This paper was a sermon I delivered in the United States in the summer of 2004 to give people who are interested in our ministry an understanding of what we are doing here in Madrid and, more importantly, an understanding of why we are doing it in this fashion. Then, in the summer of 2005 I was asked to speak to a group of Christian workers from various places in Spain on the topic of the emerging church. To prepare for that time, I "polished" the paper to make it ready for others to read.
What follows is designed to give a basic (and brief) introduction to postmodernism (the emerging culture) and its implications for Christian life (and ministry).
I realize that there has been much written these days on this topic, so it seems a bit redundant to write something else. There are many books one can read to gain a more comprehensive understanding of postmodernism and its implications for ministry. I offer this paper as a "teaser", in hopes that it will spur more thought and discussion, or even that you will be curious to read more. (I also wrote it as a way of learning myself, since one of the best ways to learn is by teaching).
Indeed, many of the ideas contained in this paper are not "new." I have been influenced by other writings and discussions, and it is here I'd like to give credit to well-known thinkers on these topics whose names are too many to mention here. (You can, however, see the list of links I have on this site for emergent churches to find out who these people are.) If you have read books and articles on postmodernism, you'll recognize some of the thoughts I've stolen from others. This is to say: thanks to those people for contributing what really comprises the bulk of this paper. I am indebted to you all.
Emerging Culture, Emerging Church
a teaching by Troy Cady
My wife Heather and I moved to Madrid with our two kids in early 2002. We went to start a church for English-speaking internationals called Mountainview. In addition to meeting regularly in small groups (in varied locations), we began holding two monthly services that meet in a café style setting. We tried our best to make both our community groups and our services artistic, interactive, and participative.
But I don’t just want to talk about what Mountainview did; instead, I’d rather talk about why we did it. I want to do this for two reasons.
1. Because the principles are transferable to other churches all over the world. And since the church is the people of God, the principles apply to every soul reading this right now.
2. If individuals and churches can grab hold of these underlying motivations, it will foster incredible creativity and much-needed innovation in the way we live out our Christian faith. So here’s "why we do what we do".
We do what we do at Mountainview because we are living in a world where postmodernism either is or is quickly becoming the dominant worldview.
I suspect that answer requires further explanation, so I’m going to use most of the rest of this paper to answer the question: “What is postmodernism?” It’s important to do some good thinking about this since, if the above is true (that is, if the world either has become or is quickly becoming postmodern), then postmodern people are the people to which God is calling us to minister. In order to communicate effectively to postmodern people, we need to understand what they think and who they are. So what is postmodernism?
Here’s my layman’s translation: Postmodernism is Post-Modern: it’s “what comes after” modernism. So…to understand postmodernism we need to understand modernism. But, to do that, we need to understand a little about what came before modernism.
According to historians, the era we have been living in since the end of the medieval era is the modern era. If one had to identify two dominant characteristics of the medieval period, one would not be remiss in selecting the twins “faith” and “the church”. More often than not, medieval philosophers turned to “faith” and “the church” to discover the truth of things. In fact, one motto of major medieval thinkers was “faith seeking understanding.”
Now: you will recall that the medieval era came to a close as the Renaissance emerged in the early 1400’s. The Renaissance, it could be said, was modernism in its infancy. During the Renaissance (which lasted from about 1400 to about 1600) the twins “faith and the church” were called into question in a couple of respects.
Firstly, In 1517 Martin Luther questioned the authority of the church, challenging its doctrine and practices. Luther and other reformers told us that all believers are priests, undermining the authority of the Catholic Church.
Secondly, during Luther’s lifetime Copernicus posited that the sun was the center of our solar system, contravening centuries of belief to the contrary. Science, it seemed, could be another means whereby we could understand the nature of things, even if it contradicted what the church told us. So, if the medieval era was the era of faith and the church, the modern era became the age of reason and the individual’s ability to think rationally for themselves. Faith and the church, it could be said, were replaced in modernism by reason, individual initiative and the scientific method.
In the early 1600s, modernism matured with the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. These two centuries have also been called “The Age of Reason” and could justifiably be identified as the height of the modern era.
The Enlightenment was characterized largely by optimism. Leading thinkers were optimistic that the world would become a better place as we came to understand the basis of the universe, the world, and reality. The 18th century Enlightenment was thus marked by a time of mind-boggling technological advance, which in turn spawned the industrial revolution. Production progressed for about a century at which time Charles Darwin expressed this ideal of progress in the terms of evolution in the middle of the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century we had the periodic table of the elements, classifying "everything" that exists into a chart that could be memorized. And by 1911 we had discovered the inner structure of atoms.
The periodic table of the elements was particularly important to scientists and to the world because it was our way of saying, “Look at this: all of reality comes down to this. This is the basis of our very existence. Discover this and you discover the truth of things at their core.” This modern way of looking at reality and what it means to be human in the world could be summed up with some words that a prominent scientist was quoted as saying in a 2001 edition of Newsweek magazine. He says this about us: “…there is nothing beyond physical principles going on. There is no soul, no elixir of life, nothing beyond molecules working together in the mindless, fixed ways that the physics of their constituent particles dictates.”
That’s what modernism told us. We can know things for certain. Just conduct an experiment and use your reason.
Enter Heisenberg, a revolutionary scientist on par with the likes of Einstein. Heisenberg is to the 20th century what Copernicus was to the 16th. If Copernicus and his discovery mark the beginning of modernism, Heisenberg marks the beginnings of postmodernism (scientifically speaking). And, if the emergence of modernism marked a major cultural shift, impacting the way we’ve lived for the last 400-500 years, postmodernism will do the same thing.
So, what did Heisenberg discover that was so revolutionary? Heisenberg discovered a radical thing when it comes to science: he discovered uncertainty. In fact, his discovery is called The Uncertainty Principle. To put it in simple terms, Heisenberg discovered that when someone wants to observe something like an atom, the thing being observed changes. This is extremely important, so let me put it again in another way: the act of observing something changes the thing that is being observed. So, the question is: how can you ever tell what the thing is like when it’s not being observed? How can you ever tell the truth of a thing, the nature of a thing? One can never be too sure.
Heisenberg and others like him have literally changed the way we view the world, just like Copernicus changed our way of thinking. Let me give you a feel for how postmodernism, from a scientific perspective, is changing the way we view the world.
Under modernism, we were told that everything was composed of atoms. Because of that we referred to that black expanse of sky at night as “outer space.” We thought the blackness out there was mostly just infinite space. Then, scientists discovered that the blackness wasn’t infinite, but rather, it was finite. What’s more, we deduced that there might be, in fact, other universes about which we have zero knowledge. Then, as we observed the blackness, we discovered that most of it didn’t, in fact, behave as just empty space. Most of it behaved like it had mass to it. In fact, scientists now liken the matter that the universe is composed of to a piece of fabric: interconnected, it expands and contracts like a piece of stretchy cloth. What’s more: we know very little about the matter of which the universe is composed. So, there’s a new uncertainty about the universe and there’s even a new uncertainty about the nature of atoms. In fact, there is so much uncertainty that some scientists are even beginning to wonder if there is such a thing as “atoms” as we have traditionally conceived them.
Do you see how postmodernism, then, calls into question all the old assumptions modernism posited? But, before we get too scared by all this we should realize that there is a good side. The good news is that postmodernism is telling us: “There’s more to life than atoms. There’s more than what you can see or observe. There is such a thing as a spiritual dimension. There is such a thing as a soul.”
To help us understand this, we could take a look at a fascinating scene from the movie “Contact”. In this movie, Jodie Foster plays a modern-thinking scientist named Ellie, demanding objective proof for everything, including God’s existence. Matthew McConaughey plays a postmodern-thinking theologian by the name of Palmer, acknowledging that there is more to life than what you can observe in a laboratory. There’s a scene in the movie that perfectly highlights this distinction. Below you can read a transcript of the scene. Make careful note of this clash of worldviews:
PALMER: Wow. You look beautiful Ellie.
ELLIE: So do you.
PALMER: Wow, you really do.
ELLIE: I read your book.
PALMER: Here we go.
ELLIE: Would you like me to quote you? “Ironically, the thing people are most hungry for (meaning) is the one thing that science hasn't been able to give them.”
PALMER: Yea, yea.
ELLIE: Come on. It's like you're saying that science killed God. What if science simply revealed that he never existed in the first place?
PALMER: I think we're gonna need to get some air.
PALMER: And a few more of these…
(They take two glasses of champagne and walk outside)
ELLIE: Whew, it's a little chilly out here.
PALMER: Yea, this is nice.
ELLIE: Hey, I've got one for you.
PALMER: What have you got?
ELLIE: Occam's Razor, you ever heard of it?
PALMER: Hackem's Razor, sounds like some slasher movie.
ELLIE: No, Occam's Razor, it's a basic scientific principle. And it says, all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one.
PALMER: Makes sense to me.
ELLIE: Alright. So what's more likely (Joss puts his jacket around Ellie), thank you...
PALMER: You're welcome.
ELLIE: ...An all powerful and mysterious God created the Universe, and then decided not to give any proof of his existence, or that he simply doesn't exist at all, and that we created him so that we didn't have to feel so small and alone?
PALMER: I don't know. I couldn't imagine living in a world where God didn't exist. I wouldn't want to.
ELLIE: How do you know you’re not deluding yourself? As for me, I'd need proof.
PALMER: Proof. (pause) Did you love your father?
PALMER: Your Dad, did you love him?
ELLIE: Yes, very much.
PALMER: Prove it.
Did you just catch that simple, yet powerful postmodern apologetic? At its base, Palmer’s point is this: Some things can’t be explained by science or mere logic. Some things require faith.
This means that postmodern people are very interested in spiritual things. That’s why when you tune your radio to a so-called “secular” radio station nowadays you will hear lots of songs about spiritual things by artists who would never even claim to be Christian. Listen to this list of songs I’ve heard on the radio recently:
Sting: If I Ever Lose My Faith In You. Listen to these postmodern words: “You could say I lost my faith in science and progress…but if I ever lose my faith in you, there’ll be nothing left for me to do.” Sting’s new album is called Sacred Love. In the title song he says “I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout religion. I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout Jesus. I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout the Bible.”
Those are top 40 songs. There are other "recent" top 40’s that reflect the same level of spiritual sensitivity:
Sheryl Crow: Light in Your Eyes.
Switchfoot: Dare You to Move
Train: Calling All Angels
U2: Beautiful Day
Dave Matthews has a recent song called “Save Me” that’s about the temptation of Jesus in the desert.
Los Lonely Boys have a top 40 song called “Heaven” that asks “How far is heaven?”
Creed has a song that topped the charts that asks “Can you take me higher? To a place where blind men see?” And that’s just the beginning!
In a postmodern world we can expect people to be intensely interested in spiritual things. That’s why books dealing with religion and spirituality are chalking up unprecedented sales in recent years, so much so that one news article reports that religion books, considered just a decade ago to be marginal among total book sales, are now considered mainstream.
The resurgent spiritual interest reflected in movies, books, art, and music tells us another thing about postmodern people: They primarily apprehend truth through encounters with beauty. That statement may seem strange so let me explain it a little bit: Philosophically speaking we could look at the world through four major categories.
First, there’s metaphysics. This asks, “What is truth?” or “What is the base of reality?”
Then there’s epistemology. This asks the question, “How do we know what we know? How do we learn the truth?”
Then there’s ethics which asks the question “What is good?” or “What is moral?”
Finally, there’s aesthetics which asks the question “What is beauty?”
Modern people say: “We come to know truth through logic or reason.” Beauty, to the modern, is almost an after-thought. Postmodern people say “We come to know truth through encounters with beauty.” Beauty, to the postmodern, is a cornerstone. So, just as science was the major driving force for modernism, art and other expressions of beauty (like life experiences, stories, movies, photography, poetry, drama, music) are the major forces for postmodernism.
That’s why a postmodern person will get more out a 3 minute video clip than out of a 30 minute sermon. They will get more out of a 4 minute song than out of a 14 page essay. And that’s also why stories are important to postmodern people. Story is art and art is the primary learning language of postmoderns. Postmodern people don’t need things written down in outline form; they need truth sung in a song or spoken in a story. They need truth that sidles up to them clothed in beauty.
Actually, that means of coming to know truth matches up with what King David tells us in Psalm 27: “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”
When I think about the importance of beauty to the postmodern in bringing them to faith, I think of a girl (whom I will call Charlene) who joined a small group we hosted in Madrid that discussed the basics of the Christian faith. Each week we watched a video presenting some teaching and then had a discussion afterwards. One week, the speaker on the video gave very convincing proof and scientific evidence that the Bible was reliable and that Jesus was God. At the end of the video, we asked the group members what their reactions were and Charlene said, “Yeah, I can see his point, but it just doesn’t do it for me. It’s missing something.”
At that point, I was ready to strangle her! “What do you mean ‘It just doesn’t do it for me’?! You have to believe now!” But, Charlene wasn’t trying to be obstinate or difficult; she was just being who she was: postmodern. She wasn’t convinced in the end by logical argument, but rather by beauty. Read on to see how…
About a month and a half after that session, the group went away on a retreat. There, Charlene was immersed in the beauty of friendship, creation, and music. On one occasion, she told me that the music almost brought tears to her eyes. By the end of the weekend, we had a heart to heart talk and Charlene was so moved that later that week she decided she wanted to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Charlene, in the end, came to know the truth through relationship, through music, through story. Charlene, in the end, apprehended truth through varied encounters with beauty. Truth is something postmodern people (like Charlene) intuitively encounter in their heart, not something they merely deduce in their mind.
That’s also why community is so important to a postmodern person. Experience, hearing other’s stories, sharing struggles: these are ways of encountering beauty, and these are the ways postmodern people encounter truth. And these are the ways postmodern people will encounter Jesus. Our main job, then, is to live in community and tell the story of Jesus. The living Jesus.
That’s the exciting part. But there’s also a scary part: there’s a new uncertainty about things; an uncertainty about how we learn the truth of things, and uncertainty about the nature of truth itself. These uncertainties are simultaneously scary and exciting. But one thing is certain amidst all the scariness: opportunity presents herself at our doorstep. Right now. That’s exciting. It’s exciting that we are living at a transitional time in history: the transition from a modern to a postmodern way of looking at the world. Can you feel the urgency of the moment?
So what does all this mean for those of us who are trying to minister to people who bring postmodern assumptions to life? How does this affect our ministry? Should it affect our ministry? What are the implications? How does all this theoretical stuff play out in everyday life?
I’m going to be very postmodern now and say: I can’t give you the answers to those questions. I could tell you stories that might help you discover the answers to those questions, but I suspect you already have a lot of stories to tell, and will continue to have experiences that will help you find answers. To discover answers for yourselves, let me encourage you to do just a few small things: pray, dialogue, think, write, wrestle, argue, read, tell stories and listen. Listen to each other. Listen to what the world is saying. But most of all: listen to God, the one who reigns over creation. Listen to Him through His word and listen to the voice of His Holy Spirit in your heart. Listen to God telling you now: “I’m in control. I’ll lead you into the future. I’m by your side every step of the way. Lean on each other. Lean on me.”