything that is perceived to be too rigid. Post modems value dialogue, interaction, diversity, experience, transparency, and authenticity. We could spend a lot of time defining postmodernism, but we will leave it at that.

Many of these responses are seen in a variety of church settings, including mega churches, seeker-sensitive churches, and warehouse churches. A tendency toward a less traditional and more casual approach can be seen in many churches across denominational lines and seems to be simply a benign expression of an overall culture that is becoming more casual. But there are more extreme expressions of postmodernism that are alarming.

The extreme forms of postmodern thought are nowhere more clearly seen than in the emergent church. Though most young Christians do not identify with emergent theology, many are drawing heavily from emergent-church literature and ideas. (Emergent is a technical word with a specific reference. See the reviews of Why We’re Not Emergent in the January-February issue of the Forward.) Let us now look at some common expressions of postmodernism and how it affects the church.

It has become vogue for Christians to criticize the church. It is common for people to talk about supposed corporate sins of Christianity, including political, ecological, and sociological shortcomings. It is akin to the bashing of the wicked West by political liberals. Whatever is traditional and institutional must necessarily be bad.

And to be certain, institutional Christianity has made plenty of blunders as has every denomination and local church. Christians are not perfect by any stretch. But to demand a total re-envisioning of the faith based on its failures is imprudent. “I love Jesus but hate Christianity” sounds chic and suave for a neophyte just out of college, but what he forgets is that he never would have learned of Jesus if it had not been for Christianity.

But it runs deeper than mere criticism. The loathing of the church is the intellectual basis for re-envisioning the church into a form that is acceptable to the age in which we live. This was precisely the ancient sin at the heart of the Corinthian correspondence. For the
Corinthians the problem was wisdom (sophia). Their culture had particular expectations of teachers and philosophy, and neither Paul nor the gospel lived up to these expectations. This is the setting behind Paul’s use of wisdom and foolishness in I Corinthians 1-3. God used a foolish man using a foolish method to declare a foolish message to save a bunch of foolish people.

Glorification of doubt.
Challenging truth claims is part of the age in which we live, and this has splashed over into the popular theology and literature of Christianity. And it is not the doubt of unbelievers at issue; it has become fashionable for Christians to doubt. Doubt has become a good thing. Being on a “journey” of both faith and doubt is preferred over steadfast faith. Everyone, of course, has faith struggles, and many times individuals struggle with particular trappings of their church or movement. However, doubt is not a virtue. Preferring doubt is often just an expression of intellectual laziness and an unwillingness to make a sustained effort to find clarity in regard to a particular doctrine or issue. The just are saved by faith, not doubt. Jesus always rebuked doubt in His disciples. Zecharias was smitten dumb because of doubt. As David Hansen wrote, “I always found that when I become proud of my doubts, they suddenly become the sin of unbelief”

Caricature of culture.
Many who are trying to re-envision the church are doing so with the claim of making Christianity acceptable in the postmodern world. This whole enterprise runs into the danger of the Corinthians cited above. Yes, methods must be evaluated, but fundamentals of Christianity must not be re-envisioned. Furthermore, it is an exaggeration of the stereotypical postmodern. The average person who walks through church doors or who is a friend with a churchgoer does not have ripped-up jeans, messed-up hair, or time to sit in coffee shops all day listening to indie rock. It just is not so. The quintessential postmodern may live on a college campus or downtown in a large city, but this does not represent most people we encounter. Yes, people are more educated. Yes, people ask questions. Yes, old paradigms of leadership no longer work. Yes, we need reasoned answers and at times a revision of methods. But to sweep the whole thing out the door for a newer understanding simply because we now live in a postmodern world is irresponsible.

Many have transformed their worship services into a cultural presentation with a religious theme. The thought is that the worship experience should be relevant to the kinds of things people experience in culture at large. Hence, music, technology, and the arts are integrated in such a way so as not to be “churchy.” But this raises a whole other issue of whether worship should include technology and replicate culture or whether it should be a sanctuary from technology and cultural trends. There is probably a good answer somewhere in the middle.

It should be pointed out that postmodernism is a Western, First-World metanarrative. The Third World does not think primarily in terms of postmodernism. Interestingly, a majority of Christians, including Oneness Pentecostals, live in the Third World, and they are quite content with Christianity free of postmodernism.

Further, a majority of First-World Christians do not ascribe to the wholesale adaptation of postmodernism, especially in the way the emergent church does. Fundamentalists, conservative Evangelicals, independent mega churches, seeker-sensitive churches, Roman Catholics, and mainline Protestants by and large do not fit the emergent mold, although some are quite “progressive:’ Accordingly, a minority who are at the center of societal evolution are attempting to drive change. This is what is often seen in culture at large; small groups in academia and entertainment often drive wide-scale change, especially among young people.

Lack of theological and historical context.
Understanding one’s theological and historical roots is crucial. Much of the thought in emergent church philosophy is not as original as one might think. Likewise, those who may not be emergent but who are dissatisfied with the traditional forms of church are sometimes quick to abandon their own forms for new forms. However, a firm rooting in one’s own theological tradition provides stability that prevents a wholesale adoption of every new thought that comes through Christian bookstores. Contemporary books by malcontents and revolutionaries cannot be one’s primary source for theological reflection and development. Before Apostolics adopt things in such books, they need a firm sense of their own theology and history. Before we can digest and appropriate larger criticisms of Christianity, we need to know who we are and how we got here.

Apostolics need to understand the theological history of the modern Oneness movement. The restorationist impulse inherent in Pentecostalism provides Apostolics with their own, unique metanarrative. Understanding this point alone can be a safeguard against drifting into alternative forms of Christianity. Before we draw theological conclusions from Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, we need to have a firm grasp on the theological positions of John Wesley, Charles Parham, William Seymour, William Durham, and Frank Ewart. Apostolics should be conversant with contemporary Pentecostal scholars such as David K. Bernard and Talmage French, and scholars of Pentecostalism such as Vinson Synan, Grant Wacker, and Walter Holleweger. As Andy Stanley has said, we need to become students of a movement before we criticize it, especially if that movement is our own.

Historical context is vital. For example, most Christians likely do not realize that social action once was the cause of conservative Christians. The Salvation Army and Dwight Moody are great examples. Early Pentecostals often were involved in missions that engaged in evangelism as well as helped the poor. In fact, until the 1920s, Evangelicals were very socially active. When social action began to wane among Evangelicals, it remained strongest among revivalists. The emergence of Social Gospel as a liberal expression of Christianity was a large factor in social concerns waning among conservatives. Rather than be associated with political liberalism and Social Gospel, conservatives abandoned social outreaches. As Alan Jacobs said, “It was not Brian McLaren [emergent church leader] who coined the statement, ‘Faith without works is dead.”‘

Sweeping theological shifts have frequently been a reaction to cultural change as illustrated in the Corinthian situation. This also was the origin of Protestant theological liberalism, which emerged in the modern world. In view of the Enlightenment, industrialization, and Darwinism, theological liberalism was an attempt to salvage Christianity for the modern mind. Fundamentalism also emerged within this same context as a counter movement to hold fast to traditional views of Christianity and Scripture. Both theological liberalism and fundamentalism were modern responses to cultural and societal changes. A few decades later, when liberalism was dealt a crippling blow by World Wars I & II and communism, neo-orthodoxy emerged as yet another example of re-envisioning Christianity in light of emerging worldviews, this time as an attempt to salvage liberal Protestantism. The results of such reactions are unsatisfying in the long-term. Neo-orthodox theologian H. Richard Niebuhr summed up Protestant liberalism as “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Understanding these historical realities helps the contemporary Christian recognize the need for social relevance while at the same time realizing that re-envisioning the Christian faith for cultural reasons is nothing new. Niebuhr’s Christ & Culture would be a much better starting point than emergent church literature.

Riding the wrong wave.
It is undeniable that young Apostolics sometimes find themselves in stifling situations. However, turning to the emergent church and other postmodern resources is not the solution. It must be recognized that these people are reacting to what they consider to be dysfunctions within liberal Protestantism as well as Evangelicalism. Neither of these are Pentecostal categories. To be sure, they are reacting, and it would be easy for us to latch on to them when we react. However, when Apostolics react to dysfunctional systems or stifling leadership, we are reacting to something entirely different. To latch on to the reactions of others means we are aligning ourselves with others based upon our core dislikes, not our core beliefs. As James Nuechterlein pointed out of early American politicians, “Members of both parties found identity in opposition: They were more certain of their opponents’ hypocrisies and pretenses than they were of the virtue of those who shared their party label.”

Vocabulary and templates.
All of this has generated a new religious vocabulary, and for some, a template for doing church. Popular postmodern influences on the church include Catalyst leadership conference (www.catalystconference.corn), Church Planters conference (www.churchplanters.corn), Worship Facilities Expo (www.wfx.org), and authors like Leonard Sweet, George Barna, M. Rex Miller, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and many others. Although all these may not be as extreme as the emergent church (Bell and McLaren are clearly emergent), they all are postmodern influences. And this is not to say that all these influences are negative. Those who follow such influences tend to work from a similar template. Churches are named after a street or neighborhood, preferably with a reference to nature, websites tend to be minimalist, black and white is vogue, the “What we believe” statements are generic and use language like journey and authentic, senior pastors use the title “lead pastor,” most staff members have the title “pastor,” casual attire is preferred in worship, blogs are prevalent (with a black-and-white picture of the lead pastor with his shirttail out), music tends to be guitar driven, drama and various forms of media are incorporated into worship and preaching, preaching is typically done in series, preaching is more often oriented around life issues than theological propositions, preaching is conversational in style, pulpits are less common, “connections” and “community” are pursued through small groups, and there is a sense of wanting to be edgy

There is certainly nothing wrong with this template if it works to reach people. The danger of this template is that many new church plants become indistinguishable from all the other new churches in a community with little regard for doctrine. It essentially becomes a war of images between churches. Without a clear Pentecostal distinctive of the power of the Holy Spirit, one could easily be just another church in town, competing for the same generic audience on the basis of programs and music.

Another danger is that bait-and-switch techniques do not work with churches. De-emphasizing doctrinal distincitves to get people in the door is not a sustainable model. Either the people will eventually leave once they discover what you really believe, or you will be forced to continually de-emphasize what you believe in order to maintain traffic. Experience shows that the latter usually prevails.

The vocabulary in postmodern churches includes words like incarnational, community, journey, ancient, authentic, real. These words often originate in protest of a dysfunctional church or system. For example, missional emerged a few years ago in response to churches that do not live out their faith or witness. (See The Missional Church, Darrell Guder, editor.) Missional was conceived as a model for doing church over against the traditional attractional model. Protestant churches of all stripes have used the at-tractional model for years. The seeker-sensitive mega churches of the 1980s and 1990s revamped their formats but also had an attractional model. In both cases, people were attracted to what was happening on stage on Sundays. Faith was defined by attending church and believing a set of propositions.

Missional theory says that instead of constructing a building and expecting sinners to come to that building, Christians should take their faith to the streets. Christians should live out their faith every day. Christians should be light and salt in the world, i.e., Christians should be missional.

Although we could debate what exactly it is Christians ought to be doing between Sundays, the idea of being missional is inherent in Pentecostal theology. Our strong sense of evangelism and holiness provides the theological framework to be missional. As pointed out above, early Pentecostals were involved in social outreach primarily for theological reasons. First, they believed it was an opportunity to share the gospel. Second, they believed this was part of holiness. They believed they were empowered to go and do good works. Holiness was not merely personal piety or outward appearance; it included doing good works.

Accordingly, Pentecostals have a theological basis to be both missional and incarnational. But since we typically do not use this language, and because we have largely abandoned social outreach, it is easy for young Apostolics to feel an attraction to these ideas when they are articulated elsewhere. Here is the rub. This is not to point a finger at our younger colleagues. God forbid. They have come to the kingdom for such a time as this. Just like those of us who are older, our young brethren have not entered ministry for the purpose of personal gain or with the intent of becoming sellouts. They entered ministry because God called them and because they have a passion for the lost. I have seen a fresh and deep passion in our young ministers. God has called them to reach their generation. We cannot expect them to pour the wine of twenty-first century revival into a 1950s wineskin. It will surely burst. But where do we stand?

To my peers and elders:
Our younger ministers are in the throes of this cultural change. Does it really matter if they wear casual attire in worship? Does it really matter if they prefer guitars over Hammonds? Does it really matter that their preaching style is not in a revivalist camp meeting style? (After all, Jesus and the apostles sat down when they taught.) When they speak of social action and helping the poor, they are simply trying to obey Jesus and the apostles. Maybe we should forget about political liberalism and Social Gospel, return to our early roots, and join them. We may not understand their methods and why they are attracted to resources that we don’t understand. But have we given them comparable tools? Have we shown them how to effectively communicate the gospel in today’s culture? We have not taken the time to show them how to be postmodern and apostolic, so they have looked elsewhere. At some point we are going to be required to extend to our successors the same confidence our elders extended to us. Otherwise, we will drive this thing into the ground.

To my younger brothers:
We are concerned that much of your church model comes from non-Apostolics. We are concerned when you measure “how many made a decision for Christ” instead of how many received the Holy Spirit. We are concerned when baptism is no longer urgent. We are concerned when it appears that Pentecostal distinctives are minimized and people do not know that your church is a Pentecostal church, even after attending for a while. We are concerned¬†that the doctrinal statements on your websites speak of authenticity and journey but say little if anything about the baptism of the Holy Spirit or the identity of Jesus Christ. I realize some of you get disillusioned with a bad leader or a stale church culture and you feel you have nowhere to turn but to the conferences and authors listed above. But it is okay to be postmodern and Apostolic at the same time. Further, it is okay to be disgruntled and even disillusioned and be Apostolic. There is no need to stop being Apostolic simply because one is frustrated.

Faith is always contextualized within culture, and therefore the church must continually discern how to be light and salt in its given context. Each generation has not only the challenge but the responsibility to engage in serious reflection. The church’s wrestling is good. But there are healthy ways and not-so-healthy ways to struggle. (See I Corinthians 9:26 and II Timothy 2:5.) However, it is a grave error for us to cast our lot with Corinth.

I think we need to talk. Is anyone interested?

“Many who are trying to re-envision the church are doing so with the claim of making Christianity acceptable in the postmodern world.”

From, “Forward Magazine”/March-April 2009/Volume 40, Issue 2/Page 4-5 & 18-21, by Rodney Shaw

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