George Barna responds to Postmodernism

As one who has done a fair amount of work on postmodernism, I am always attentive to discussions on the subject, though never surprised when one particular approach to postmodernism (the Neo-Nietzschean) is taken to be paradigmatic of the whole. From Barna’s answer to the question, “What is postmodernism?” it looks like he is taking that approach.

Postmodernism represents the change in worldview based on the ideas that there are no moral absolutes because truth is a relative construct; that life is mosaic rather than linear; that meaning is derived from the customization of reality rather than the acceptance of a mass reality; and that all you can know for certain is what you experience.

If we’re going to understand POSTmodernism, it helps to consider MODERNISM first. Speaking philosophically (although there are many other ways to speak, this seems to be the ball park in which most Christians think about postmodernism), modern thought has majored on Three interrelated themes: Epistemology (the question of how knowledge, especially certain knowledge works), Atomism (especially in its social form, Individualism), Universalism (a preference for the timeless, eternal, abstract and general over the particular, concrete and contingent).

The strongest stands of modern thought have followed Descartes and Locke in positing a foundational approach to knowledge. The strands of POSTmodernism that get the most press assume this position also. True knowledge – that which leads to certainty (which in morality might be termed “absolutes”) is foundationalist – that is, it is rationally built upon universal and indubitable propositions. These POSTmoderns differ from the moderns in that once they accept this criterion for true knowledge they reject the notion that it is actually attainable.

What we see in this variety of postmodernism is, then, more an extreme form of modernity than it is something different. This is also the case in the second area, Atomism. Within this version of PM, we see radical individualism, though frequently this variant appears to let its versions of Epistemology and Atomism moderate its hold on Universalism.

Fortunately, Barna moves beyond the theoretical into the practical. Here his repsonses are more helpful. When asked about how to reach this generation he responds:

First, you cannot effectively evangelize most of them by preaching at them. Effective evangelism with this group requires relationships, dialogue and a willingness to journey together. A Socratic form of evangelism – question-based, rather than didactic; long-term rather than hit-and-run; conversational rather than confrontational; backed up by personal modeling rather than institutional traditions and dogma – works best.

Second, there is neither interest in nor loyalty to the local church, so assumptions regarding the primacy of church affiliation are ill-advised. We do not want to automatically give in to people’s desires, but we also have to face certain realities regarding Scripture, culture and religious practices and tendencies. The format of the church that most people experience was man-made, not God-ordained. We have a lot of leeway regarding what the church should look like, and very little leeway regarding what we should believe. Consequently, we have to re-think the shape or model of the church required to penetrate young people in a completely different and rapidly changing culture.

Third, leadership is paramount to growing a healthy and far-reaching Church among young people. Vision, mobilization, motivation, and strategic direction are necessary for both appeal and impact. Having churches that lack strong, vision-driven leadership won’t get far.

This is good. Evangelism is about people relating to people. It’s not about finding the one effective strategy or assuming one-size-fits-all.

Next question: given the regular decrease in church membership over the past ten years (with few exceptions) what do you believe are the keys to “bringing them back?”

People respond to value. If they felt they were getting something of value, they would devote themselves to the ends of the church. Their absence suggests that they are not receiving perceived value. Value is reflected in different things to different people.

For regular church-goers value may be a great children’s ministry, great preaching, belonging to a loving community, and so forth. For individuals who are not faith-focused, it may relate to friendships, doing acts of kindness that make a difference in people’s lives, gaining meaning in life or achieving a sense of belonging. When people adopt a church, they want a place that fills in the gaps in their life or that helps them to be someone they would not otherwise become.

Bottom line, we must recognize that each person has to be treated as an important individual and ministered to in ways that reflect their individuality and idiosyncrasies. To bring people back to a church we must develop significant relationships with them; live a credible Christian life that makes such an experience desirable or at least intriguing enough to explore; take advantage of opportunities to engage them in dialogue about meaning, purpose and truth; invite them to experience a community of faith that provides value and does not waste their time or insult their taste and intellect; and mentor them in light of biblical principles as they strive to make sense of life and faith.

Is his adherence to individualism and the modern marketing model taking him too far? How far can one take the teaching of becoming “all things to all people” that we find in I Corinthians 9?

The last question to Barana asks him what surprises him the most when he looks at the American church today. Here’s part of his answer:

How ignorant people are of their faith in spite of decades of exposure to teaching, preaching and conversation about Christianity. Most people say they know all the major principles of the Christian faith and have no intention of changing any of their perspectives – and they stick to that. However, when you question them as to what they believe, it becomes apparent how ill-informed most Americans are about the fundamentals of Christianity. Getting them into Bible study groups, Sunday school classes and more worship services seems to have a negligible affect upon their faith knowledge. Sadly, in many ways we seem to have inoculated people to Christ.

Why are people so happy to be ignorant? Or – perhaps the better question – why are people so unwilling to have their knowledge tested? My guess is that most think what they know is irrelevant – that basic Christian convictions are only important to professional Christians and have no practical relevance to their lives. To me, this is one of the main fruits of modernity that makes me weep.

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