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.

One thought on “Why All this Talk about Postmodernism is Driving Young People Away from Church”

  1. indeed. Great observation. The language of ‘post modern’ betrays a view that things ought to be valued, judged, assessed in relation to ‘modern’ as still the dominant frame of reference. In other words, young people will hear ‘we are still judging ideas, cultures, ways of living, we are still judging you by the reference points and criteria which have been predetermined by a past culture you had no part in creating, and which authenticate and validate the same old major stake holders and gatekeepers as ever. Way to alienate and disempower, hey?

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