Ministry in a Postmodern Context
I suppose the best frame work for this part of the discussion is to take the main tenets of postmodernism and look at them in the context of ministry/church life. That way we get eight posts out of it and we should generate a very good discussion because of the nature of the material we’ll be talking about.
The Thursday Night Coffee House studied chapter 2 of "Blue Like Jazz" last night. The title of the chapter is "Problems". The main point that the author makes is that the problem is humanity is broken. The knife between the ribs is when the focus of humanity’s brokenness turns away from genocide and atrocities that are committed in some distant place that we hear about on television and becomes about the failures and weaknesses of us as individuals, especially me (think of yourself). At one point he apologizes for sounding fundamentalist and brow beating in his claiming that this situation is true for every one and that Christians have it figured out right on this point. One of the group members said that she didn’t feel this was fundamentalist. When she grew up, everyone seemed to have it together. The C of C especially gave the opinion that we were right and everyone else was wrong. We had Christianity boiled down to a set of characteristics that those who followed Jesus would exhibit, and we became masters at putting on a nice set of clothes and covering up the humanity that lied within. We never acknowledged that we were the problem, it was everyone else that was the problem.
Post-modernism’s search for reality and authenticity.
This observation gave me a wonderful point to emphasize one of the positive features of postmodernism: the search for reality and authenticity. We can all readily admit that we think that it is right to be truthful. In a modern environment, however, members were rewarded for how unauthentic they could be. To admit one’s sins or selfishness would be a sign of weakness and would challenge the security of the group by exposing a flaw in the system. Even greater, since we all knew that being a Christian was as easy as memorizing the steps, it implied that we were incapable of following those steps. This not only reflected a weakness in the individual, but also a weakness in the system we had created to make ourselves feel secure and safe within our teaching. If we challenge the philosophy upon which we learned and communicated salvation, our philosophical system was forced to question our very salvation and the core of our "we are right" message. That just couldn’t be allowed. Order and safety of the group had to be maintained. Unless someone was caught in a physically obvious sin, it was better to just remain quiet, let the invitation song conclude, and go on about our lives letting other people think that we had it all together.
Postmodernism doesn’t fit well with this model. This type of an environment turns post-moderns off. The reasons are pretty obvious when you think about it: no one wants a relationship with a habitual liar. Post-moderns are looking for hidden meaning and truth behind the actions of the people they choose to include in their narratives that we call life. Post-moderns are aware of their failures and the suffering in the world. When they visit a church where everyone is "perfect", they conclude that either they don’t fit in (because they are flawed), or this church is a bunch of hypocrites (which is more likely the answer). Post-moderns have also lived through decades of scandal among political and religious leaders. The image of the squeaky clean leader is gone. When church leaders continue to act as though they are squeaky clean in light of the obvious, post-moderns start to ask the question, "Do you think I’m stupid?" Not the right way to start a relationship!
Here’s my list of "must haves" if we are to embrace the post-moderns amongst us:
- Small groups programs whose leaders are trained to create environments of safety and security. This type of environment will facilitate the process of sharing our struggles and problems.
- Build into our sermons and presentations that failure is a given. This allows us to focus on our response to that failure, which is what we want to develop in individuals anyway.
- Break the mold of the invitation song. Perhaps you can disagree with me, but the modernist effect on the invitation song isn’t beneficial in a postmodern environment. What I basically mean is that it doesn’t work like it used to. I wouldn’t give up on the invitation, but I would restructure it a bit. Some I’ve used/seen recently include:
- Having the members stay seated and raise their hands if they would like a shepherd to come and pray with them.
- Position shepherds in the back of the auditorium and have the response go that direction.
- Sing three or four songs back to back and invite members to come for private prayer with the shepherds or to pray in groups where they are.
- Train leaders to recognize the difference between authentic sharing and enjoying an emotional high. Authenticity will be somewhere between the extremes that we’ve observed.
- Effectively use testimonials in our worship services and/or publication. Remember, effective testimony will clearly be about what God is doing and not what we are doing. Testimonials should be planned, and should use as few 1st person pronouns as possible.
What do you think? What are your experiences with authenticity in our congregations? What are your impressions when you consider implementing some of these changes?