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Postmodern Opportunities by Neil Cole

Postmodern Opportunities

by Neil Cole

Postmodernism is like a bar of soap in dirty bath water, as soon as you think you have a good grasp it slips out of your hand and is lost in the murky water leaving you groping again blindly.

Perhaps it is hard to get a hold of because it isn’t really born out of a linear, cognitive thought process—that would be too modern. It is really more of an emotional reaction to modernism than a philosophical choice. I find it almost a little humorous to read how people analyze postmodernism from the viewpoint of a linear philosophical process as though it was all thought out in advance and we all agree on a chosen philosophy of life. Postmodernism is not a logical choice as much as an emotional and even cultural reaction.

There really shouldn’t be a postmodern manifesto as though someone sat down and wrote out what our thoughts are and where we are heading. As soon as someone does it will be offensive to the rest of us, after all, we’re postmodern and angry at the world! You can’t put a label on us!

Even the name “postmodern” lacks logic. How can we be post-what is now? Does that make us futurists? However, the word really is fitting in many facets because postmodernism is really just a reaction against something. It is looking at the modern experiment and declaring it a failure. It is more about what it isn’t than what it is. Defined by what it is against rather than for.

Modernism, born in the enlightenment, lied to us. It told us that the human mind could solve all our problems. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared that poverty would be done away with in our generation. Johnson is gone, poverty remains. Science promised we could eliminate all disease like they did with small pox. Today we have more disease than ever, new diseases are running rampant…and small pox is threatening a comeback. Modernism has failed. Welcome to a world of postmodernism. The emerging world lacks definition and is more a reaction than a proactive solution.

Shifting Values of an Emerging World

Because postmodernism is more an emotional reaction it can best be understood with values. Values express the way people feel about things and what is important to them. I have found that values are best explained in contrasts, and since postmodernism is a study in contrast it fits to posture its values in contrast to modern values. In the next six values I will look at the shift from a modern worldview to a more postmodern.

1. Relationship over Mission. The modern mind was all about the importance of the mission at hand. Every business proudly proclaimed their mission statement in a plaque by the cash register to let us know that they exist for us, not our money (yeah, right). Every leader had a personal mission statement. People were valued by how helpful they were to the mission. People didn’t hide their agenda but viewed all of life through the lenses of their own task at hand. If you helped me with my agenda then you were a friend, but if not you were unashamedly forgotten because the mission was first and of utmost importance.

The postmodern values relationship more than they do mission. Even if you have nothing to do with the fulfillment of my mission statement, knowing you and spending time with you is of value.
This is the strongest of values in a postmodern context. It dictates the other values. For example: truth is relative to postmodern people, most often because they value relationships with all kinds of people and don’t want to exclude any. Because relationships are so important lying about who you really are is the greatest sin because it makes the entire relationship built on deception, therefore authenticity is also valued.

Postmodern people want to know and be known.

Mission is still important to the postmodern, but it is secondary to relationship. Mission to the postmodern is more about a sense of doing good things then about promoting a specific market niche or corporate cause.

The message of the kingdom of God has always flown best on the wings of relationships. From the beginning this has always been God’s plan. I often take an informal survey when speaking to a group about the important of spreading the good news through relationships. I ask people to raise their hands if they first received the gospel in an anonymous fashion void of any relational witness. For example, you were flipping through the channels on TV and heard an evangelist preach and got saved all by yourself. Or you heard a lot of noise in the local stadium and went in thinking it was a Cubs game only to find out it’s a Billy Graham crusade and accepted Jesus. Very few usually raise their hands.

Then I ask them to raise their hands if a close friend, relative, coworker or classmate showed them the difference Christ can make in a life and explained the gospel to them. Usually 95% of the room will raise their hands at this point.

I then ask a very important question: Why it is that when we consider ways to reach out to the lost we always plan events rather than using the natural relationships God has already given to us?

A serious problem the church faces is that her people are separated relationally from the world and find it difficult to spend any meaningful time with lost people. It is very common to find Christians who have a difficult time finding any unbelievers that they know personally. Often they went strictly to Christian Schools, work for Christian organizations and shop only at Christian stores. They only know what a non-Christian looks like from watching Jerry Springer on TV. No wonder our idea of reaching the world with the gospel is often nothing more than sending the church choir to the mall at Christmas time to sing songs which are already playing over the loud speakers.

This is all going to change as younger people emerge in the kingdom. They will have a relational bent that will help in the advancement of the kingdom way beyond cold-turkey door knocking and passing out tracts to strangers on the subway.

2. Authenticity over Excellence. A short time ago it seemed as though every book on the non-fiction bestseller list had the word “excellence” in it. We all wanted to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack by our standards of excellence. A simple search of Amazon.com for books with the word excellence in it resulted in 153,744 options.

Today things have changed and authenticity is the highest value. People have found that it is possible to have excellence and yet not be real. So many have worked hard to have a façade of quality but in truth were shallow and lacked substance behind the show. This is why authenticity is so important. Postmodern people can smell a lack of authenticity immediately.

This desire for authenticity has even affected the not so real world of advertising. “Get Real” is a slogan for a popular soft drink that is on the same shelf next to one that claims “It’s The Real Thing”. Graphic images are not so crisp and clean with sharp edges like they once had been. Broken letters, off kilter lines, shaky camera angles all are more desired than the perfect graphic images of the past. Logos that look like they were typed on an old pre-electric typewriter became very popular. Now that these images are seen as mainstream they no longer have the prestige of being real and are passing from the scene.

Reality shows are taking over all the time slots on TV. They began on MTV with shows such as Real World, but now the young audiences are increasing in spending power and influence so all the networks are catching on. While they may be anything but similar to our “real lives” they are unscripted and have a sense of “anything can happen” that keeps us watching. There is no moral to the story and no hidden subplot, but a sense of intrigue as the outcome cannot be so easily predicted. We can also feel a sense of identity with real people, even in surreal circumstances rather than actors whose words were written by committee in a third floor room at the network offices.

Of course, all of this is just a corrupted expression of the heart of true postmodern values for authenticity. Real authenticity will always shine in the sea of the pseudo-real that is pumped at us through the media. Yeah, I remember when I was single and I had a whole slew of beautiful single bachelorettes competing for my affection and a million dollars. There is nothing real at all about Real World. And all this shows that underneath the surface, people really want something that is authentic but they are being left unsatisfied with what the world is offering.

The highest complement is that you are real. The greatest offense in a postmodern world is to try and be something that you are not. Hypocrisy is a crime of high treason. In fact, there is hardly another sin that is worse. It is the unforgivable sin to the postmodern.

I was taking a short puddle-jumper flight from Bloomington, Indiana to Chicago one day and there were only two of us passengers, myself and a collegiate about to graduate. Because of the short list of passengers they asked us to both sit in the back next to each other for balance (as if she and I weighed anything at all alike). We began talking and continued for the next hour. She was about to graduate and was on her way to an important job interview at a big corporation headquartered in Chicago. She was dressed very business like on the outside, but fully postmodern on the inside.

I wanted to ask her what her goals and dreams were. I expected her to say something about starting her own business, making partner in a law firm, write books, teach or start a family. I asked her with a smile, “So your starting your new life, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I was speaking jokingly, but her answer was very serious. She said, “I want to be respected.”

This is a good example of the values of people who are postmodern. She didn’t really care what she did, she cared that those who know her best respected her for being authentic.

Even though they value authenticity over excellence, don’t be mistaken, the postmodern may still perform with excellence, but only if it is all about authenticity first and never at the expense of being real.

This is a chance for the kingdom of God to shine brightly among the darkness of fake real. We can show people a new reality that is more real than the superficial lies being thrust on us all. I commend people for their value of authenticity because it is close to the heart of God. Satan is a father of lies, but Jesus is truth incarnate. He is real. We don’t need a postmodernesque advertising campaign to show the world how real He is, we just need to let people encounter Him themselves.

3. Experience over Proposition. Because modernism was built upon the rational mind, all solutions were found in discovering the right formula. Much of what was important tended to be knowing and saying things that were correct.

Today, people are looking for something they can experience, not just hear about. This is becoming an experiential culture. The occult and witchcraft are on the rise because they offer a spiritual experience.

Games have moved from cards and dice on a table to the video screen and now into role playing and virtual reality.

The postmodern says, “If I can’t see it, taste it, feel it, smell it, touch it…it isn’t real.” Drug abuse is not declining even though our best modern minds are explaining all the ill effects…because people want to experience something more than they desire health. The sex industry is also doing well. All kinds of sexual experiences are being experimented with by this emerging culture.

Extreme sports are growing in popularity because they taste a real experience of life. To feel the heart beat faster, the adrenalin pumping thorough your body. To hear the air fill your lungs and feel the wind in your face, this is experiencing life to its fullest.

Pushed even to its extreme, some might argue that suicide is increasing in part because it is experiential. Granted that this is perhaps not the common reason, but because this is an emerging culture that goes to extremes in experience they have a very high suicidal rate.

There was a time when many churches were condemning people for seeking a spiritual experience. This is unfortunate because it has left many churches that lack any real encounter with the spiritual life that Jesus died to give them. While we don’t base our faith on experience alone, a faith that lacks experience is held suspect by God (James 1:21-27).

There are many people turning to cults, the occult and eastern religion seeking after a true spiritual encounter. We can offer them an encounter with the real creator and we should. Once they have tasted the real God they will have a difficult time (though not impossible) returning to the lesser gods the world offers.

We need to take the Christian life out of the library and back into the streets where the Spirit of God can demonstrate His fruitfulness and allow people to encounter real spiritual life. Jesus didn’t die so that we can win philosophical arguments and remain stuck in the pastor’s study or the Sunday pulpit. Our lives should be experienced in the crucible of the real world. If our spiritual lives are not real, then they are not worth keeping; if they are real they should shine brightly for the world in darkness to see.

4. Mystery over Solution. The modern mind would hotly pursue one thing for every query…the answer. For every postulation there was always one solution and the modern mind would search for it.

The process was always to break down the whole into smaller parts in a grand search to discover what makes it “tick”. We have discovered a lot in doing so. For one thing, we have discovered that the solution is not always able to be found. We have also found that breaking things down to analytical terms does not always provide the best perspective of discovery. It is not a holistic approach and we lose much in the analysis. Sometimes we must observe the whole to understand it. Sometimes we learn more about an object by observing the effect it has on other things and the environment around it. When we remove it from its own natural context and study it in a laboratory we lose much of what we ought to be observing.

We have also discovered that we can not always remove things and observe them in a sterile environment to prove things and the result is that we come up with poor theories that we cover in a gloss of scientific language and promote them as if they are proven…they are not.

The result is that we have duped ourselves, our society and our children so that now we find the scientific world to be less than trusted. Today the medical field, NASA, and Institutes of higher learning are all in some degree of interrogation as people are discovering that they are not as “right” as we were led to believe. We are discovering that these are not such noble entities with altruistic values. They have their own selfish agenda and are not above corruption. Today, it is not just politics and religion that is suspect; it is business, education and medicine as well.

Nevertheless, these modernist movements continue to postulate outrageous theories about the start of life, the meaning of life and the answers to life’s problems to an increasingly inattentive populace.

We have tried to define life in a linear timeline and are waking up to the fact that life is more mosaic than linear and is anything but formulaic.

The postmodern is not obsessed with solutions. In fact, often they find the mysterious more attractive then the solution. The journey is better than the destination.

Life just seems more poetic in a postmodern world rather than the sterile scientific world created in a modern classroom. Postmodernism fits better in a life of chaos and confusion where things don’t occur in an orderly fashion like they may in the artificial environment of a laboratory. Creativity is highly valued in the emerging postmodern world. The church planters of the future won’t follow the corporate formula passed down from their fathers. They will be artists and musicians unafraid of trying new things and failing. They will be unmoved by the façade of success dictated by desired results and measurable milestones. They are not in pursuit of the end as much as the path of discovery itself.

Rather than a formulaic approach to reaching this world that offers a four step solution to all of life’s woes, the emerging church will present the adventure of following Christ in a life-long pursuit through hell and high water. Rather than a simplistic solution to my difficulties that no longer rings true, the kingdom of God offers a real relationship with a God who has suffered injustice Himself and suffers alongside of us as we walk through life together. Gone are the days of “Ten Rules to Success in Your Life”. Welcome the message of the kingdom that has mystery, paradox and poetry. This is a message that finds meaning in relationship and in experience.

One of Paul’s favorite terms when speaking of church life is “mystery”. We have spent too long in our modern mind-set trying to explain all mystery and lost sight of the asset it is too have mystery in your faith. When people come to the door with religions that have all the answers I hold their faith in suspect because if you can explain everything about your God than your God is pretty small. I love the Triune Godhead because it is beyond my full grasp. I don’t apologize for that, I revel in it.

5. Diversity over Uniformity. The day of wearing uniforms in church is over, and I’m not picking on the Salvation Army here. There once was a day that you could go to church and see everybody wearing clothing of the same color and style as they lead worship in a service. Not only anymore, today not only will the clothes be of a different color, but probably the skin.

Postmodernism is born in the urban setting and the cities are people magnets. The cities are growing in population but also in diversity. There are about 120 languages represented in the school system where my wife works.

Born in a world that gets smaller every day due to technology, trade and people migration, postmodernism has a high value of diversity. The modern mindset valued tolerance, but tolerance is not enough for the postmodern who needs diversity.

A meeting that is all Caucasian or all African American is suspect and not inviting to a postmodern person. Diversity is more than tolerance of others, it is embracing the differences, it is valuing the beauties that are so different.

The kingdom of God is probably the best place to see the diversity of God’s creation. Unfortunately, many have said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in the U. S. I often find my eyes tearing when I read of Revelations description of the kingdom being made up of people from every tribe, nation and tongue (Rev. 7:9-10).

I am a part of a beautiful church. In this one little church you will meet people who are Mexican, Romanian, African American, Caucasian, Samoan, Chilean, Palestinian, Egyptian, Native American, and Filipino. We have poor unemployed people, college students (usually these first two mentioned are the same), wealthy business owners, homeless people, and hard working middle-class people struggling from pay check to pay check. We have a couple people in their late sixties and some toddlers wobbling from lap to lap hoping for a second cookie from a friendly church member. We have two wheel chairs present each night. This church has sent missionaries to relocate overseas to start similar churches in France, Spain, North Africa, Cyrpus and Japan.

This is probably not impressive for many large urban churches, but this is a church of between 20 and 25 people meeting in a living room!

Such a church is very attractive to someone who wants intimate relationships with real people in an experiential context and is looking for expressions of diversity. This is what I believe the church of the future will look like.

6. Journey over destination. It once was true that the finished product itself was reason for effort in the process. Today that is changing. The creative process itself is now as important as the destination itself.

The kingdom of God has been packaged as a one time gift, when once received is done. But the Bible describes a process. We are all in a journey from glory to glory. Our salvation is past, present and future. We begin a life changing process that has no ceiling to our growth potential in this life. Our graduation is not complete until there is a flat line on the monitor next our bed.

It used to be that all works of art needed to have a bottom line message of salvation in order to be of worth in the church. Hopefully, those days are gone. The creative process itself is as much a cause for art as any utilitarian message because God is creator and to create is to be a follower of God. This will open the door once again for creativity and a variety of expressions of art.

When one surveys the church of the future he will find many more artistic expressions. I am finding that a majority of church planters I meet are in fact artists. Artists starting churches is quite hopeful to me.


One of the most successful cinematic ventures of all time was the movie Titanic. The movie touched a nerve in an emerging postmodern culture. It was a movie about the failure of a modern and “unsinkable” technological machine and the importance of real relationships however short-lived they are.

The Western church has bought into the modern lies and is heading in a linear path straight for the iceberg of postmodernism at record breaking speed. We have had plenty of warning and must adjust our present course. In this next chapter I will lay out what I see as some needed changes if we are to correct our direction before it is too late.

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