One of the differences between “modern” churches and “postmodern” churches is the way they seek to “do church.” The modern churches have been heavy on programs – Sunday School, children’s church, youth programs, camping programs, visitation programs, and on the list could go. The postmoderns are more interested in relationships. They are generally not interested in separating the family during church times or conducting visitation campaigns or developing similar programs. Postmodern church events, as well as the spontaneous gatherings of church members, are less about learning, doing or accomplishing some specified goal, and more about just being together. The emerging church is willing to take the time to develop relationships.
The postmoderns have reacted most strongly against the two ultimate kinds of “modern” church philosophy – the megachurch and the seeker-sensitive church. The megachurch, however, is not a recent evangelical invention. In the mid- to late-20th century, fundamentalists worked at growing their churches through a wide variety of programs, especially the bus program. Elmer Towns kept track of the fastest growing churches in America in the 1970s and later. Today Outreach Magazine continues to track the fastest growing churches in America. The modern mindset which views bigness as success continues. There is nothing wrong with a big church, as long as the goal of the big church is not simply to be bigger. The seeker-sensitive church uses its people-oriented approach to reach the unchurched. While frequently weak on its presentation or view of the Gospel, the seeker-sensitive church has, in general, maintained at least a broad orthodoxy, because it has maintained a belief that there is truth in the universe. The problem that postmoderns have with these modern churches is their emphasis on the individual and, at least to some extent, on truth.
Moderns have adapted to some of the thinking of the postmoderns, usually to the benefit of their churches. An increased focus on relationships and authenticity is a good thing. My generation was taught to keep a distance between the clergy and the laity. We were taught not to reveal our own weaknesses. We were encouraged not to make friends with the congregation. We were to be viewed as above the masses. So the emphasis on authenticity is a good modification of modern thinking. The use of small groups has been a helpful method to build relationships in the local church, no matter how small or large the church is.
The postmoderns emphasize relationships as the key to evangelization. This is accomplished often through the development of a story or a “narrative.” This comes from a desire to experience God. Since there are no absolutes, there can only be experience. Sharing one’s own story is the way to encourage others to experience God in their own way. This is not the same as a testimony from a modern believer; the testimonies of believers who accept the truth of Scripture tend to be a lot alike, since they are based on the biblical Gospel. The stories of the postmoderns, however, have no authoritative base; therefore, they can be widely different from one another. To a postmodern, however, those differing testimonies are an excellent example of the experiential basis of their philosophy and religion.
We do not want to imply that modern churches never build relationships and postmodern churches never organize programs; no one is a perfect modern or postmodern. Nevertheless, there is some truth to the contrast, for the larger a church grows, the more difficult it becomes to build relationships between the totality of the members. In the successful large churches, there are frequently smaller groups where the relationships are built. On the other hand, the postmodernists focus far more attention on the building and maintenance of relationships between the “members.” There is much to learn from this emphasis. Jesus focused his ministry on relationships, gathering a small group of men (in the inner circle and even some women in the larger circle). The growth of the emphasis today on mentoring and discipleship is based on relationships, rather than on a formalized program. Effective mentoring, however, is purposeful and directed – a “program” if you please.