Missional Perspectives 07, Must We Respond to Postmodernism?

Christian Ministry Resources -

Missional Perspectives for Church Leaders 07 - RESPONDING TO POSTMODERNISM


Part of the following Ministry Resource Guides: Missional Resources and Church Leadership, Philosophical Foundations

This is part of a larger article on Missional Perspectives. It discusses issues that were important to the first edition of the site, and is now part of the site archive that is not updated past 2012. See the Related Areas at the bottom of the page for all the articles in the series.

Most ministry literature today assumes the postmodern context presents such an array of challenges to missional effectiveness that churches must be culturally aware and sensitive. Generally speaking, I agree. On the other hand, there are times when this assumption needs to be proven. This is the contention made by Eddie Hammett, who in 2004 presented a paper to the Evangelical Theological Society, “An Ecclesiological Assessment of the Emerging Church.”[1] In one section, he questions the central premise of the emerging church by asking, “Must All Churches Respond to Postmodernism” (pp. 5-7).  In response, he offers four factors that question the accuracy of that premise.

  • First, the shift to postmodernism has not happened everywhere. There are still large pockets of North America where people live out their lives in much the same manner as their parents did before them.
  • Second, even in areas that are strongly affected by postmodernism, there are churches that are effectively reaching their communities who are decidedly not part of the emerging church movement. (Hammett cites the experience of Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington D.C. and Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City.)
  • Third, there is the continuing influence of parents on the spiritual lives of their children. Hammett quotes Christian Smith’s research that the vast majority of American adolescents are not spiritual seekers or questers of the type often described by journalists and some scholars, but are instead mostly oriented toward and engaged in conventional religious traditions and communities. The vast majority of religious American teenagers are exceedingly conventional in their religious identity and practices. Hammett concludes that his research gives no basis for the idea that teenagers need some radically new postmodern type of program or ministry. It may be helpful to balance Hammett’s observations by reading Smith directly, but it is safe to say that not all youth are as entrenched in postmodernism as is often suggested.
  • Fourth, part or some of the influence of postmodern culture is already waning. He quotes Paul Vitz, who sees the wave of the future as transmodernism, and Millard Erickson, who suggests that we are rapidly approaching an era he calls “post-postmodernism,” a term that highlights the fact that postmodernism is also beginning to be transcended.

Hammett surmises, “All these factors suggest that the premise that we must respond to postmodernism as a necessary condition for reaching the next generation is problematic at best.” He continues:

“Of course, churches should not ignore what is going on in the culture around them and should strive to make their message intelligible. Loving our neighbor as ourselves, being all things to all men, and making the message clear are all biblical imperatives (Rom. 13:9; 1 Cor. 9:22; Col. 4:4), and require taking cognizance of the worldview of those to whom we speak. But this is simply doing what all believers are always called to do; namely, responding to scriptural commands. To insist that all churches must change their methods and message in light of postmodern culture to reach the next generation seems simply to be an inaccurate overstatement.”

Hammett makes an important point. Not all ministry settings are immersed in the postmodern ethos. How does one decide? It depends on the context. A church in a small Midwestern town of 800 whose community remains relatively stable may not need to be as intentional about cultural exegesis as a church in the heart of urban Kansas City.

The Ministry Resource Guide leans toward the idea that postmodernism is an influential force in today’s ministry formulations. Yet it is important not to impose this in settings where it is not an issue. Again, the context determines.

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[1] See Accessed 10-05-2011.

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