The Church in Postmodern Post-Christian America – and that’s the good news!

Dealing with our postmodern culture is one of the most important issues the American church is facing today.  In the lecture on just what the church is, Dr. James Flynn with the help of Dr. Joseph Umidi, reviewed how institutionalism has had adverse effects on the church – often times shutting down creativity and enhancing stagnation within church bodies.  This is an important point to remember when dealing with a postmodern culture that has an inherent skepticism of institutions.


Postmodernism, as described by David T. Olsen in his book The American Church in Crisis, describes the postmodern as a culture that largely rejects logic and reason and replaces it with uncertainty and chaos where subjectivity replaces objective truth.[1]  Institutional church experience will not cut it with the postmodern mindset.  Going back to Flynn’s lecture, when absolutes of form replace the function of what the church is to be, the postmodern person usually has a strong negative reaction.  The concept of “we do it this way because we have always done it this way” is lost to the postmodern mind. Postmodern thinking values relationship and creative spirit over conventional formulation.


The attendance declines in mainline and Roman Catholic Churches described in Olsen’s work reflect a lack of adaption to the postmodern person.  While not the sole reason for the decline, the tendency for ritualistic form without much room for creative output along with the hieratical structure of those institutions give them two strikes when trying to appeal to today’s nonbeliever.  If the average nonbeliever has an innate distrust of institutions and ritual for ritual sake, it will be tough to fill churches that lead with that form.


            Evangelical churches are not off the hook either.  In their book Unchristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons reflect on the 6 stereotypes that plague the Evangelical church.  While their data is over 10 years old, the young people that Kinnaman and Lyons are older, more established in life, and probably have not changed their minds.  Profoundly influenced by the postmodern worldview, these people view Evangelicals as being hypocritical, too focused on conversion, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental.[2]  Like the mainline churches and Roman Catholics, Evangelicals have done an excellent job at making themselves irrelevant to the postmodern person.


            What is interesting though is the conclusions Olsen, Kinnaman, and Lyons came to.  All three conclude that it is through getting back to what Jesus taught, how he taught it, and how he related to people.  Through relating to people as people, giving them dignity and respect as tow where they are in life and in their spiritual journeys that will attract postmodern people to Christianity.  Because relationships are significant to postmodern nonbelievers, it through genuine friendships without ulterior motives that Christians will be able to deliver the message of the Gospel.  It used to be that evangelist would ask “if you died tonight, would you go to Heaven?”  The answer has changed from “I don’t know” to the postmodern “I don’t care.”  Now the questions should be, “Do you want to grab a cup of coffee?” or “how is your family?” or “I see you are down, how can I help you?”  Those questions asked without religious baggage or motive, is how the Christian can be Jesus in a postmodern world.

[1] David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), under “62%,” Kindle.

[2] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity– and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, ©2007), 29-30.

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