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January 13, 2014

Reforming the Church of Christ in the Post-Modern Age (Mar – Apr 1996)

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by Larry Bradshaw
March – April, 1996

Five hundred years ago a Renaissance and Reformation in thinking broke out in reaction to a period of stifling conformist thought we called the Dark Ages. Some are arguing that the Third Millennium is ushering us into a Second Reformation. Scholars are writing of the post-modern period of history. By post-modern they mean a time of transition and change so profound that our beliefs, our values, and even our thinking patterns are being altered.

The religion editor of Time, Richard Ostling,1 whose background is in the Reformed tradition, has attempted to peer into the crystal ball of the 21st century and describe what he thinks will happen to the church in the post-modern period which we are now entering.

The implications of his “vision” speak directly to the future of the American Restoration movement of which we are a part.

First, Ostling sees growth for Catholicism and other “ritual based” churches. The illiteracy of post-modern man will weaken an appeal such as ours which, since Locke, has been based on linear-print logic and scriptural evidence. Ostling says, “The post-literate era [will be] especially difficult for Protestantism, which depended so heavily upon rationalism and reading.” The use of biblical authority with prooftexting will be less and less effective in persuasion and evangelism when directed “to a world in which few bother to read.” Our failure to learn the language of graphics-based non-linear media may mean that our message will carry connotations of an old-time quaint group rooted and locked in an earlier era. As Carroll Osburn2 suggested, we are in danger of becoming “the Amish of the 21st Century” as far as public perception is concerned.

Professor Richard Campbell3 of the University of Michigan has identified seven characteristics of this post-modern age, which he says we have already entered. An understanding of those principles will provide us with insight into the challenges facing the church beyond the current decade.

Principle One, Boundary Blurring

Aristotelian categories expressed in print made it easy for modern man to see imaginary boundaries between ideas and between groups of people. However, a religion which tries to maintain those strict boundaries in the post-modern age will find that non-linear-based thinkers will have difficulty seeing rigid categories. Campbell cites the example of Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” a movie which blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction. He also points to Michael Jackson, the number one entertainer in the world, who blurs the boundaries of black and white, male and female, young and old. This boundary blurring is often offensive to older generations because it fails when tested against linear-truth-based standards, but younger generations are not offended since they have rejected those word-based categories to begin with. The “us-them” rigid definitional approach to determining who is a Christian will make us appear narrow, bigoted, and confusing to post-modern man.

Principle Two, Triumph Over Conformity

Campbell says the emphasis on conformity brought on by the shift from highly individualistic rural dwellers who moved to the cities in the mid-20th century is disappearing with post-modern man. The hideous ethnic-cleansing movement of Eastern Europe is a reaction against the trend toward individualism and a breakup of monolithic states. The strident right-wing attack on the church is a parallel reaction against change, adaptation, and relevancy and a last-ditch attempt to enforce conformity.

Principle Three, A Critique of Neutrality

Following the scientific model of objectivity, the 20th-century church has stood aloof, appearing impotent and apathetic when faced with the great moral issues of the 20th century such as racism, poverty, and abortion. It has said, “We are neutral observers.” The New Age movement shows us that post-modern man is turning to mysticism, myth, and meditation believing the scientific method insufficient to answer what philosophers call the First Order Questions. A church clinging to the scientific model of objectivity and neutrality will appear irrelevant when faced with the new epistemologies and the great moral debates of the next century.

Principle Four, Questioning Authority

The post-modern age is rejecting the old reliance on experts. Tabitha Soren of MTV is now on a par with Dan Rather as a political reporter. The neighbor down the street takes on the aura of an expert because he tunes in to Rush Limbaugh. A cardinal component of the popular media is satire directed at all authority. David Letterman and The Simpsons have set the tone. A church relying on clergy, academicians, authors, or editors will find it has less and less impact on a society taught to distrust “expert authority.”

Principle Five, The Limits of Individualism

The “I am on my own” thinking of modern man is being replaced with a new emphasis on cooperation and group dynamics. Complex contemporary challenges require highly trained individuals developing a teamwork approach to problem solving. Our emphasis on personal salvation will need to be supplemented with messages clarifying how Christianity relates to diverse work groups, age groups, and economic groups. This will require individual church members to lay aside petty differences of interpretation on minor doctrinal issues in order to foster group cohesiveness.

Principle Six, Growth of Self-Criticism

Campbell says the modern age was characterized by a lack of self-reflexiveness. We were generally unwilling to examine critically our ideas and our movements. As a matter of fact, any criticism of our religious movement brought charges of “heresy.” How dare we question the status quo? But in the post-modern age, there will be considerably more emphasis on analysis and criticism. Any church which continues to forbid honest evaluation of methods and approaches may squelch the heresy but at the expense of valuable introspection.

Principle Seven, The Limitation of Traditional Historical Methodologies

Campbell says modern historians have concentrated on examining the views of a few leaders of movements. But post-modern man has developed forums and technologies which allow an exploration of the views of members of those movements. Sophisticated polling and interviewing techniques now enable us to explore the views of the members of congregations, not just the preachers and writers. Because our theology has often ignored the contributions of women, this new approach will revolutionize the church of the 21st century. For the first time the Great Silent Majority of the church can and will be heard.

What are the implications of Campbell’s seven principles as they relate to the coming decades? These principles raise troubling questions: How can we maintain an adherence to truth when the society in which we live believes there is no such thing as truth? How can we communicate revelational principles to a culture saturated with situational thinking? How do we communicate a sense of hope and optimism to a world whose cynicism is trumpeted on its bumper stickers? Do we have the courage to change methods which we saw working in the early part of our lives, but which no longer are effective? Will we have the good sense to give up demanding that every member of the church in whatever age and in whatever culture see minor issues in exactly the same way as we do? Can we allow the Lord to determine the boundaries?

If we can grasp the exciting and terrifying changes facing us in the post-modern age, we have a chance to speak contemporary messages which provide answers to the yearnings of 21st century men and women.

What must be obvious is that the process of church reform will necessarily continue. Reformation is not a one-time event of the Renaissance. It is a continuing process enabling us to speak credibly to changing cultures and changing times.

1 Richard Ostling, “Kingdoms to Come: Faith Will Survive, but What Shape Will Religions Take? A Look at 2092.” Time, October 15, 1992, pp 61ff.
2 Carroll Osburn. Speech to Abilene Christian University faculty, January 5, 1992.
3 Richard Campbell, “And That’s the Way It Was: The Decline of Modern Journalism in a Post-Modern World,” paper delivered to The Old News, The New News and The First Amendment, a conference sponsored by the Seigenthaler Chair of First Amendment Studies, College of Mass Communication, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, February 26, 1993.
Wineskins Magazine

Larry Bradshaw

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