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Postmodern shift: Seeking new ways to do church Bill Fentum, Jan 2, 2009
2008 DESIGN PICS PHOTO
Today’s cynical and distrustful world makes faith a challenge for some young adults.
By Bill Fentum Staff Writer
The Rev. Janet Forbes had been senior pastor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo., for only a few months when she decided it was time to go back to seminary. “St. Luke’s drove me to it,” she says of the congregation with its high percentage of young people.
So last spring, she graduated with a doctorate from Drew Theological School. Her thesis was on postmodern Christianity.
Now Dr. Forbes uses what she learned to minister to her flock at St. Luke’s, where the average age is 32, and only a minority of them are lifelong United Methodists. They worship alongside seekers, new Christians and interfaith families. Bonding happens in mission teams and classes like Gap Group, where members talk about their diverse spiritual beliefs and share stories of their faith journeys.
“We’re an organic community in which relationship is the tie that binds, not doctrine,” Dr. Forbes said. “The more you build relationship across difference, the more difference becomes OK.”
Postmodernism has influenced U.S. churches for decades. It is part of a cultural shift away from strict dogma and creedal tradition. Postmodern generations—born after the baby boom era of 1946-1964—tend to favor theologies of inclusion and may avoid organized religion altogether because they distrust institutions.
“I’m a baby boomer, raised as a modernist,” said Dr. Forbes, 58. “Where I see hard-and-fast truths, postmodernists see a wavy line shaped by worldview and ethnicity.
“And very few of them want to land anywhere; they give to the church, they participate, they pray, they do everything the vows say. But joining sounds non-spiritual to them, like getting a magazine subscription.”
St. Luke’s has about 1,300 full members; another 500 prefer to remain constituents, or non-professing members.
Some also desire a different kind of worship experience. So in 2007, St. Luke’s launched a Sunday evening service called Fusion, where round tables replace pews, and an associate pastor, the Rev. Brad Laurvick, preaches very flexible sermons.
“I wander through the tables and preach off my iPhone while people text me with questions and comments,” Mr. Laurvick said. “They send notes that say, ‘Oh, that’s so me’ or ‘I don’t understand that word’ or ‘How does this apply to. . . .’”
He says a friend told him about the idea of texting during a sermon. And then when a parishioner said to him, “Hey, you talked about this last Sunday and I had no idea what it meant,” he realized that if members were able to ask questions during the sermon, he could communicate theological concepts more clearly.
Every other month Mr. Laurvick preaches what he calls a “brown-bag sermon”: Someone brings an item he hasn’t seen ahead of time and reveals it to him at the beginning of the service. He then outlines a sermon during the opening songs, using the item as a metaphor.
“One guy said he spent all week looking for something that had absolutely no meaning to try to stump me, and he couldn’t find it,” Mr. Laurvick said. “To me, that was a very defining moment of why we do what we do. It gets people looking for deeper meaning in their everyday lives.”
That’s one goal, experts say, of evangelism to postmodernist non-Christians.
“Outreach strategies from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s have lost traction because of a greater sense of cynicism in the culture,” said Don Everts, a former campus minister who co-authored I Once Was Lost (InterVarsity Press, 2008), a study on postmodern evangelism.
Mr. Everts and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Doug Schaupp interviewed new Christians at campuses in Colorado and California, then developed a list of five thresholds that each person had crossed before conversion: learning to trust a Christian, becoming curious about faith, opening themselves to change, seeking after God and committing their lives to Christ.
Mr. Everts believes cynics can still be persuaded by friends who share their personal faith and even admit to a few inner struggles.
“Our lives are a witness,” he said, “so as much as we can tell our own stories—our faith, our doubts, the decisions we’ve made, all that stuff—that’s a much more powerful apologetic these days than a more logic- and philosophy-based approach.”
In his evangelism training, Mr. Everts tells people they only need to guide their friends through one threshold at a time. “That’s so freeing,” he said. “Instead of treating it like salespeople—‘I’ve got to make this sale, close this deal’—we simply help someone where they are right now. It takes away the stress.”
Mr. Schaupp will participate in a Jan. 10 seminar, “Reaching a New Generation,” at Trinity UMC in San Diego, Calif. The church is located near an arts district where most residents are younger than members of the now-graying congregation.
“The members decided it’s time to train and go out into our neighborhood,’” said the Rev. Tim Ellington, Trinity’s pastor. “If we don’t, we’re not really being faithful to our mission.”
Mr. Ellington, also a former campus minister, once met a college student who had been going to three churches every weekend, hoping to hear from God. It clicked for her when she heard Mr. Ellington preach about “the Christian journey being an adventure that God invites us to start,” he said. “She realized then that God wanted her to have a life of adventure, that it would be hard but good.”
Postmodernists might find that adventure in social justice ministries, far away or close to home. Lockerbie Central UMC in Indianapolis, Ind., publishes a monthly newsletter, One Paycheck Away, written by and for homeless people. The newsletter project was born in a Sunday school class where most participants are homeless. The 125-year-old building is also home to an art studio and fair-trade coffee house.
The downtown congregation, founded in 2006 when two dying churches merged, now gets by without a pastor or paid staff. Thirty members gather each Sunday for an informal worship service, where they may hear a guest preacher or break out into discussion groups.
“We leave a lot of open space for participation and silence,” said Lockerbie Central lay leader Mike Oles. “A lot of us have doubts and struggle with things, and don’t have clear, definite answers. We’re not afraid to say, ‘Well, I’m not really sure I believe in the Virgin Birth.’ We want to be in conversation with people who take the Christmas story literally and also with people who take it as a great metaphor.”
The Lockerbie congregation sees itself as part of the emerging church, a movement to bring 20- and 30-somethings back to faith through a focus on mission and casual, interactive worship. Participants often reject institutional structures; the Minneapolis-based Emergent Village recently dropped its national leadership in favor of an online social network and regional gatherings.
Some worry that the emerging-church trend signals rough days ahead for denominations.
“I don’t identify personally with the emerging movement,” said Mr. Laurvick at St. Luke’s. “I’m heavily invested in the United Methodist Church. I’ve been a General Conference delegate, I serve on our conference episcopacy committee. So it’s hard for me to say, ‘Let’s walk away from all institutions.’
“I’m 26, a milliennial. In contrast to our Gen-X predecessors, we’ve become a little more institutional again. You’ll find millennials tend to say, ‘No, I’m for the institution because we can fix it.’ And that’s so me. I look forward to where our denomination goes, with hope.”
Others say the grassroots movement is more reminiscent of the way Methodism founder John Wesley might have operated.
“When people talk about the emerging church, they’re really talking about blessing the community,” Mr. Ellington said. “Well, Wesley was out in the field. They’re talking about the need for authenticity and accountability, and Wesley encouraged that in class meetings.
“Wesley’s theology wasn’t systematic, but based on how faith gets lived out daily. That’s very relevant for the postmodern world.”