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The Emerging Church and Postmodernity

The Emerging Church Movement is an ongoing, worldwide conversation about how the Christian church must respond to and engage the emerging postmodern culture in order to continue to advance the mission of the church. But ECM’s response is dependent upon how ECM defines the postmodern culture (no easy task). Many of us have attempted to explain postmodernity to another person, only to find ourselves stumbling over our own explanation. Here is the basic ECM definition of postmodernity that will drive everything they say and do. I wonder if you agree…

Nearly every book produced by ECM contains some type of comparison and contrast between the modern and postmodern eras (ECM authors are moving away from this, but see the brief list of examples below). Furthermore, nearly every book ECM produces reveals its understanding that these two eras are antithetical to one another. Consider the following examples:

  1. Spencer Burke’s Making Sense of Church contrasts metaphors: from tour guide to traveler, from teacher to facilitator, from hero to human.
  2. Tony Jones’s Postmodern Youth Ministry sets up at least a dozen contrasts: rational to experiential, scientific to spiritual, individual to communal, etc.
  3. Dan Kimball’s The Emerging Church contrasts: monotheism vs. pluralism, systematic vs. fluid, rational vs. experiential, propositional vs. narrative, etc.
  4. Brian McLaren and Leonard Sweet’s A is for Abuductive defines postmodernity as “post-“: post-conquest, post-mechanistic, post-objective, post-scientific, etc.
  5. Robert Webber’s The Younger Evangelicals has chapter titles that reveal this contrast: “Theology: From Propositionalism to Narrative” and “Apologetics: From Rationalism to Embodiment.”

But with all these contrasts, I believe Stanley Grenz’s three characteristics of postmodernity accurately describe ECM’s core beliefs:

From Rational to Post-Rational

ECM believes that moderns believe in universal laws that are accessible by human reason. In other words, a modern believes it is possible to discover objective truth in an unbiased manner. In contrast, postmoderns believe that reason is simply one path to knowledge among many and that the discovery of unbiased, objective truth is not possible. Rather, postmoderns emphasize local constructions of truth and the role of language.

From Individualistic to Post-Individualistic

ECM believes that moderns have elevated the individual. Individuals are able to discover objective truth on their own, without the aid of the community. This has led to a “Jesus, the Bible, and me” Christianity. In contrast, postmoderns believe that the community is required for truth and ethics. And because it is impossible to be unbiased, postmoderns celebrate plurality and diversity because it helps us find more of the truth than we can on our own.

From Dualism to Post-Dualism

ECM believes that moderns are dualists. Moderns separate mind from matter, soul from body, spiritual from secular. They believe that this has led to a dualistic Christianity that, for example, separates Christian ethics from my work. In contrast, postmoderns are more holistic. Christianity extends beyond church and touches every aspect of our lives.

Well, in very basic terms, that is it! ECM’s understanding of two antithetical eras drives everything, including ECM’s theology and ecclesiology (which is the subject of future posts).

How does this sound? For those of us who were born in the modern era but now live in the postmodern era, do we see these changes? Are the two eras that different? Or has ECM overstated the case? How you answer these questions will influence what you feel about the Emerging Church Movement.

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