An Introduction to Postmodernism (and Why It’s Not a Bad Word)

October 5th, 2009

Maybe you think postmodernism doesn’t have anything to do with you and what you do. But guess what? Postmodernism has a lot to do with you and your ministry to teenagers.

Those who are truly interested in ministering to youth today have to understand and engage postmodernism, because whether we recognize it or not this generation is highly influenced by postmodern attitudes. Postmodernism is only going to gain influence, so we might as well understand what we’re dealing with. The good news is, postmodernism can be a very positive thing for your students and their faith.

Perhaps it’s not even fair to talk about postmodernism as a specific movement. In proper English grammar, one only capitalizes the name of a movement or structure if you can point to a specific beginning or central organizing body, such as the Roman Catholic Church or the Democratic Party. There was no single individual who woke up one day and decided to start postmodernism, nor is there one central figure who embodies what it means to be postmodern. In fact, even attempting a definition of postmodernism is difficult, perhaps even impossible, because so many areas of study have a group that can be called postmodern.

Perhaps the place to start is to look at the word itself. Since the prefix post is another way of saying after or beyond, perhaps the first step to understanding postmodernism is to look at what modernism is.


While we generally describe something as modern if it’s the newest thing on the block, modernism itself is several hundred years old. Modernism finds its roots in the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries with philosophers such as René Descartes and Immanuel Kant. Descartes’ best-known sound bite, “I think, therefore I am” sums up what modernism is all about. The human mind is lifted up as the apex of evolution because of its capacity to reason. Our ability to reason and learn and discover new things would lead us towards the perfect society, our medical advances would end all disease, and our technology would complete our dominance over Mother Nature.

Because each of us has this mental capacity, modernists lifted up the individual as the most important component of a society, rather than the family or local community. Traditional structures of authority (like the church) were challenged because they were considered to be an affront to people’s ability to think and reason for themselves. As a result, the church became more marginalized and society became what we now call secular. Clearly, the values of modernism are alive and well in Western society. And clearly the values of modernism have invaded the church.

All of this started to break down in the 20th century. In Europe, World War I was hailed as “the war to end all wars,” with promises that the troops would be home by Christmas. Instead, the four-year bloodbath killed a whole bunch of young men and displayed an evil side to technological progress. World War II drove the point home even further with the systematic genocide of six million Jews and the advent of nuclear weapons.

Technology and progress clearly have their dark sides. In the United States the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression displayed the limits of humanity’s ingenuity and will to succeed. It was at this time that the phenomenon we now call postmodernism began to arise.

Tenets of Postmodernism

Postmodernism isn’t an outright rejection of modernism in the way that modernism rejected what had come before it. People who are postmodern seek to preserve modern attitudes and philosophies that they find helpful, as well as rediscovering older traditions and ways of thinking. In his book,Postmodern Youth Ministry, Tony Jones identifies several attitudes present within our postmodern culture.

Postmoderns recognize that it’s almost impossible to be objective about anything. Our socio-economic backgrounds, our upbringings, our friends, our educational levels, and everything else about us influence the way we perceive every situation. Even when we simply observe a situation, we interact with it and change it to some degree. Human beings simply cannot be totally objective—and that’s okay.

Postmoderns seek to understand more fully what it is that affects the way we see things. Only by recognizing this inherent and inescapable subjectivity can we see more clearly. The result: postmodernism is all about self-awareness.

Postmoderns also have a nuanced view of truth. Some go as far as to say “there is no Truth with a capital ‘T’.” As with subjectivity, postmodernism recognizes that what we hold to be true is anchored in fundamental assumptions that vary from person to person. This scares many Christians, because it sounds suspiciously like moral relativism: the idea that there’s no absolute truth. While many secular postmoderns certainly fall into the camp of moral relativism, that’s not the case with all postmoderns. Postmodern Christians don’t necessarily believe that there’s no absolute truth, but many believe that it’s very hard to understand and even harder to articulate.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber believed that truth is the very essence of God, and that God cannot be contained by human language. To be able to understand and articulate something is to exercise a degree of control over it, and we certainly cannot control God. Postmodern Christians believe that truth, like God, is transcendent and can only be encountered through being, not through intellectual understanding.

As a result of these attitudes about subjectivity and truth, postmoderns believe that everything must be questioned. This can be another scary thing for Christians, because questioning basic assumptions and things we’ve taken for granted all our lives can seem to border on heresy. However, postmoderns believe that people can’t truly believe something unless they’ve honestly considered that the alternative might be true. This is very different from the type of apologetics found in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, or Josh McDowell’s More Evidence that Demands a Verdict, which are based on the modern idea of reason and rationale…convincing ourselves beyond any doubt.

Paul Tillich, one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, maintained that doubt is an essential element of true faith. Superficial faith is that which holds on to supposed truths for the sake of security. Tillich said that “this element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it must be accepted.” Tillich articulated a postmodern attitude by recognizing that an element of doubt or uncertainty is an integral part of faith precisely because of the radical transcendence of God and God’s truth. Because the mortal mind can never “possess” God, the life of faith always involves anxiety.

Postmodernism and Youth Ministry

While it’s fine to understand that these are some, though certainly not all, of the attitudes of postmodernism, the question still remains: what does this have to do with me and my work in youth ministry? In his book,Purpose Driven Youth Ministry, Doug Fields identifies five essential purposes for youth ministry: ministry, fellowship, worship, discipleship, and evangelism. While Fields himself insists that this model isn’t the end-all and be-all of youth ministry, it’s a helpful structure to examine how Postmodernism affects your youth group.

Fields defines ministry as “meeting needs with love.” Ministry is also about helping kids find their passion and their calling from God. One of the most effective ways that many youth ministries do this is to take mission trips. Many of you have vivid memories of loading up vans full of teenagers, very brave adult volunteers, tools, and piles of luggage, going out to the middle of nowhere to serve people you don’t even know, being tired and sweaty, having no sleep and bad food…and loving it! Teenagers come back from mission trips with a deeper faith commitment and a strong desire to serve God in their own communities. This fits in perfectly with postmodern attitudes.

Remember, postmodernism is all about self-awareness. Postmodern teenagers prefer to experience something rather than just hearing about it. A youth worker can preach servanthood and selflessness all he or she wants, but it takes an experience of servanthood to drive those words home. Postmodernism encourages kids to be introspective and find the meaning behind the ministry. It both challenges and deepens their faith.

Fellowship is a fancy word for community building. Remember, one of the chief values of modernism is the individual. Modernism also preaches that technology is the way of the future. The last decade has seen the rise of the Internet, cell phones, and other communication technologies that were supposed to bring us all closer together. Instead they have isolated us from actual human contact. However, our desires for contact and community drive us to Internet chat rooms, instant messaging, Internet dating services, and an ever-growing voyeuristic fascination with reality TV. This is what modernism has brought us.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, rejects the false claims that technology will bring us together. Many postmodern Christians are involved in intentional communities where people get away from their computers, turn off their cell phones, and share openly and honestly about what’s going on in their lives. Postmodernism embraces the old fashioned idea of community and emphasizes the value of fellowship and authentic relationships.

Like fellowship and community, modernism tells us that worship isn’t necessary because we can figure it all out for ourselves through reason. If we absolutely have to believe in God, we can encounter God just fine by ourselves. While postmodernism doesn’t deny that one can and should have significant individual encounters with the Lord, having those encounters in a community setting is equally as important. Postmodern Christians recognize that they can learn from other people’s experiences and insights into the divine, and they actively seek out that knowledge from others.

Postmoderns also recognize the value of tradition. Many youth groups have abandoned spotlights, Power Point presentations, and electric guitars (not that they’re not cool, too) in favor of candlelight, contemplative music or pure silence, and ancient spiritual disciplines such as lectio divina, Ignatian prayer, and Taizé-style worship. Postmodernism encourages us to explore worship as an experiential and participatory act. It takes seriously Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Fields calls discipleship the “building up or strengthening of believers in their quest to be like Christ.” Unfortunately, the way discipleship is sometimes practiced is tainted by modernist values. Modernity values efficiency and is results-oriented. Modernists say that if we can just get a kid not to drink, smoke, or have premarital sex, then we’ve done our job. That’s fine until we remember that Jesus said if we even look at someone lustfully we’ve committed adultery in our hearts (Matthew 5:28).

Fields’ use of the word quest to describe discipleship is actually a perfect metaphor from a postmodern perspective. Postmoderns tend to think of their faith in terms of journey rather than event. Through this lens, Christian discipleship is truly a quest, an adventure.

Postmodern discipleship cares more about the condition of our kids’ hearts than about their actions. Obviously, postmodern youth workers aren’t going to tell teenagers that it’s a good idea to drink, smoke, and have casual sex; what they do is equip teenagers with insights, knowledge about the possible consequences of their actions, and questions to ask themselves when faced with a moral decision. The postmodern method of discipleship gives kids the tools they need to know why they should make moral decisions; it doesn’t just tell them what they must do. Thus, their behavior will reflect what’s in their hearts, which is, after all, what God really cares about.

Evangelism is probably the area where postmodernism is most scary to Christians. Postmodernism calls us not only to question how we do evangelism, but also whether or not we should follow the traditional evangelical paradigm. As already stated, Modernism values reason, efficiency, and results. The prime example of modernist evangelism is found in the Four Spiritual Laws. The booklet backs up each of its propositions with Bible verses. This “proof-texting,” as some biblical scholars call it, follows the classic steps of a reasoned argument: proposition and proof, proposition and proof.

The Four Spiritual Laws are efficient, because they sum up an interpretation of the gospel message in simple, easy-to-understand terms. Youth workers can train students to share this booklet in less than an hour. The booklet is the epitome of evangelical efficiency. The Four Spiritual Laws are also results oriented. The entire presentation is designed to get the listener to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and to be “saved.” Postmodernism calls into question the assumptions lying behind this strategy of evangelism.

The biggest assumption behind the Four Spiritual Laws booklet is that both the listener and the sharer believe the same things about the Bible. The Christian sharing the Four Laws believes the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God. The problem is that the listener is unsaved. (Otherwise, why would you be sharing with them? Results oriented, remember?) So they don’t necessarily consider the Bible to be authoritative, much less infallible. They won’t necessarily be convinced by the proof offered to back up the intellectual propositions.

One could always use the 2 Timothy 3:16 argument that all Scripture is inspired by God, but to say that one should believe that the Bible is perfectly true because the Bible says so is circular reasoning, which wouldn’t be accepted by any rational modernist.

Postmodernism calls into question our subjective assumptions. To a postmodern Christian, evangelism doesn’t begin with the assertion of certain facts, but a reflection upon how an individual has experienced the Holy in her own life. She then searches for points of connection in someone else’s life. Postmodernism seriously questions whether or not true evangelism happens on street corners or brief encounters on the beach. It suggests that true evangelism happens in homes, coffee houses, and late-night talks in dorm rooms. Postmodern evangelism is the sharing of souls rather than the imparting of doctrine.

Whether or not we recognize it, we all have the inherent subjectivity of postmodern thought in our own lives. Postmodernism encourages us to have the self-awareness to be honest about what’s already there. While some may see this as an affront to faith, others see postmodernism as a return to faith. It’s a willingness to engage the mystery that’s an implicit part of the Christian faith. Postmodernism is here to stay, and if youth workers can recognize what it is and how to engage it, it can be an ally in helping students deepen their personal faith. After all, Hebrews 11:1 tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”


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