Why All this Talk about Postmodernism is Driving Young People Away from Church

My story of shifting theologies and changing beliefs is hardly unique. Like many friends I have had the privilege of getting to know over the years, I have, for a good chunk of my life, explored what church, faith, and discipleship look like in contemporary contexts. While we may not hear nor use the word “postmodern” anymore, the idea that we find ourselves in a new world continues to be widespread among clergy and laity.

My journey into postmodern faith, a faith that is innovative, relevant, and forward-leaning, has been parallel to another journey—a journey into ministry with children and youth. For years, I assumed that these journeys were intimately intertwined. By discussing and reflecting on faith in a postmodern world, I thought, we are helping the church to remain faithful to the Gospel while at the same time traversing into a world that is more in touch with young people. Whether I knew how to say it or not, I figured that modeling a postmodern faith would naturally appeal to younger generations.

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It’s been a decade since I began this journey (although it sometimes feels like yesterday that I first read books like A New Kind of Christian and Postmodern Children’s Ministry). And much has changed as I have continued this quest. A generation of children who helped me experiment with postmodern approaches to ministry with young people have reached adulthood. And behind them are younger generations of kids and youth who weren’t even born when I started my explorations into postmodern faith and practice.

While I have written about faith formation in a postmodern world (and continue to be asked to speak about it in conferences and classrooms), I recently realized that the word “postmodern” isn’t really part of my day-to-day vocabulary as it used to be. It was only recently as I was having a coffee with a colleague at an airport Starbucks that it suddenly hit me that, for whatever reason, “postmodern” seemed to me to be a passé term, an old adage that once spoke of a brave new world but now reminded me of graying churches desperately trying to keep their doors open by becoming more appealing to young adults and teens.

As my friend told me about his denomination’s initiative to explore church in postmodern contexts, I blurted out, “That’s it!” He looked at me inquisitively and graciously paused as I collected my thoughts into something vaguely resembling coherent sentences.

I continued, “I wonder if all this talk in churches about postmodernism is actually having the opposite effect that we envision it will have. You and I weren’t raised in a world that was thoroughly postmodern. We are immigrants (or refugees, perhaps) to this postmodern world. But the young people in our churches are native to this world. They don’t debate the virtues and vices of postmodernism like we adults do because for them it just is. So I wonder if by talking about whether or not and how we want to embrace postmodernism in our churches, we aren’t actually telling young people that they aren’t part of our churches. After all, by making it seem like postmodernism is an option for the church to reject or embrace—a view that we hold by virtue of having not been raised in a postmodern world—we subtly tell our young people that, because postmodernism is the only world they’ve even known, they aren’t really part of the church. For them, after all, there is no choice. Postmodernism simply is.”

I’m still not sure what this all means for those of us who continue to explore new approaches to ministry, faith formation, and Christian practice in our contemporary world. Perhaps it reminds us to be cautious about the words we use. Maybe it calls our attention to the importance of including young people in these explorations instead of just talking about them. But the conversation my friend and I shared in that airport terminal was a wake-up call for me, one that makes me more attentive to the ways in which my experiments with contemporary faith may actually be pushing young people away from the very faith in which I wish to walk alongside them.

FREE Faith Forward 2014 podcasts

Did you miss Faith Forward 2014 in Nashville? Can’t wait until our next gathering in Chicago (April 20-23, 2015)? Then fear not! You can listen to presentations from the 2014 gathering at http://faith-forward.net/media/audio.

Four podcasts have been released so far (with 6 more still to come!):

  • Dave Csinos and Ivy Beckwith, “Megachurches, Dark Nights, and Wonder Bread Communion: Our Stories of Doubt, Disillusionment and Hope on the Journey of Re-imagination”
  • Brian McLaren, “Framing a Conversation, Launching a Revolution” 
  • Bonnie Miller-McLemore, “Christian Constructions of Children and Youth: Gift, Task, and Agent”
  • Andrew Root, “What is the Theological Turn in Youth Ministry? And What Does this have to do with Children’s Ministry?” 

Chris Smith and John Pattison…

…get it right in Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. I have been (slowly) making my way through their book and came upon a fantastic quote that’s helpful in understanding a role that scripture can play in the life of congregations.

Scripture shouldn’t be a sword we use to jab at each other or smite our neighbors. It is instead an improvisational aid, which as we begin to engage as a congregation helps us understand the meaning of our life together (page 220).

My Hometown

For those of you who follow my writing, you may know that I grew up in northern Ontario, in a small city called Sudbury, about 5 hours north of Toronto. With plans to move to the Maritimes at the end of the summer, I decided to take a road trip with my dad to my old hometown once more before I’m farther away from it.

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When being Inclusive becomes Exclusive

As an author and speaker, I have the privilege of joining many different types of faith communities for worship, conferences, and other faith-based gatherings. Sometimes the places I visit and the groups I get to know give me that feeling of coming home, that comfortable sense that I easily fit within this community. At other times, I join groups who worship and speak in ways that are different than my instincts and my preferences—and while I may feel uncomfortable at times, these groups always stretch me toward growth in faith and open me to ways of knowing and experiencing God that I wouldn’t normally explore on my own.

Lately my travels, experiences, and conversations have led me to reflect on the important issue of the language we use to talk about God. In the past couple of months, I’ve worshipped with people who refer to God as “Lord,” “Father,” and other male-based terms, people who speak of God as “Mother,” and folks who are careful to use terms that don’t place any sort of gender markers on God.

While the terms they use for God differ in significant ways, there seems to be a trend in the way our faith communities speak of God—their language preferences can become exclusive. Even in churches that say they use “inclusive” language for the Divine, I’ve noticed that the embrace of inclusivity is sometimes only offered to those who use the same terminology.

Now, this is something that I’ve noticed in my own life and practices as well. Ironically, in my effort to be “inclusive” by adamantly avoiding referring to God as “He” and “Father,” I actually become exclusive when I distance myself from those who prefer to use masculine pronouns and nomenclature for God. While I may feel uncomfortable when someone says God did such-as-such to “Himself,” I overlook the fact that when I use the term “Godself” as a way of actively avoiding male-based language (however awkward it may make my sentences sound), I may be making others just as uncomfortable as I am when I hear people use words like “He” or “Himself.”

Even in my best efforts to become inclusive in my language, I still end up being exclusive, for in using a particular way of speaking about God, I unintentionally tell others that their ways are incorrect.

As a person whose faith life has been formed by Catholics and Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Mennonites, I value ecumenism in my work and in my faith experiences. One of the things I like to say in ecumenical settings is that, as in any context of diversity, we’re all going to be uncomfortable at times. And most recently, my discomfort has been the result of God language that is not from the camp in which I prefer to pitch my tent.

But while male-based language for God makes me uncomfortable, it calls me to evaluate why this is so. And as I dig into my life and my beliefs in order to understand my aversion to using so-called “exclusive” God language, I realize that may claim to be inclusive is a fallacy. By believing that one person’s language for God is fundamentally incorrect or inaccurate, I am telling people how to worship, how to have faith, and how to know God. And I am stifling myself and others from seeing the multitude of ways in which God may break into our lives.

At the end of the day, all our language for God—inclusive, exclusive, masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral—is all metaphorical. Problems arise when we fool ourselves into thinking that our language for God is somehow an accurate representation of the whole of who and what God may be. Yet Got is beyond our language. God is beyond any of our imaginations. This is something my Pentecostal friends have taught me, for when they speak in tongues, they acknowledge that God is beyond the finitude of human language. So if all our language is imagery, if it’s all fragments of a Sacred Presence that is beyond anything we can image, then it doesn’t matter whether we refer to God as Father, Mother, or Parent, for they all represent what God is to us and how we encounter God in our lives. Our language for God tells us less about who God is and more about who we are and how we see the work of God in our lives.

So I now know that using inclusive language to refer to God does not mean I rid myself of any gender-based metaphors or imagery. Quite the opposite, actually! Being truly inclusive means I open myself to the multitude of images that my fellow people of faith use to understand and encounter God. Mother, Father, Parent. Godself, Himself, Herself. It’s all good as far as I’m concerned.

From padded playgrounds to the messiness of pilgrimage

I love this blog post that relates Brian McLaren’s new book to faith with children. Check out the journey this family is on at their blog, geekedoutsoul.com.

Our scriptural tradition is not a safety-certified playground with padded railings and rubberized flooring. It is not a place we will send them off to play in. It is a wild place with real risks, a place they will explore with Mom and Dad at their side.

Brian and I have talked a lot about his new book, and we’re both hoping that someone will take up the task of creating a version of We Make the Road by Walking that’s more geared for children and youth. After all, the “we” in the title is a extravagantly broad “we” and includes people of all ages and stage, those who are both tall and small.

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