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Understanding postmodernism through the emerging church

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Theology
Wordcount: 5428 words Published: 1st Jun 2020

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According to Glentz (1996), the term postmodernism was coined in the 1930s and it was in reference to the major historical change that was in progress. However, it was not until 1970s that postmodernism gained widespread attention. In the academic circles, postmodernism was able to emerge as the description used for a broader culture trend as compared to when it was initially taken as a label for the theories expounded in English and Philosophy departments in the University.

Postmodernism is a term that indicates a desire to move beyond the modern mind-set while at the same time not separating it from modernity since that is where it emerged from but with time came to react against.

Modernism as Sarup (1993) puts is an experiment which can be used to find the inner truths of any given situation and can be characterized by self-consciousness and reflexive ness which makes it very closely related to postmodernism. He goes on to say that in a way, if one looks at modernism as the culture of modernity, then there is a likelihood of the same person looking at postmodernism as the culture of post modernity.

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Postmodernism according to Sarup, (1993) refers to the incipient or actual dissolution of those social forms associated with modernity. He goes on to explain modernization as a term used to refer to the stages of social development which are based upon industrialization. He points out that “modernization is as a result of the uniting of the social economic changes generated by scientific and technological discoveries and innovations…”

Dimension of Postmodern Thought.

Post-modernism is defined as an eclectic movement which originates from or in aesthetics, philosophy and architecture in Ryan Bishop’s article in the Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology (1996). Postmodernism is thought to adapt to a systematic uncertainty of theoretical perspectives which are grounded in a certain way. When the uncertainty is applied to anthropology, it tends to shift its focus from the sole observation of a particular society to the observation of the anthropological observer too.

Bishop (1996) is for the idea that the postmodern attacks in ethnography are based on the belief that there is no true objectivity and the authentic implementation of the scientific method can be considered to be impossible. As he points out, “Postmodernists are suspicious of authoritative definitions and singular narratives of any trajectory of events” (Bishop 1996: 993).

Postmodernism follows similar ideas as those in modernism. It does not accept the boundaries mounted between high and low forms of art, the rigid genre distinctions are duly rejected but emphasis is placed on appropriation, caricature, playfulness and irony.

The Postmodern thought when compared with the modern thought brings out differences in five different areas namely; reasoning, science, part/whole, God and language. In reasoning, the modern thought starts from the foundation upwards whereas the postmodern thought is web-oriented such that multiple factors of multiple levels of reasoning are involved.

According to Klages (2007), Postmodernism is concerned with questions of the organization of knowledge. Knowledge in modern societies was contrasted to narrative and equated with science. Science is said to have been considered as the good or acceptable knowledge while narrative was associated with women, children, primitive and insane people since these were the people who were thought to be primitive, bad and irrational.

For one to be knowledgeable generally, they had to undergo the schooling system or in a simpler term, be educated. The Postmodern society emphasizes on not only the knowledge of things but the use of that knowledge as well, which makes knowledge functional. Sarup, (1993) points out that the educational policy nowadays lays emphasis on skills and training as compared to the vague humanist ideal of education generally.

This ensures that knowledge in Postmodernism is distributed, stored and systematically arranged in the societies which have embraced the postmodern thought than in the modern societies. Knowledge in the postmodern society is also looked at as anything that can be recognized and stored by a computer.

Klages (2007) concludes by pointing out that, postmodernism in its own way offers some alternatives to the joining of the global culture of consumption; this is where commodities and other forms of knowledge are provided by forces which cannot be controlled by individuals or to put it in her own words, “…forces far beyond any individual’s control”.

In science, the modern thought is focused on the Universal optimism whereas the postmodern thought leans towards the Realism of Limitations. The post modern thought considers the parts as comprising the whole whereas in Post-modernism, the whole is more than the parts. The post-modern thought considers God to be a Top-down causation whereas the modern thought looks at God as one who acts through the violation of the laws which are considered natural or by what is considered to be ‘immanence’ in all that exists or is.

Language is looked at as transparent with words serving only as what represents our thoughts or other things around us; the modern thought on language is referential. It depends on the idea that signifiers always point to signifieds (Klages, 2007) whereas the postmodern thought derives meaning in the social context through the manner in which it is applied or utilized which means that only signifiers exist or simply put, surfaces without any depth or signifieds.

Postmodernism according to Klages (2007) is hard to define since it is a concept that manifests itself a number of areas of study for instance in architecture, art, music, film, literature, fashion, communication and technology among others. This makes it hard to even establish where exactly postmodernism starts since it cannot be located temporarily or historically.

According to Glentz (1996), postmodernism is “…the rejection of certain central features of the modern project, such as its quest for certain, objective, and universal knowledge, along with its dualism and its assumption of the goodness of knowledge.

It is that critical agenda, rather than any proposed constructive paradigm to replace the modern vision that unites postmodern thinkers.” As opposed to the modernist thought where perception corresponds to truth and language used refers to an independent referent, postmodernism does not accept the basic premises of modern epistemology.

New Religious Movements

The last thirty years have seen an increase in the number of new religious movements as a result of the desire of the people to embrace diversification. This shows that there are changes in the nature and role of religion in the society. Religion stops being framed in terms of post-modernity, post-modernity etc since these terms can only be said to be among the many theoretical terms of analysis available and there can never be any reason to restrict the study of the New Religious Movements which have emerged or are in the process of emerging to the certain terms of reference.

In the contemporary religions, the emergence of the New Religious Movements has brought about changes in both the structure and the ideologies. This means that for the new religions to compete in the created market place of religions, they must work towards the rationalization of their efforts and just like other modernity institutions, the religious organizations become more business-like and bureaucratic.

This makes all the religious movements to appear similar in the form and manner of functioning. They must also be subject to the extra-religious criteria of efficiency. Just like in a business scenario, the products of the new religious are subject to standardization and marginal differentiation.

Every organization within the market place attempts to design a product that meets similar preferences of the consumers. The competitive edge through the development and the preservation of existing marginal differences in both style and approach used. The products are forced to conform to what is dictated by the new institutional locations they find themselves. The religions which emphasize on the satisfaction of the private life needs like issues related to sexuality, marriage, family norms etc are likely to gain a competitive advantage over the rest of the religions (Berger, 1967).

He goes on to point out that with all the pluralism that is portrayed, the religions can either accommodate themselves to the situation which will make them come to terms with the pluralism by modification of the product to suit the demands of the consumer. Alternatively, the religions can choose to continue professing their previous objectives as if nothing is happening. This means that they stay put behind the religious structures which they can be able to maintain or construct.

The New Religious Movements are however not considered to be revivals of the any tradition. They are said not to be capable of bringing to life the dying religions which existed in the past. This can be attributed to the way in which they make use of the evangelism methods which are too secular which is also reflected in other areas like in their mode of financing, the methods they use for publicity and the mobilization of believers.

The traditional religious concerns are left in preference of the more pragmatic attitudes and for systems of control, financing and other issues like propaganda and the content of their doctrines which tend to lie more on the secular enterprise as compared to the traditional religious concerns (Wilson, 1988:965).

Hard and Soft Modernism

Most aspects of modernism do not blend with the Christian faith but the correspondence theory of truth and the referential theory of language are what harmonize it with what is intended by the scriptures. Most of the leaders of the emerging churches have been known to accuse the evangelist followers for being bound to the modernism culture.

Evangelicalism is countercultural in various ways but rejects some issues like the strict empiricism associated with modernism which does not agree with miracles and revelation. The only groups who seem to have embraced modernism and all its views are the classic and theological liberals.

Patton (2008) a self declared postmodern is for the idea that the post-modern movement is hard to define but goes on to point out that it is acceptable to define post-modernism from a secular point of view and still be objective. Patton (2008) differentiates between hard and soft modernism.

Hard modernists are those who have had a philosophical shift as far as the nature of truth is concerned. Hard modernists view truth relative to the time, culture or the situation of the individual. This means that truth does not exist beyond the thoughts of the subject on focus. For instance on a subject like Homosexuality, the hard modernist will consider it either right or wrong depending on the situation of the person or person’s involved.

This is for the reason that according to them, the morality of a person’s sexual orientation can not at any time be defined by what they choose to call an “eternal principle” to which all people must adhere to at all times but by the situation(s) in which the people involved find themselves in. This distinguishes hard modernism; the concept of the correspondence view of truth to objective reality. The hard modernists are not subjective.

It is considered to be the logical outcome of pantheism or atheism which both denies the existence of an eternal God. The subject is brought out in several situations in our daily activities. Patton (2008) gives an example of how the education system in a large way shows the learners that God is not part of the objective reality compared to what is taught in class which they consider part of the objective reality. Hard modernism is not Christian in nature which explains why it has no part in the biblical worldview and why it is not advocated by Christians.

According to Patton (2008) Christianity has as its foundation the atoning work of Jesus Christ’s death, burial and resurrection that came about as a result of the eternal counsel of a God who is triune. The atonement was necessarily since man had already broken the eternal laws of God. This makes Christianity an eternal objective truth and not truth based on someone’s own subjective experience.

The explanation behind this is the fact that in the Christianity confession, an eternal God has eternal precepts that time bound man has broken. Christians can not advocate for the hard modernism unless they do not comprehend the terms modernism and Christianity. Emerging churches have been influenced by the postmodern culture and some of what it believed in has been sympathized. The difference between the group of emerging churches and hard modernists is that they are suspicious of all truth claims. The suspicion according to Patton (2008) is based on the denial of their ability to come to terms with the certainty that exists in the human mind about truth.

Soft modernists believe in the existence of the objective truth. They are for the idea that most truth claims must be held in tension, understanding our limitations which means that it is hard to know or be certain that what we have is the right truth and if we are expressing it how it should be expressed. It is important to however note that postmodernism is not built upon the denial of truth or the metaphysical concern but with the ability to know the truth or the epistemological concern.

The emerging churches therefore would believe in an eternal God who has some laid down eternal precepts which have already been broken by man who needs to be restored through Jesus Christ. Bearing this in mind, it is therefore in order for man to hold the truth in tension since they understand that they also have there own limitations which are normally arrived at when trying to define God, who he is, what he requires out of man and how to accomplish and apply redemption.

The emerging church minimizes or tends to ignore those issues that were at some point in the center of controversy and makes these issues irrelevant. The reason provided for this is that whether or not there are right answers or not, who is to decide who is right and who is not? The emerging church emphasizes on what unites as opposed to what divides. The emerging churches therefore advocate for the going to church by Christians to worship God as opposed to learning about God. “We do not go so that we can better understand, articulate, and defend our faith; we go so that we can commune with fellow believers…” (Patton, 2008).

The Emerging Church is hard to pin down on when dealing with certain issues. It is an evolving movement and not a denomination with an official doctrinal statement to refer to. The Emergent is a community within the larger context of the Emerging church. It embraces mystery considering that faith is a process and Christianity is a journey (Oakland).

Negative Emerging Church response to Postmodernism

Gibbs (2005) defines emerging churches as communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. The practices involved when emerging churches are defined this way are that the emerging churches identify with the life of Jesus, have their own way of transforming the secular realm and at the same time are able to live extremely communal lives.

This is what makes the churches have a spirit of welcoming strangers, serving with a lot of generosity and other things like participation in spiritual activities as producers, to lead as a body and as created beings.

Emerging when compared to emergent is wider, informal, global and church-centered. Emergent on the other hand is an official organization in both the U.S and the U.K. It is an intellectual and philosophical network of the emerging movement which means that all the emerging movements cannot be narrowed down to what is referred to as the Emergent Village.

The Emerging Churches provides what can be called a guideline to churches in the postmodern culture. The emerging movements are provocative in a deliberate and conscious manner, even the Christians involved are for the idea that the church is in dire need for a change and on that note, living as if the change has already occurred (Gibbs, 2005).

The emerging movements from a postmodern point of view portrays that it is hard to reduce post modernity to the denial of truth but instead it can be considered as the collapse of the inherited overarching explanations of life just like in Science or Marxism. The reason provided for the collapse is due to the impossibility to take their assumptions outside.

The evangelical Christians are however not discouraged from joining or embracing the elements of post modernity even when the consequences for the adoption of post modernity is either good or otherwise. The emerging movement is thought to have the ability to uphold faith which seeks understanding and trust which comes before the apprehension or the comprehension of gospel truths.

According to McKnight (2007), Christians in the postmodern context means that they either minister to post-moderns, with post-moderns or as post-moderns. Those who minister to post-moderns look at them as trapped in moral relativism and epistemological bankruptcy out of which they need to be rescued. Those who minister with the post-moderns live, work and talk to them, they accept their post modernity as part of life and generally view post modernity as a condition of our present lives and into which the Christians have been called to not only proclaim but to live out the gospel.

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The Christians who minister to and with post-moderns make the greatest majority of the emerging Christians. They believe in Jesus Christ as the truth, they do not deny that the Bible preaches a gospel of truth and they stand for or they do not deny the truth. The Christians who choose to minister as post-moderns are for the idea that Christians should not embrace the truth. They speak of the importance of the social location in the shaping of how one views truth and they also speak of the end of metanarratives. They are known for their frequent expression of nervousness about propositional truth.

Patton (2008) in an evaluation of the emerging churches and soft modernism points out that the emerging churches are subject to compromise. Soft modernists are unwilling to stand for anything uncertain. But since there will always be those things that are uncertain, or those that we are less certain than others, where can the line be drawn between what is certain and what is not? What should be used to determine certainty of any issue should be the evidence we have on the subject which will show the level of certainty about it.

Besides if we are to have absolute certainty on everything we encounter, what would result is moral anarchy since most people would rather settle for nothing since they are not certain about anything at all. The soft modernists’ evidence humility with the ability to know the truth but the humility can be misleading at times since it tends to seek acceptance even with the threat of compromise as the cost. The idea of compromise may be what can be attributed to why the emerging churches do not attract many people since the conviction is lacking and people need to be assured that you stand for something to prevent one from falling for anything.

Tradition is another thing that must be present in the emerging churches but caution must be taken so as to avoid the overuse of tradition without making any considerations. For instance, when considering the traditions which came with the reformation. The emerging churches accepts the earlier traditions but denies the reformation a place which is in itself very contradicting since for the development of a certain theology to take place, all history must be taken into consideration (Patton, 2008).

Positive Emerging Church responses to Postmodernism

The emerging churches recognize the human need for mystery in the course of their Christian lives as advocated for by the soft modernists. It is these mysteries that help us to learn a lot considering that it is important for Christians to hold most of their beliefs in tension (Patton, 2008). Another positive element which can be derived from soft modernism is the focus that has been brought back to the Christians methods of doing theology.

Soft postmodernism has a lot of distrust in tradition and this has resulted to the church being looked upon with a lot of suspicion due to the unfounded traditions. The good thing that can be said to have come out of fundamentalism is the rebellion which was portrayed when postmodernism unmasked the negative aspects of the fundamentalist church. The rebellion against traditionalism can be said to have played an important part.


It is also called anti-foundationalism. It rejects the balanced image of the beliefs that support beliefs which are not basic. The non fundamentalists support the image of a mutually supporting belief web which can be passed on through a particular community. In theology, they are known for bringing to light how doctrine operates to regulate the form of life of a particular community which holds a certain belief.

Characteristics of a Postmodern Emerging Church Theology

The emerging or emergent church according to (Reynolds, 2008), is a controversial movement that was founded in the late twentieth century to react to the influence of modernism in Christianity. The proponents of the emerging church support postmodernism and they gave the movement the term ‘conversation’ with an aim of stressing how decentralized in nature with very little coordination the movement was due to the contributions it received from people with varying beliefs. There are no agreements about the nature and role of the church.

The aim of the emerging church movement is to dismantle and re-establish Christianity since most of the members who are found in North America, South Pacific, Africa and Western Europe all live in a postmodern culture.

Many of the emergent Christians have varying doctrines and practices but some of their characteristics and values are similar;

According to Reynolds, (2008), the believers practice missional living since they hold the belief that they have been sent as blessings to the people around them. This means that the lifestyle they adopt must be able to reflect the kingdom of the Lord through a number of ways for instance, evangelizing, social activism and through the talents that have been given to them by God.

The emerging Christians emphasize on the narrative presentations of faith and Bible through propositional presentations like systematic theology viewed as reductionism. A theology that gives priority to narrative can define its core and contextualize the content of the teachings of the bible.

The emerging churches theology is a matter of commitment which is methodological and celebrates, exploits and reinforces the community. It is also said to be relational, interactive as well as conversational in nature.

The emerging churches believe in Generous Orthodoxy (Reynolds, 2008). They have a good understanding of the doctrine which is trying to move from the debate between conservativeness and liberalism while still honoring the beliefs and traditions of the Postmodern, modern and premodern Christian denominations. The do not restrict dialogue with those people who belong to non-Christian religions.

The emergent churches are Christian-centered and they tend to hold a commitment to emulate the way Jesus Christ lived and they advocate for the love of God amongst all people especially towards those people who might be considered to be our enemies. This means that they are under the lordship of Christ. They look at the gospel as centered on Christ and this is based on the message about the Kingdom of God and the reconciliation between man, God and God’s creation.

The emerging Christians can be said to have a sense of plurality in their interpretation of the bible. They provide several interpretations with consideration of what the culture and other circumstances that lead to the reader having different interpretation of the same. The initial message is therefore put in a way that blends with the reader’s surrounding environment.

The emerging churches can be said to have a sense of Authenticity in that they are for the idea of sharing their personal experiences and interactions as testimonies in the course of their teachings in church or in groups called fellowships. For this reason, the emergent Christians have been labeled “true to the social constructs of their local narratives as opposed to other absolute, past and cross-cultural authority” (Reynolds, 2008). This and the fact that their theology’s core is a reading of the scriptures and seems to have a good understanding of intimate relationship that exists between text and the historical narrative.

The emergent churches are also famous for how they create a conducive environment for conversation or dialog for all those who have differing opinions. They allow people to talk and incase of disagreements, both parties are listened to with grace compared to what is said to be “the dogmatic proclamation found in historic Christianity” (Reynolds, 2008).

Other Characteristics of an emerging theology are; they are that it is mainly for a community that possesses continuity and is selfcontinous in nature. The theology is committed to renewing of its own discourse which includes speech and all the other methods of communication. The theology of the emerging churches attempt to integrate as opposed to dissociate the modes of thought, analysis and practice that draws on the mind of the entire community of faith. The theology has an inclination towards discovering the meaning and truth that exists outside itself.

Finally, the theology of emerging churches bears an eschatological orientation towards the renewal of the creation of humanity within a comprehensive ecology which makes it more public than private.


In conclusion, it has been established that the emerging churches are Christian movements whose participants or followers aim to live their faith in modern society by emulating Christ Jesus without necessarily considering the traditions of the Christian religion.

Emerging churches can also be said to be the fresh thinking and practice within the church. It is considered to have a mission focus in a western post-modern context a thinking which has been developing for over a decade (Reynolds, 2008).

The emerging churches were as a result of the perceived influence of modernism in the western world of Christianity. The Christians who advocated for the changes within the church did it in response to existing cultural shifts. According to them the contemporary church was culturally bound to modernism and they therefore aimed to reach a culture that was no longer related to some common practices of the Christians.

The emerging Christians started by challenging the church of the twentieth century due to the extreme emphasis it laid on the pretense of goodness and its preoccupation with conservative Christians in the political process. Other reasons are how the twentieth century church used the institutional structures, its theology was systematic and it used propositional teaching methods, it was also perceived to have a preoccupation with buildings and how much it tried to bring people into the church as opposed to improving their surroundings.

The emerging churches therefore aimed at re-assembling the modern church and its culture by enhancing dialogue or two-way conversations whose aim was to lead people to Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit on their own terms. This explains why the emerging church movements have a diversification of beliefs and practices although some concentrate on issues like social activism, political activism, sacred rituals and the good works.

Postmodernism can also be called the modernist movement. It is aesthetic, political or social philosophy and literary. It can be referred to as a cultural and intellectual phenomenon. Initially it was a reaction to modernism and was to a large extent influenced the disillusionment induced by the Second World War (Patton, 2008).

Postmodernism is diverse and the emerging churches to a large extent are diverse. The emerging churches differ on a number of peripheral theological and practical issues. The issues do not help in the definition of the movement much as they are a real part of the emerging church movement. The emerging churches share a lot of things with the non-emergent movements. For instance, the belief in contextualization, friendship evangelism, fellowship and other things like caring for the needy in the society (Patton, 2008).

The emerging church movement is popular for its diversification in terms of the groups of people in it. The people identify with Christianity but they feel that in the postmodern era, there is a need for the radical reshaping of the beliefs and practices of the church so that they can conform to postmodernism.

According to (Glenz, 1996) “…the rejection of certain features of the modern project, such as its quest for certain, objective, and universal knowledge, along with its dualism and its assumption of the goodness of knowledge. It is this critical agenda, rather than any proposed constructive paradigm to replace the modern vision that unites postmodern thinkers.” From this, it can be established that postmodernism does not accept the basic premises of modern epistemology.

The modernist theory looks at perception as corresponding to the truth and language which refers to a referent which is independent. Language refers to something real, in the mind of the person who communicates. Most aspects of modernism cannot be combined with the Christian faith but the referential theory of language and the correspondence theory of the truth is what synchronize them with the beliefs of the scripture.

The leaders of emerging churches have been known to accuse evangelicals of being bound by the culture of modernism. Evangelicalism has been a countercultural movement which rejects some of the modernisms beliefs for instance their strict empiricism that does not allow miracles and revelations.

The only groups that can be said to have accommodated modernism wholly are the classic, theological liberals. Within the post modern thought, there is no normal truth or morality which means that it is hard to dictate to postmodernists what is true and right for them. They are for the idea that truth and other morals can only be found within the context of a specific community and they are different for different communities.

Christians must be sensitive to their cultures but the gospel must never be altered to fit what is considered the culture of a certain group of people. This is what makes Christianity which has been post modernized to be called compromised Christianity which most emerging churches are guilty of due to the way they have embraced some beliefs of post modernism.


Berger, P. L. The sacred canopy: Elements of a sociological theory of religion. Doubleday: New York. 1967.

Gibbs, Eddie and Bolger, Ryan. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community inPostmodern Cultures. Baker Academic. 2005.

Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids: WM. B.Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Groothuis Douglas R. Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the Challenges of Postmodernism. London: Intervarsity Press. 2000.

Kimball, Dan. The Emerging Church


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