The Postmodern Parish

Our synod’s evangelism committee is reading Jim Kitchens’ “The Postmodern Parish” in preparation for hosting him at our Mission Fair in March. I just finished it over the break – it’s a quick and easy read. Here’s my take on the book:

It may take decades for the shape of the church that is emerging to become clear, but that’s no reason to delay following our best intuitions about ministry in postmodern culture. In “The Postmodern Parish,” Jim Kitchens advises church leaders to stop looking at what’s right in front of them and learn to trust their peripheral vision of the trends starting to emerge around the church.

This Alban Institute publication is a solid introduction to the emerging church for mainline pastors and church leaders who are becoming aware that the world they serve in is changing, but aren’t sure why the ground is shifting. Kitchens, a Presbyterian, is honest about the ways in which the mainline church is beholden to the dying assumptions of Christendom, and offers a solid analysis of the implications of postmodernism for the mainline. He also offers some examples from his experience with a California congregation struggling to respond to postmoderns’ shifting expectations of the church. “The Postmodern Parish” is accessible and relevant to mainline Christians interested in the renewal of existing congregations. (Kitchens will keynote the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod’s 2006 Mission Fair on March 18.)

Kitchens opens the book with a clear description of this new postmodern, post-Christian and postdenominational ministry context. (You can read the opening chapter in PDF format here). Distrust of modern ideas about progress and certainty mark the postmodern era, along with a focus on felt experiences over knowing and a dissatisfaction with 20th Century individualism. Society has dispensed with special privileges afforded the church, as most church leaders know but many deny, Kitchens writes, while a consumer mentality has undermined the denominational “brand loyalty” once so important to Christians. These three waves washing over the church simultaneously have radically altered the world of ministry, and church leaders can’t afford to ignore the changes, he says.

Even though now perceiving the altered landscape, Kitchens predicts that it may take 50 years or more for a new paradigm of ministry to fully emerge. But the church can ill afford to wait until the new pattern is clear to start adapting its tactics, because by then the opportunity of postmodern culture, a new openness to mystery and theology, will have passed:
“When we know what worked in the past no longer works, but we don’t yet see what should replace our former practices, we need to step out intuitively and cautiously into the future until we can see more clearly.” (31)
He likens the liminal glimpses we have of new forms of church to movements noted in our peripheral vision, which often disappear as soon as we look directly at them. Though he urges prayer and discernment in responding to these shadowy visions, he acknowledges that church leaders will have to trust their hunches and take action, realizing that it may not be possible to determine if these movements are of God except in hindsight. This is an important insight for mainline denominations including Lutherans, who like to nail down theological ramifications before taking action. The costs of not doing anything, he suggests, outweigh the risks of making the wrong move, especially if we act trusting the Spirit and testing our ideas with trusted colleagues on the same journey.

While home and school used to assist in the cultivation of Christian identity in the Christendom era, the Church is on its own in the post-Christendom era. As a result, Christian worship has to focus less on imparting information about the faith and more on faith formation, Kitchens says. Immersion in biblical stories and Christian concepts is called for, but more than talk is required.
“Mainline churches tend to have a bad case of verbal diarrhea: We fill the hour of worship with words heaped upon words. We tell God everything about us, but we rarely incorporate space in our worship to listen for a word from God…” (50)
Instead, he counsels worship that goes beyond talking head lectures to allow postmoderns to hear many voices, and that uses the arts and silence to create space for the scriptural witness to sink in and to discern the Spirit’s leading.

In a world where most people who come to churches are likely to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” formation of Christian identity has to be the primary goal of other church programs as well, from new member classes to Sunday School and council meetings, Kitchens says. He also briefly treats the welcome shift away from “the church’s mission” to accepting God’s invitation to join God’s mission to love and restore the world. Readers interested in this rediscovery of the mission field outside our front doors will find a much deeper treatment in Frost and Hirsch’s “The Shaping of Things to Come” (read my reviews here and here).

Leadership also takes on different dimensions in “generations ripe for a radical recovery of the Protestant principle of ‘the Priesthood of all believers,’” Kitchens writes. Flattening the artificial hierarchies that value clergy more than other Christians is a minimum here, he says. Taking postmodern ideas about leadership seriously will require questioning the administrative and corporate focus of church policies and the “adversarial nature” of our parliamentary procedures, he says. This will open the door to more holistic leadership structures and development of models for discernment that value all voices rather than giving great advantage to aggressive extroverts. And rethinking the professionalization of clergy, rather than devaluing learning, will allow pastors to reclaim their roles as shepherds and guides rather than CEOs, he says.

Kitchens’ experience at Davis Community Church in California, a downtown, university church with comfortable resources, won’t translate to every congregation, and his cautious approach is well suited to existing churches that want to incorporate innovations of cutting edge emerging churches into their traditions. Overall, “The Postmodern Parish” is a good introductory read for mainline Christians who are skeptical of the evangelical assumptions and experiences of many emerging church readers.

Click the image above to purchase the book at Amazon.com

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