Emerging firmware

Our team just gave a presentation at our synod’s “Mission Fair,” which focused on engaging our postmodern, post-Christendom, post-denominational culture. Our breakout was on “Re-forming Worship” – why curating participatory, multisensory worship and contextualizing everything from music to preaching is both biblical and lutheran (small “l” intentional). A familiar question was raised, as was during my presentations to synod staff and leaders and in Karen Ward’s workshop last month: What do we do in existing churches? Can postmodern ministries exist in the church-as-we-know-it, or must we start new ones?

This question was particularly acute in the area of worship. When we presented the ideas of prayer stations, participatory sermons, movement and changing of sacred space, there were a number of comments along the lines of “my congregation would never go for that.”

Privately, though, I was pulled aside by a charming older lady who resonated with the simple worship station that opened our breakout and our talk of engaging heart, mind, body and soul in Christ. She recalled the tactile rituals she had experienced years ago worshipping in the home of friends who were converts from Judaism. “This movement has to start in the living rooms,” she said, and pastors/leaders need to be willing to let that happen. “I’m 81 years old, and I think you’re on the right track,” she said.

That’s just one of a number of experiences that are helping to clarify my thinking about this. Here’s another: Keynote presenter Jim Kitchens, author of The Postmodern Parish, related well to the boomers and builders who predominated. He noted that as a boomer postmodern is a “second language” for him, and he gave an informative, “modern” analysis of the cultural shift. And it was needed. As one gentleman said in one of our workshops: “This postmodern thing is important. Why haven’t we heard about this before?”

Here’s my insight: moderns and postmoderns are talking past each other much of the time because our approaches are not choices or learned behaviors – not products of conformity to the system or rebellion against it – but are hard-coded. Modern or postmodern approaches to the world are “orientations.” They are the BIOS in our biological computers, that determine how we will deal with any input we receive and how we will process them and communicate them back to the world. Unlike in digital computers, our firmware isn’t “flash” upgradeable, but we are able to adapt and change over time.

It’s false to say – as many do – that there is a modern/postmodern dualism: You’re either one or the other. We’re all a mix of elements, some of which could be labeled one or the other. Historically, there have always been people who have held opposites in tension and those who see only one way. Luther’s thought – his embrace of paradox, his view of God’s strength in weakness, his deconstruction of authority – has many elements we would now label postmodern. His followers who structured his insights into an institution were less so. I am a late boomer and have come to realize that postmodern is one of my native tongues, if not my only one. I know others my age like this. I also know some thoroughly modern young people; they’re often the ones who are around church. As Brian McLaren says, “90 percent of our young people become postmodern young adults, and the rest stay in the church.”

This mix has changed over time, as the world has changed. In my parents’ generation, people who questioned the monolithic modern assumptions suffered the way society failed them in silence. Boomers learned that structures can be challenged and sometimes changed. My children consider their ability to question, to participate, and to be taken seriously a birthright.

Put these trends together and you can see why this question is so common. Modern faith communities that value belonging to the group over individuality, the unity of common action, the authority of one way of teaching and learning, and clear structure are confronting new generations who think and act not just a little differently but in some case the complete opposite. Builders, meet those who need to deconstruct before they can reconstruct.

And there’s the rub. These approaches are not very compatible, although I believe its possible that they can be complementary. Not, however, in the way most of us now approach the “shift.”

Postmoderns, while being generally willing to coexist with moderns, want them to let go of some of their stress on conformity, on tradition. Moderns, on the other hand, tend to want to analyze and categorize postmoderns, like animals in the zoo, and honestly believe that if we just learned enough or valued the group enough we could change and become like them. Ain’t gonna happen, folks. It’s in the BIOS, remember?

So here, finally, come some thoughts on the question posed at the top of this post (remember that long ago?). The answer is that ministry to postmoderns can happen anywhere that people are serious about doing ministry with postmoderns as postmoderns, and will fail anywhere they want to do ministry to postmoderns.

If you’re comfortable in a traditional church, you’re no more going to turn a postmodern into a clone of you than you are to change into a postmodern. So there needs to be a way to have a community within your church that can really be a postmodern community. Not just a postmodern style of worship, but a community that relates to each other and the world in a more communitarian, less hierarchical, more participatory and interactive way. A community that can govern itself in ways that will drive your church council and old guard crazy. A community that can try and fail and learn from it, not be penalized for it. A community that might just end up questioning the values of its host.

The perception of control so necessary to moderns has to be let go of in order to let postmoderns be postmoderns.

On the other hand, if you just want to appropriate an emergent “style” of worship to bring people into a church that expects the new people to change to fit it, rather than changing to incorporate them, you will likely fail. As one young emerging Lutheran leader put it, “people my age can smell the bait-and-switch stench a mile away.”

In short, if your approach involves requiring someone to reprogram their BIOS, it is destined to fail. And there is a real question here – if there are people you want to reach whose BIOS is different than yours, how do you do so in a way that honors the integrity of who they are and honors who you are (and how your church is)? If your church can’t reprogram itself to allow different firmware to exist at the same time, in parallel, there are lots of options:
  • Empower some of your native postmoderns to gather a community, and then turn them loose.
  • Send postmodern missionaries out of the church into your community, and support them.
  • Plant a daughter church
  • Get together with some other churches to plant a new ministry.
  • Support your synod or another church who is trying something new.
There is room in God’s kingdom for the-church-as-we-know-it and the-church-that-is-emerging. There will always be people, even in the postmodern age, who resonate with the traditional church, perhaps with more interactivity, more ownership, and different mustic. We need to ask how we take care of the institution and those who thrive in it while reaching out to those who are wired to seek God in other ways.

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