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Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Preaching to postmoderns

Rev. Paul McCain and Glen Piper have already linked to this article over at Associated Baptist Press, but if you haven't read it yet, you should. The piece quotes a bunch of so-called emergent church leaders commenting that sermons are about to reach their expiration date for the postmodern generations, and something different is needed:

"I don't think we will have master orators much longer," predicted Chris Seay, pastor of Ecclesia in Houston and a frequent commentator on postmodern culture. "Art, dance and music are new forces that will play increasingly larger roles" if the church is to be relevant to the Millennials, today's teens and young adults.

The postmodern person "celebrates experiences" and wants to "engage all the senses," he explained. "They have shorter attention spans and they process information differently from earlier generations. They learn through narrative -- stories -- and the visual is very important."

This kind of talk is all over the church lately, specifically the bit about postmoderns processing information differently. Frankly, I have a hard time buying it. The whole argument is predicated on the popularity of entertainment media and its format, intersected with youth's declining interest (and attendance) in most churches. Just because the two things are happening at once doesn't mean they're related.

I'm a recent college grad living in a trendy metropolitan area brimming with disenchanted postmoderns. Not a single one that I've ever spoken with has quit going to church because they couldn't "process the information" presented there. In fact, most of the time it's the opposite: They've completely processed the church's message, and plain and simple didn't like it.

And please note: I talk to other people in my generation. When I want to communicate with them, I don't do a special dance or break out my guitar and serenade them. So far, it looks like everyone is processing just fine.

Whether directly or indirectly, what's really happening here is an effort to make the church more entertaining. The article goes on:

Author Brian McLaren, pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church outside Washington, D.C., agreed. "We're facing a transition from the familiar/normal to something less formal. Songwriters and music publishers play important roles in the theological formation of a congregation -- even more than the pastor. I'm pretty sure people don't catch themselves humming the sermon during the week."

It's scary to read things like this from a pastor. 1) If songwriters and music publishers are replacing pastors, who is responsible for their training, ordination, and call? 2) When did we get so superficial that we started judging a sermon's worth by the catchiness of its "tune?" Some of the worst music being written today is the most melodically memorable.

Why has the church become so obsessed with beating culture at its own game? If we are competing with the world to leave the deepest sensory impression, we're always going to finish last: Christians walk by faith, not by sight. God has bound Himself not to good feelings, but to Word and Sacrament. He will be there regardless of how we feel about it.

There were a few things in that article that made sense to me:

Two other strong emphases in postmodern Christian worship -- the desire for community and the desire for contemplation -- also are apt to influence the preaching, several session leaders at Baylor University's "Music and Worship in an Emerging Culture" symposium agreed.

The contemplative moments preceding confession in our Lutheran liturgies are some of my favorite. Communion -- the basis for all church community -- I love even more.

Absolute honesty also makes people more willing to hear the hard things," Seay argued. "We do a disservice to the gospel when we make the people in the Bible out to be better than they were and we pretend to be better than we are," he explained.

Amen to that. Let's say it and mean it: "There is no one righteous, not even one." As a child, I was always confused when our Sunday School lessons admonished us to imitate Old Testament characters, as if they were somehow perfect.

I worry that all of this emergent church business is the same old confusion of Law and Gospel in new wrapping paper. Want a message that will prick hearts, no matter the presentation? "For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," but "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."