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From Modernity to Postmodernity: A Primer for Leaders – Part 2

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Let’s face it – American culture has undergone radical changes in the past several decades. For Christians, the changes seem to be happening faster than most of us can comprehend. How can we influence a culture to follow Christ when it seems like we are speaking two different languages? Especially when it seems like even within the Church we are encountering the world in very different ways.

As 21st century Christians, much of our understanding of culture is directly dependent on our understanding of the term “postmodernity.” Part 1 of this series established that the very word “postmodernity” implies that it came after something. Namely, modernity. It is both a reaction to and a natural outgrowth of modernity. In Part 1 we began to explore the roots of postmodernity in the modern world of the 18-20th centuries. In this second part we will continue to explore the modern world, focusing on how the Church responded to and was shaped by modernity.

Significantly, because the Church does not exist in a vacuum, modern era Christians inescapably began thinking about and worshipping God in very modern ways. While the modern era is often stated to have ended in 1980, modern Christianity has shaped many of the ways that the Church as a whole still thinks about and worships God. However, as we shall see in the next few articles, much of the tension in the Church today is related to how we interact with both modern and post-modern thought-forms.

Beauty in Modernity

‘There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,’ said [Sherlock], leaning with his back against the shutters. ‘It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness that gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.’ “

-From “The Naval Treaty,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This quote eloquently illustrates the beauty that Christians found in approaching God through the mode of modernity. It is awesome to look at creation and find completely nonrandom patterns occurring in the most unlikely places! For example, the Fibonacci sequence. There is evidence of design and precision. There is evidence of God through natural revelation, and we can delight in His natural revelation.

There is evidence of God through natural revelation. - Amber Riggs Share on X

Modernity emphasized some beautiful things in the Church:

Newfound appreciation of the Word of God.

The printing press made it possible for more people to have access to the Bible. Because words were seen to hold precise meanings, it was also possible for laypeople to study the Bible and determine the meaning of passages. Modernity also brought us an emphasis of the doctrine of inerrancy of scripture and a strengthened connection between archaeology and the Bible. Worship of God became “word-oriented”. It wasn’t uncommon for sermons to be 2 hours long. We also see hymns that reinforce the message of the word of God and are full of Biblical analogies.

Confidence that we can attain knowledge about God.

While God is mysterious and beyond us, modernity bridged a gap by allowing God to become more “knowable”. That is, we can study His Word (divine revelation) and His creation (natural revelation) and come to a better knowledge of His nature and who He is. Revelation can be interpreted through reason leading to foundational truths. There was also the belief that we could look at these truths objectively.We could separate ourselves from the truth to look at it from unbiased viewpoints and come to an unbiased opinion.

Emphasis on one metanarrative.

Because absolute truth could be deduced through scientific reason, it held that although many religions had metanarratives, only one of those metanarratives could be truth: that being the metanarrative found in the Bible. Today, it isn’t uncommon to meet people who claim to be both Christian AND Buddhist (or some other combination). But this was an impossibility within modernity because only one religion could be the true religion.

Truth is held at an individual level.

Individuals can draw conclusions based on reason! Confidence in the scientific method meant that truth was absolute. Meaning that if people simply studied the right things, they should all arrive at the same conclusions. Thus, although everyone could believe the same thing, that belief could be arrived at individually, at a personal level.

God is the unifying factor in the universe.

In a world of mechanistic order, everything points to God, our Creator.

Analytical communication.

Modernity brought about an emphasis on reason that allowed Christian theology to be structured in a logical way. The use of an integrative motif (such as the Kingdom of God) is one example of this. Just as God is the unifying factor, theology looked for unifying attributes of God, and focused on those commonalities to make sense of the world. Theology began to lean toward the scientific. Looking at scripture objectively solidified certain absolute conclusions that could be explained clearly through reason.

The Bible as absolute truth.

Before the Protestant Reformation (16th century), Christian truth had begun to extend to papal decrees and canonical law. The Reformers brought back an emphasis on the Bible “alone” as the source of authority.

An Individualistic Christendom

A popularity arose in studying scripture through the scientific method. Although truth was supposedly absolute, individuals began arriving at different conclusions based on their study of scripture. Rationally, they all should have arrived at the same absolute truths, but this is not what happened. Mystery of God was exchanged for knowledge of God, and this knowledge wanted absolutes, not mysteries.

Many Denominations

As different theologies emerged, different denominations began to emerge. Since the 16th century, we have gone from a universal Church to a Church splintered into sub-Churches. Many of whom would not associate with one another! The Church went from one identity to identities which focused on the idiosyncrasies of commonality. Hence the word denomination, which implies that members of a group have something in common: Calvinist, Wesleyan, Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Assemblies of God, Church of Christ, Church of God (Seventh Day). The list goes on. Under Wikipedia.org’s entry on “List of Christian Denominations“, it accounts for over 300 denominations. Even within many of these denominations there are sub-denominations. For example, Southern Baptist is different than American Baptist and Seventh Day Baptist. It is extremely interesting that denominations flourished within modernity, a time when absolute truth was purported to be rationally derived.

Wikipedia’s article noted that there are disagreements about which groups can properly be called “Christian”. Many of us would agree with that statement. After all, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormon Church) claims to be Christian. Yet the Bible does not support many of their beliefs (of course, the Mormon Church also did not look to the Bible for defining their theology).

Doctrine and Absolute Truth

In the late 20th century, Christian groups sought to unite under a set of recognized “evangelical” doctrines. These groups acknowledged that although doctrines may vary, each group holds the same core salvational beliefs. However, it was not long ago when many denominations taught that they were the “only ones going to heaven”. In view of modernity, it’s possible to see why Churches could preach Jesus while believing they were the “only ones”. Truth was absolute. It could be ascertained with confidence. Anyone who accepted anything other than that absolute truth was not being set free by Christ’s truth.

Within the “spiritual, inner Christendom”, individuals arrived at absolute truth. They had a choice as to what they accepted as truth, but when they arrived at it there was a confidence in their knowledge of God. Essentially, the Church, splintered into denominations, and became a Church of either individuals or individual denominations.

Legacy of Modernity

We see that as the culture became entrenched in modernity, the Church used modern principles to further the gospel and to help them further understand God. However, our study of modernity and the Church would not be complete without looking at some of the danger of the modern influences on theology.

Cultural Context

Following the scientific method, believing that truth could be discovered objectively, and attributing precise meaning to words, Biblical study is prone to be taken out of cultural context. That is, scriptural interpretation became absolute, each passage having one precise meaning. However, studying the culture of the time the passage was written and the situations surrounding the writing didn’t have as much weight as the words themselves.

Authority of Scripture

While the Enlightenment led to a foundationalism based on scripture, this focus on the authority of scripture actually shifted the focus of Christianity from the authority of the person of Christ to the authority of the Bible. Yes, Christ is God’s Word made man. But as Robert Webber observes in Ancient-Future Faith, theology shifted from a God who acts to a God who speaks. Until this time, the focus of Christianity had always been on a God who acts. The Bible is the book that records God’s actions and interactions in the world; thus, Webber poses an important question: “Do we believe in a book or a person?” The Bible is full of information about God that we can study. But modernity saw a shift towards a stronger emphasis on knowing the Bible rather than knowing God.

Proving the Bible

Liberal Christians used reason and rationale to “demythologize” the Bible and reduce faith in God to love of mankind because they could not accept scientific anomalies. Conservative Christians focused on establishing the inerrancy of Scripture (which was important in modernity) to the extent of critiquing every word contained in it. Ironically, critiquing the Bible actually took attention away from Christ. The emphasis was on proving the Bible.


Webber observes that “Individualism often exhibits itself in a failure to realize the importance of involvement with other Christians in a local church, in a failure to recognize that being a Christian is not something a person does alone, and in an emphasis on personal experience. It devalues the corporate life of the church. This neglect of the whole body of Christ for what has been called ‘freelance’ Christianity is a dangerous rejection of the body in which Christ dwells”[ref]R.E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 1999), p. 76.[/ref].

Intellectualism and Emotionalism

Modern worship is “intellectual” worship. Primary emphasis was given to the sermon and to teaching because of the emphasis on reason. On the other hand, modern spiritual revivals reacted to intellectual worship through more of a shift to emotionalism. Webber argues that neither promotes a good theology of Biblical worship.

Literal Interpretation

The absolute meaning of words in modern intellectual worship has overwhelmed much of the symbolic speech that is throughout the Bible (such as in Psalms). If words have absolute meanings, they are not seen as conceptual and figurative. Symbolic communication uses imagery, art, music, etc. However, moderns see the Bible as a book of written words. Thus, straightforward, literal communication is valued above other forms.

The Secular World

Spirituality is measured by how separated we are from “worldly” practices rather than our relationship to God. Modernity is black and white. Thus, elements of the world are either sacred or secular. Going to church, reading the Bible, and praying were seen as spiritual activities. However, jobs outside the church, for example, were viewed as secular. Thus, spirituality lost its connection to daily activities.

Also, an emphasis on a legalistic spirituality with a focus on rules and behavior has made Christians fearful of non-Christians and produced negative attitudes regarding the “secular” world.

Devotional Habits

In the reformers’ quest to rid the Church of spiritual devotion to Mary, saints, and relics, they also “cleansed” the Church of a rich history of positive devotional habits such as personal and corporate spiritual disciplines and exercises.

Personal and Privatized Faith

Webber writes that “individualism resulted in an overemphasis on personal salvation and lost the larger message of the gospel” [ref]Ibid., 143.[/ref]. This seems like a strange statement, but there is a great deal of perception behind it. Too often, evangelism ironically focuses on things other than Christ. For example, the eloquence of the speaker, the ability of the vocalist, or the people being evangelized and the power they have to make a commitment to Christ.

Webber continues that the primary shortcoming of modern evangelism “fails to move from the death of Christ to the victory of Christ over the powers of evil. Consequently, evangelism is reduced to personal and privatized Christianity and fails to express that Christ has bound, dethroned, and will destroy all evil at the end of history…Enlightenment evangelism centers almost exclusively on the change accomplished in the individual. You are saved. You are a new person. You have been born again…it does not adequately stress the role of the church in the nurturing process of salvation” [ref]Ibid., 144[/ref].

The Church Today

The above is only a short description of some of the problems that Christianity inherited from modernity. It isn’t our goal to focus on the problems of modernity. However, it is our goal to know who the Church is today and to recognize our strengths and weaknesses so that we can bring those things under the rule of Christ and serve as evidence of His future kingdom. This is the goal we carry with us as we explore how modernity grew into postmodernity and the implications this has for Christianity.

The Church must bring its strengths & weaknesses under the rule of Christ. - Amber Riggs Share on X

We see that modernity was a response to culture. And we see that Christianity communicated within the context of that culture. However, we also see that as Christianity became enmeshed with modernity, imbalances were assimilated into Christian values. At the same time, because modernity is often attributed with being a “Christian” culture, there is ironically a hesitancy to look objectively at modern values. Yes, absolute truth is a good thing, but can we really say that rationalism, factualism, pragmatism, and individualism are pure Christian values? However, as modern methods of ministry are not experiencing the success that they once did, there is an urge to pragmatically look at these forms: what works?

A Look Ahead

In the next article, we will begin looking at postmodernity. We will see that like modernity, postmodernity is a reaction to our surroundings. However, we must resist the temptation to look at postmodern ministry from a solely pragmatic perspective. Yes, postmodernity will focus on attributes of God and worship that modernity neglected, but we must aim for a theological perspective of ministry and not be misled by the pragmatism of “what works”. As we communicate the gospel within the context of a postmodern culture, we must learn and grow from our experiences with modernity. We must guard against the mistakes that the Church made within modernity while at the same time following the Church’s example of answering the call of Christ.

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Amber Mann Riggs
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Amber Mann Riggs lives near Eugene, OR, with her husband and four daughters. She writes at ambermannriggs.com.