Challenges of postmodern youth ministry: what is postmodernism?

This week we’re starting a new series in which we’re taking a closer look at postmodern thinking and its effects on youth ministry. A lot has changed in youth ministry in the last years, especially noticeable for those of us who have been in youth ministry longer. Youth ministry (like any other ministry in church or the church in general) will always have its ebbs and flows of course, and things will always evolve and change. But I think postmodern thinking may be a bigger shift than many of us realize yet. In Europe, postmodernism has left deeper marks yet than in North America, but the times they are a-changing for sure. So let’s start with a brief overview of what postmodernism is exactly.

Postmodernism and postmodernity

Without wanting to get too philosophical, we need to understand that there is a difference between postmodernism (or postmodern thinking) and postmodernity. The first refers to philosophical thinking, no matter at what level it takes place and whether it’s done by someone who actually sees himself as a philosopher or by a high school student. The second refers to all aspects of a postmodern culture, like certain movies, musical preferences or the importance of role-playing games. Cultural phenomena tend to be a product of philosophical movements (1).

Postmodern thinking has slowly developed in the 20th century and like all philosophical movements can’t be tied down to a specific period or year. It can certainly be seen as a reaction to modernism, generally accepted to have been formed in the so called Enlightenment (18th century). But rather than trying to pinpoint when postmodernism started or how it developed, let’s look at some defining characteristics.

The movie The Matrix (1999) is generally seen as the movie that perfectly depicts postmoden thinking on crucial themes as reality and truth.

Characteristics of postmodernism

Without the pretence of giving a complete picture, here are some defining characteristics of postmodernism:

  • Question everything: there is no common accepted framework of morals or truth, everyone must question everything and find one’s own truth.
  • There is no objective truth: truth is relative and it depends on the individual to determine what is true for him/her and what isn’t.
  • Perception is reality: experiences are what matters, no matter of they ‘are’ real or lasting or not.
  • There is nothing outside the text: words have no meaning by itself, the meaning is given by the one reading and interpreting it. This is also known as deconstruction).
  • There is no meta-narrative: postmodernism rejects the idea of a bigger picture, of a broad and encompassing narrative that connects everything, for instance ideologies.

As mentioned before, postmodernism is a response to modernism which reveled in the power of reason and which ultimately held that everything had to be measured and empirically proven. Modernism believed that everything was ultimately knowable by the all-powerful human mind (2).

Postmodernism vs modernism

For me, this comparison between postmodernism and modernism that Tony Jones made in his book Postmodern youth ministry was really useful:


Modernism

Postmodernism

Rational Experiential
Scientific Spiritual
Unanimity Pluralistic
Exclusive Relative
Egocentric Altruistic
Individualistic Communal
Functional Creative
Industrial Environmental
Local Global
Compartmentalized Holistic
Relevant Authentic

(3)

Effects of postmodernism on Christianity

Postmodernism has resulted in a steady decline in church attendance, at least in Europe (4). In the US, 78% of the Americans calls themselves a Christian. Now we all know that not all of them are indeed a Christian by Biblical standards, but the fact is that they still associate themselves with the Christian faith. In my home country of The Netherlands, only 43% calls themselves a Christian (5). Welcome to the unchurched world of postmodernism…

Another effect of postmodernism on religion and Christianity in special, is the rise of what’s been dubbed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It’s a a term that was first introduced in the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagersby sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton to describe what they consider to be the common religious beliefs among American youth. It’s an Oprah-esque, copy-paste religion, influenced by Christianity and other religions but above all impacted by postmodern beliefs in relative truths and moral relativism that shares these beliefs (6):

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Challenges of postmodern youth ministry

Postmodern thinking certainly brings along many challenges for youth ministry. How do you proclaim Jesus as the only way to a generation that doesn’t believe in absolute truths? How do you convince a ‘deconstructive’ mind that the Bible is God’s Word and therefore the absolute unfailing truth? How can we change a tolerant belief system like moralistic therapeutic deism into an exclusive orthodox Christian faith, which is seen as intolerant? These are challenges indeed and they are just a few examples.

On the other hand, I believe postmodernism offers many opportunities as well. The search for an experience, for community, for authenticity, those are all longings we can relate to as Christians. And we have something wonderful to offer to them: the experience of a relationship with the living God, the community of the Church and the authenticity of being a true Jesus-follower.

So in the upcoming posts, we’ll dig deeper into postmodernism and the challenges it offers in youth ministry.

What aspects of postmodernism do you recognize in your youth ministry and in your young people? What worries you the most?

(1) James K.A. Smith, Who’s afraid of postmodernism, Baker Academics, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2006, p 21
(2) Tony Jones, Postmodern youth ministry, Youth Specialties/Zondervan, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2001, p 19
(3) Ibid, p 31-37
(4) Obviously, cause and effect are hard to distinguish here as postmodern thinking may lead to a decline in church attendance, but a decline in church attendance makes one certainly more susceptible to postmodern religious thinking. Neither is it a proven fact that postmodernism in general is the leading cause for a decline in church attendance, though it certainly has played an important role. In general though a ‘desecularization’ is seen as a hallmark of postmodernism.
(5) Source: Wikipedia
(6) Source: Wikipedia 

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  1. […] Ik heb hier op mijn Engelse blog een aantal posts over geschreven waar ik graag naar verwijs: The challenges of postmodern youth ministry. Hier leg ik ook uit wat ik onder postmodernisme versta. Hoe moeten we de kerk en ons jeugdwerk […]

  2. […] Postmodernism has completely changed western culture in every way imaginable. But parents don’t always see this and too often hold on to their own (modernist) frame work and culture. They can’t and won’t see how different the world is for teens nowadays. Some parents deny that it’s different at all (and I’m convinced: tougher) for teens of this generation. Others fail to see how much influence postmodernism has on their teens. Either way, they fail to see how much postmodernism has changed the world and the lives of teens. […]

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