Postmodernism and Spiritual Formation Part 2 – Implications for Sp Form Ministry

If we take the view that postmodernism is neither the savior of our times nor evil incarnate, that it isn’t even truly a finished product, I believe we can find helpful implications for spiritual formation ministry in our congregations.

Like it or not we are living in a culture which is becoming increasingly comfortable with ambiguity. Roles that used to be rigidly defined are loosening (some for the better and some not) and definitions that used to be ironclad are becoming more elusive. Throughout all of this transition the language of journey has become in many ways a dominant theme for postmoderns. This seems to signify a shift from thinking of the world as a set of propositions to master to an adventure to be experienced.

The quest or pilgrimage has long contained a spiritual overtone. Pilgrims set out even though they were often unsure of how long their journey would take, what perils they would have to face, or what necessarily would await them at the end of their quest. A quest is different than a trip to the store. Today when we set off to find something, our streamlined process ensures that the product we seek is the focus of the journey, and time is of the essence. However a quest is a different kind of journey. The trip itself (which is not necessarily very streamlined or efficient) is intended to be formative. Obtaining wisdom and growth through the experience is often as important as the final goal (or may be the only actual goal).

Many postmoderns, especially those in the “Emergent Church” circles are ceasing to refer to non-Christians as the “seekers.” The dropping of such language is often seen as a threat to the distinctive message of Christianity. In some cases this may be a valid concern. However, without denying that “once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God” (1 Peter 2:10); without denying that we were lost and now we are found, I acknowledge that I am in so many ways still a “seeker.” I may not be seeking assurance for my eternal dwelling, but there are a lot of things in my spiritual growth that I have yet to attain. For one:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Phil 3:10-14(emphasis mine)

And this is where the rubber meets the road for Christians. As Paul goes on to say, we need to live up to what we have already attained. Or as Paul phrased it in Ephesians 4, we need to “walk worthily of the calling we have received.” The language of journey is so very appropriate. We are indeed on a journey; a lifelong journey of being conformed to the image of Christ. This is a quest that begins in the cradle and does not end this side of the grave. We are in the process of learning to see more clearly. Though we are found, we are still wandering toward home – sometimes making a straight path and sometimes completely turned around.

The spiritual formation ministry in our congregations should be very intentional about this: that we are journeying with Christ. There is much to learn while on this earth. God is the author of truth: Paul found pieces of wisdom in the pagan poets and we too should claim truth wherever we find it. Our journey may bless us with opportunities to learn countless lessons from numerous cultures – if we are humble enough to admit we still have things to learn. But that does not mean that our story – the story of God’s interaction with humanity, found in the Bible – is just one of many equal voices.

There is a popular way of thinking which says that all spiritual realizations in humanity emanate from God and point us to God. This philosophy claims that the human experience of the spiritual can be found in many places and many theologies, all of which serve to bridge the gap between our physical existence and another metaphysical one. Interspersed throughout this claim are truths which we should not deny. All of these religious experiences are attempts to bridge this gap that we naturally feel between ourselves and something bigger than ourselves. And this urge emanates, I believe, directly from God. These urges find their source in the one God of the universe.

In this way it may be said that all of these narratives can find their place within the larger metanarrative of Jehovah God. That does not make them equal participants in dispensing grace or truth. Rather, like Paul in Athens we find ourselves able to say to our brothers and sisters that we can see how religious they are; we applaud their quest for exploring their spiritual existence; and we would love to tell them about the UNKNOWN GOD. For space reasons, I will not include the text here, but go back and read Acts 17:24-31 again (you can read it for free online at

Notice that in the scripture, Paul’s words did not convince many and it does not say that he proceeded to tell them how evil they were or foolish or anything. It just says that he left the council.

In No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton said that the truth does not need us to defend it, just to proclaim it clearly. As for defense, truth can handle its own. (my paraphrased version)

While I think there are situations where we are called to defend the truth, I also believe that many of us could benefit from a little humility where truth is concerned. Perhaps it is our own ego we are defending, I don’t know. But it could be that the postmodern aversion to absolute truth, misguided though it may be, is at least at some level a reaction to the self-centered, self-serving, arrogant and often deadly defenses of truth in our past. As a member of the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement I’ve been shaped both directly and indirectly by generations of staunch “defenders of the faith” who were sometimes as quick to disfellowship an “erring” brother as they were to condemn the pagans in “the denominations.” While I believe that we have learned a bit of grace (for the most part) the damage of our hurtful actions is being felt still.

One of the things that is most often maligned regarding openly postmodern churches is their decision to set aside the language of truth in favor of the language of authenticity. Before we are too quick to bring out the tar and feathers, let’s admit that the sons of Sceva could have benefited greatly from just such reconsideration. These guys were claiming a truth that was not authentic to the way they were living. Claiming authority such as Jesus or Paul (or scripture?) may not have the desired results if our lives are not being formed continually by those authorities we claim.

While I am opposed to dismissing truth altogether, I’m willing to entertain the notion that from time to time my obsession with truth may be blinding me to the real struggle I am having with authenticity. This does not mean that I ignore truth, deny truth or reject the validity of truth, but simply that I admit that my obsession does not make me the final arbiter of truth. I surrender myself to the author of truth and focus my energy on living in authentic relationship with Him rather than functioning solely as a hall-monitor, policing the comings-and-goings of my classmates…you know, specks, planks, irritated eyes, that whole deal.

The final issue that I have space to deal with at this time is the proliferation of single generation churches. These churches, often referred to as “young adult” or “emergent” have taken to heart the advice of many baby-boomer age church growth specialists…much to the chagrin of the baby boomers! The concept of finding a niche and focusing a congregation’s attention in that area is not new. Yet the Emergent church movement has taken this to a new level. Now this is where I’m going to get in trouble…

On the one hand the development of these churches frightens me in countless ways. The answer to our current dilemma in the Church is not more isolation and compartmentalizing. Just as I don’t believe adolescents can adequately learn to be adults by only spending time with other teens, I don’t think that young adults, middle-age adults or senior adults can hope to continue to mature in Christ if they only surround themselves with their peers.

If, in reading this, you have joyfully picked up your torches and hay forks, you may want to hold on a second. Before we are too harsh, I think we need to admit that this has been an approved practice for quite some time. We compartmentalize our ministries so that youth, childrens, women, men, senior adults, singles, young marrieds, those recovering from divorce or chemical dependency, and those who disapprove of all of the above groups each function as their own little fiefdoms. In addition to the compartmentalization of ministries the tyranny of the majority/minority can also create similar effects.

I recently referred to this as a twist on a familiar saying: “You take your toys and go home.” This is happening even now. Groups opposed to anything postmodern or emergent are circling the wagons, so to speak. Those who have a differing view are not tolerated and so in effect these churches have also created their own myopic communities. This statement can not in fairness be applied to all congregations which are hesitant or even opposed to postmodernism. However it may well be fair to say that it is as accurate a generalization as those leveled at the Emergents.

Again postmodern thought is neither our savior nor the Evil One’s emissary. There are indeed both struggles to overcome and strengths on which to be capitalized, some of which I’ve hinted at in this post. At the end of the day, if we are not able to admit in all humility that we “see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” and that we only “know in part” then perhaps we have yet to put our childish ways behind us.


Posted on February 16, 2006, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Bret,
    This series is very good. I love your balanced approach that highlights the good and the bad of postmodernism. And, your writing style is great-very readable. HOpe to see you soon,


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