The Gospel in Postmodernity

Author: William Stacy Johnson

Increasingly the church in North America labors in a "postmodern" context. Postmodernity represents much more than a passing fad among radically chic academics; it is a wide-ranging set of cultural shifts that are fast becoming second-nature for many of our parishioners. Like it or not, these shifts will profoundly affect the way the church conducts its ministry for the foreseeable future. So what must we do to confront this new cultural challenge?

Unfortunately those looking for an easy explanation are sure to be frustrated, for postmodernity resists any facile summary. It is not a monolithic reality but a bewildering profusion of responses to the contradictions and limitations raised by "modernity." One of these is the problem of "foundations." At least since the seventeenth century, the modern world has tended to construe meaning and truth according to a set of incorrigible foundations–certain cornerstones believed to be objectively, universally, and self-evidently true. Some found an unblemished foundation of knowledge in "experience," while others found it in "reason." The church too sought to base its beliefs on pristine foundations, whether an inerrant Scripture (Fundamentalism), an infallible teaching office (Roman Catholicism), or an indubitable existential encounter with Transcendence (Neo-orthodoxy).

Of course, all this anxious clamoring after guaranteed foundations was only a coverup for a deeper and more pervasive insecurity. Remove the foundation, and the person’s worldview comes crashing down. It seems the louder people insist that they command a stranglehold on truth, the more tenuous their grip actually is. Ironically the modern search for meaning has left people more uncertain about truth than they were to begin with.

In the wake of the modern experiment, postmodernity has come to recognize the futility of this desire for fixed foundations. Like the character in the biblical story who stored up for himself treasures on earth instead of in heaven, those who seek to secure their lives with a set of human foundations are sure to be disappointed. In contrast to the modern fixation on foundations, postmodernity has asserted the plural, contextual, and open-ended character of meaning. Rather than looking for a single "center" of meaning, postmodernity appreciates the "decentered" character of meaning and truth. The postmodern mindset decenters "reason"; it decenters "experience"; and it suspects that claims to speak from the "center" all too often are but a subterfuge for wielding power over others.

Some Christians may well perceive in the open-endedness of postmodernity a radical threat to the gospel. If Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, then how can there be any Christian rapprochement with this adolescent worldview that casually brushes aside all claims to universal certainty? Indeed, many advocates of postmodernity have abandoned belief in God and drifted away from the church.

Still, the postmodern milieu also offers the church a tremendous opportunity. Times of momentous cultural change have often provided the pivotal occasion for the gospel to be heard afresh. This was clearly the case in the world of late antiquity; it was also the case during the reformations of the sixteenth century; and, by God’s grace, it may once again be so in the cyberworld of the rapidly approaching twenty-first century.

One thing is for sure: mission and evangelism among the postmodern, post-denominational, post-everything generation cannot be pursued according to old paradigms. Disillusioned with the traditional church, many in this new generation simply tune out assertions of objective "Truth" with a capital "T." What they need is a church that will enter into their world of decentered meaning, an incarnational church that lives not according to humanly conceived foundations but that embodies the grace of the living God who in Jesus Christ is the true decentering mystery–the God who will not be possessed, who is not reducible to any ideology, whose very name ("I am that I am, I will be what I will be") calls us into question, and whose gracious character is made manifest in the Word made flesh. This God decenters all human reality in order to recenter us in the reconciling reality of grace.

In short, the church in the postmodern age must let God rather than having God be the source of its strength. Such a church can then rightly see the cultural changes of our time not as threat but as opportunity and task.