by Jonathan Campbell
Despite significant dangers of our current culture shift, we can still discern and act on distinct opportunities for mission within postmodern cultures.
The foundations of Christendom that shaped Western societies and mission have crumbled. We are passing out of the modern world of the Enlightenment, and through the transition period of postmodernity into whatever era may come next. This paradigm shift in worldviews is local, national, and global, as are its resulting multitudes of cultural manifestations. We see the frightening collapse of the old and the tortured emergence of the new, energized by such factors as the digital revolution, pan-national corporations, renewed tribalism, mass urbanization, and exploding populations.
The fall of modernity and the rise of something else are being felt on every continent. Insecurity and skepticism plague the global scene. Modern culture is in crisis. The church is in crisis. Having been shaped in and by modernity, the church has been marginalized by modern culture, and now further marginalized by postmodernity. How the church chooses to respond to this postmodern crisis will determine whether the church will thrive in the midst of opportunity or retreat in the face of danger.
More and more Christian leaders are aware of the turbulent times in which we live. They are responding to their observations and frustrations, and speaking out their views on how to cope. An increasing number critique postmodernity and its implications for ministry and mission—many of them extremely more pessimistic than the relatively moderate views of Clive Calver and Elizabeth Tebbe. In response to the current wave, I have four main concerns:
1. The assumption that modernity is somehow more biblically sound than its counterpart in postmodernity.
2. The failure to see the hope and positive opportunities to translate the gospel within the cultures of postmodernity.
3. The incognizance of many who do not realize how the church has succumbed to modernity.
4. The refusal to call the church to radical and systemic changes to recover its ecclesial identity and missional purpose in order to engage postmodern cultures.
Despite significant dangers of our current culture shift, we can still discern and act on distinct opportunities for mission within postmodern cultures. I will briefly look at these four concerns as they relate to being on mission in postmodern fields.
1. Cognition, culture, and contextualization. Both Calver and Tebbe give glimpses of how postmodernity is permeating the global landscape. Philosophical postmodernism and cultural postmodernity bring formidable challenges to mission worldwide. They both suggest postmodernity is a threat to the church true. Postmodernity is a reaction against modernity; yet postmoderns are hardly anti-God or anti-Christian, but rather are antimodern. Postmodern people display little or no tolerance for institutionalized religion. This poses a threat to modern Christendom because the church has yielded to the modern intellectual and social agendas of rationalism, pragmatism, institutionalism, professionalism, and "enlightened" centralized control. As postmoderns reject modern Christianity, they become more open to fresh expressions of the gospel that are free of modern values.
For the church to reap a harvest as we know it, especially through its loss of belief in absolute truth.
Tebbe sees our increasingly postmodern world as "more hostile than ever to the message of the cross," whereas Calver even goes so far as to assert, "I believe that postmodern thinking is totally non-Christian." His viewpoint seems to assume that modernity is somehow more "Christian" than its counterpart in postmodernity. He fails to appreciate postmodernity as a cultural phenomenon. In reality, both cognition and culture are fallen; they can supply both bridges and barriers to the gospel.
We must guard against seeing postmodernity as an all-out affront to the Christian faith. This simply isn’t among postmoderns, we must discern between the philosophical thought of postmodernism and the cultural expressions of postmodernity and examine ourselves rigorously for any assumptions (modern or postmodern) that do not square with God’s revelation. At the same time, we should remember that the missionary call is not to condemn or criticize culture, but rather to contextualize the good news into all cultures.
2. Cultural exegesis and translation. Many Christian leaders fail to see that the postmodern fields are "white for harvest." And if we agree with Calver’s suggestion, that most Western Christians are now cross-cultural missionaries in their postmodern societies, then we have a group of leaders who are woefully ill-equipped to exegete and engage "post-Christian" and postmodern cultures. The resulting failures in identifying bridges, and not just barriers, in postmodernity become obvious. The church is not engaging postmoderns with the gospel. Modern cultures may have been "Christianized" or "Christened" by the religious structures of Christendom, but a majority of people remains unaffected by the authentic, life-transforming gospel of Jesus. And while postmoderns object to institutionalized religion, they are not necessarily anti-God. They acknowledge the spiritual dimension, communicate the gospel as good news. We don’t understand the "heart language" of postmoderns. For the church to reap a harvest of post-moderns, the church must learn to listen to people who can be cultural informants, live the gospel message, exegete their cultures well, and translate the living truth to the people within that context.
3. A gospel and community that transcend cultural borders. While many acknowledge the need to redemptively engage postmoderns in a way that is wholistic and unfragmented, they do not adequately question the modernistic, institutional structures of Christianity that but they do not know how to experience God. Postmodernists do not allege that God does not exist, but that God exists outside our perceptive abilities. The gospel is not real.
These new spiritual seekers are reacting in many ways against the modern forms of religion, the human-made systems for understanding God. In simple terms, postmoderns are anti-religious and anti-institutional spiritual seekers. They are crying out to experience the sacred and the spiritual.
Postmodernity presents great opportunities for the church to translate the powerfully simple gospel for postmoderns in the midst of this cultural-ecclesial crisis. The problem is that the church does not know how to prevent fruitful encounters with postmoderns.
The good news is Jesus transcends all cultures. Jesus is not modern. Jesus is not postmodern. And his body-the church-is neither modern nor postmodern, though it lives within both cultural paradigms. Ultimately, Christ’s community is a way of life that incarnates into and challenges any and every culture, in every time, in every place. Mission is an intrinsically translational task. Throughout history, God has shown himself relating to people within their cultural frame of reference. The life and work of Jesus Christ set a pattern for the church’s mission. In the incarnation, God became more than words. The Word himself entered culture in a specific time and space (John 1:14).
In his influential work, Translating the Message, Lamin Sanneh appraises the translatability of the gospel. Just as Sanneh developed the idea of translating the gospel message across cultures, so we must learn how to translate the gospel community across cultures.
Translation is a continuous process of engagement and embodiment, a natural function of missional community engaging its culture(s).
The nature and mission of the church as a living organism, a very postmodern-friendly concept, in contrast to the modern-friendly organizational criterion, demand that we continually wrestle with how to be the Body of Christ in the world. This means both biblically authoritative and culturally translatable.
Patterned after the life of Jesus, the church takes unique cultural forms to the extent that both the message and community are translated in the receptor culture. If churches in postmodern contexts are to endure and mature, they must continually be translated in ways that can be received by postmoderns and other undiscipled cultures (e.g. postpostmoderns) while being faithful to the essentials of God’s eternal design for his church.
To reap a harvest of postmoderns, the church must realize that ecclesial translation is a journey that is guided by two basic questions: First, what is the Way of Jesus? Second, how will we then live the Way of Jesus in this changing culture? In short, the life of the church reflects the life of Jesus Christ while being embodied in the local culture. A new reality happens whenever the gospel and community are translated into a new context. Only as the gospel becomes a way of life in the culture of the people will there be hope for an indigenous movement.
4. Recovering a translatable church. There are many groups today trying to "design," "produce," even "reinvent" a "postmodern church." But is the idea of a "postmodern church" any better than a "modern church"? Do we really want to start another millennium-and-a-half cycle of culture dominating the church? Trying to be "postmodern" is sure to be self-defeating. We must move beyond postmodern mission and postmodern church.
For the church to reap a harvest of postmoderns, the church must let modernity die. The church cannot make a difference in the world unless it is different from the world. The postmodern mission fields call for a systemic paradigm shift that goes to the root of ecclesiology, one that questions all the assumptions of the Christendom model. To become an instrument of redemptive change, the church must lay aside the false security of modernity and recover its identity as a missional community, followers of the Way in the culture, not of the culture.
Postmodernity may be one of the greatest blessings to the Western church, because it is forcing the church to retrieve its God-given design. Postmodernity demands a radical rethinking of mission, strategy, church, evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. Not only what we do in these areas must be evaluated, but also how we do them. The times call for authentic Christian community that is both biblically sound and culturally translatable in any context-especially those shaped by postmodernity.
Tebbe overviews Alan Roxburgh’s insights into the marginalized status of the church in exile: "Our privileged position is gone and we are within a generation of dying within our own societies. We are now the ‘alternative lifestyle.’" Just as Israel emerged from exile with an abhorrence of idolatry, will the church do the same as it emerges from 1,700 years of Christendom’s accommodation to modernity? This could usher in a revolutionary movement of mission in postmodern cultures. In the midst of our current cultural-ecclesial crisis, the most convincing demonstration of the reality of the gospel to postmodern cultures is the people of God embodying the Way of Jesus-nothing more and nothing less.
Anything we might add to the essential Way of Jesus threatens the translatability of the church. Just as the ancient missional church followed in the simple pattern of Jesus, we must now meet people on their own turf, speak the good news in their heart language, and disciple new believers to lead their own indigenous expressions of church.
The most powerful message for postmoderns may be to let the church be the church-not an institution, but a living, breathing, missionary community. Postmodernity is characterized by a spiritual thirst that cannot be satisfied with doctrine, strategy, or institution. Only the person of Jesus and his body, the community of believers, can quench such a thirst. The church can fulfill its mission in a postmodern world through the reproduction of authentic communities of Jesus-followers.
Making the most of postmodern opportunities. The breakdown of modernity and the demise of the modern church are setting the stage for God to do a new thing. We must understand the spiritual, cultural, environmental, political, and psychological dynamics of our rapidly changing society, and respond to these new occasions to interpret the gospel. However, the ultimate factor for the church’s fruitful engagement with postmodernity is the church’s engagement with God. More than ever before, the church needs to learn to pray with its eyes open, just as the apostle Paul exhorted the Colossian church: "Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. … Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (Col. 4:2-6). God is at work in and through postmodernity. The church must "watch and pray" with a readiness to make the most of "every opportunity."
Such a stance demands a genuine spirit of humility toward our mission context, a readiness to change, and a radical dependence upon God to understand how to permeate postmodern cultures with the gospel. Just as the men of Issachar were commended because they "understood the times and knew what Israel should do" (1 Chron. 12:32), so the church must understand both the times and the ways of the Lord.
It is time for the church to open her eyes to the postmodern fields and sow the gospel seed in a way that will be readily carried on and reproduced by new postmodern believers. May the Holy Spirit empower the church today to simply live the Way of Jesus in postmodern cultures.
Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you into the [postmodern] world. John 20:21.
From 1992 to 1999 Jonathan Campbell served as church planter strategist for the greater Los Angeles area with the North American Mission Board and as adjunct professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. He earned his Ph.D. from the School of World Mission, Fuller Seminary, where he studied mission to postmodern cultures.
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