Truth isn't what it used to be
Although I appreciate that amongst many readers of Connexion there may be a cynicism about postmodernity, for many, myself included it is a reality; a way of thinking that is as inherent as the modern/post-enlightenment way of thinking which proceeded it. That being said, church leaders that wish to engage with today’s culture need to rely less on the structuralist, scientific approach to preaching and leadership. Instead a new model is necessary; one which offers reflection rather than instruction, which guides and does not ‘tell’, which recognises the complexity of modern life and does not offer simplistic solutions. If the Methodist Church is to survive this period of decline, this is a lesson which should be learned sooner rather than later.
Growing up within an evangelical context the preaching I heard (and no doubt later engaged in as a local preacher) was based very much on the evangelical tradition. Much emphasis was placed on delving into the background of the text, seeking the true meaning to the original hearer and revealing that truth to the congregation. This traditional evangelical model of preaching relies on a deep trust in authority figures and has at its heart an over-simplistic reliance on science and language. It does not suit the postmodern context where both authority and objectivity are alien concepts.
Developments in the nature of language lie at the heart of postmodernity. According to postmodern philosophy (cite. Derrida et al), words in themselves carry no meaning; only when words are read do they spring to life. In other words, it is the reader that injects the meaning, not the words themselves and therefore because we have no way of stepping outside of language, we have no way of proving that something is objectively true. Before writing to the editor, please finish reading this article, because I am not saying truth is meaningless, or that anything goes; on the contrary, truth is the pearl of great price, which we should pursue at all cost, but within the postmodern mindset it is not obtainable- certainly not in this life. And in my experience of evangelical leadership within the church, often those who believe truth is obtainable tend to only accept the truth which reinforces their predisposed tendencies.
This critical model of thinking may sound like a hammer blow to evangelical church, but I do not think it needs to be. It does however need to reshape our model of leadership. The old model which centred on one figure of authority – and by that I mean a member of the clergy not a member of the Trinity - will not suffice. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and therefore the parent- child relationship which exists between so many ministers and their congregations no longer fits. Many of my contemporaries have no guarantee that any clergyperson has their best interests at heart, nor do they believe they hold a greater grasp of truth than anyone else- irrespective of how much Greek they profess to know. It would be foolhardy therefore for them to simply adopt or obey anything that one such leader should say or instruct, instead they choose to critique his/her presentation of truth and evaluate that interpretation through their own perspective.
If I am correct in suggesting that this postmodern perspective is shared by many of my contemporaries, then the church must adjust her practice as a matter of urgency.
If the evangelical church is to reach beyond its walls it needs to allow space for doubt as well as faith and question any neat packaging of faith that tries to wrap everything up. The church needs to allow people to discover truth for themselves by encouraging enquiry as much as commitment. Moreover, evangelical leaders themselves need to have the courage to explore beyond their own personal preferences – and that doesn’t just mean singing modern songs.
Most importantly those within the evangelical tradition - and this is not just relevant to leaders and preachers – need to begin to appreciate that our understanding of faith is the result of our experience and that our theology is merely how things look from where we stand. We see through the glass dimly, and when engaging with those who are different to ourselves, we need to remember this and understand that just as God was able to reveal truth through Balaam’s ass so he might reveal himself to us where we least expect it.
To many readers, this may all sound sacrilege, but in one sense, that is irrelevant. The important thing is to understand that there are people on the edge of the church who share these thoughts and are sceptical about authority and objectivity. However much you tell them to pull themselves together they will continue to ask questions and therefore no doubt continue to feel out of place within a tradition that fails to recognise the culture which it seeks to redeem.