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Postmodern Children's MinistryMinistry to Children in the 21st Century
By Ivy Beckwith
ZondervanCopyright © 2004 Youth Specialties
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Millennial Child and Beyond
One morning several years ago I had a short but memorable conversation with the Missions pastor of the church where I was employed as the Director of Children's Ministries. We were discussing how people understand the concept of truth. My friend made the point that the purpose of evangelism is to convince people that the Good News of Jesus is true. But, he said, the time would come when the response to our attempts to convince will be, "Okay, it's true. So what?"
I was intrigued by his words, and in the intervening years they have come back to me over and over again. I believe that Western culture and those that the North American church hopes to speak to are in this "so what?" era. With this change comes a host of new challenges to the church's mission of evangelism and discipleship, such as battling relativism, searching for new paradigms of gospel proclamation, and rethinking our understanding of the Bible.
Those of us who've made careers out of children's and family ministry have had a lot of success and recognition over the last 25 years. We've become professionals. We have academic degrees in Christian Education or Spiritual Formation. We have heightened awareness of the importance of specializing in ministries to children and their families. We've helped proliferate a multimillion-dollar curriculum-and-resource-publishing industry. And we've helped seminaries and Christian colleges grudgingly admit that what we do is a legitimate educational discipline, that it involves more than providing cut-and-paste activities for children in the church basement while the adults get on with God's real business. Web sites and nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping us do our jobs better are growing and providing more and more resources. Children's ministry has its own national conferences, and we have our own celebrities. Megachurches hold large events to pass on the secrets of their success in children's ministry. And I'm sure somewhere in all this we've seen God work among the children and families we've been privileged to know. Children's ministry has come a long way since Henrietta Mears, the founder of Gospel Light Publications, mimeographed Sunday-school curriculum in her garage. We've moved out of the shadows and into the limelight of church ministry.
Yet continuing on this track will not meet the needs of the current generation and the generation to come. If we hope to have any effect on the spiritual formation of the children and families that come to our churches in the next 50 years, children's ministry cannot continue as we know it. We need to be thinking about new paradigms, new ways of doing what we're doing, and we need to be thinking about it right now. If we don't, we'll soon find that we've become irrelevant to the families who live in the changing culture. We'll be scrambling to figure out what happened to everything that looked so shiny and unstoppable at the end of the 20th century.
I began to see this need for a revisioning of children's ministry as I grew to understand the formidable cultural change swirling around us. I heard a speech by a New Testament professor from a prominent midwestern seminary who was speaking to educational ministry professors and teachers. He addressed the subject of postmodernism and the church's response to it. I remember two things from what he said that day. First, he said that those holding a postmodern worldview do not believe in the existence of absolute truth. This statement reminded me immediately of the conversation I'd had years before with that Missions Pastor: I realized that the belief in absolute truth was foundational to so much of Christianity that the post-modern resistance to the idea of absolute truth could be a rather significant problem for the church-we would need to figure out how to answer the "so what" question.
Second, he described a weekly Bible study for business executives that he led in downtown Chicago. He explained that he never went into these sessions armed with formulas and arguments to convince the people of the truth. Instead he simply shared stories of God with them and guided their discussion of these stories. He introduced God to the people and let them decide for themselves. I couldn't help but believe he was on to something. He was proposing a way of bringing people to faith that didn't have anything to do with cut-and-dried teaching methodology. The idea struck a chord in me that day and sent me on the path to where I am today.
The Modern Era
For the last several years, the term postmodern has floated around academic and theological circles. (The term is also used in many other disciplines-art, literature, architecture-but it means different things in each context.) Now it is part of the popular vernacular, and yet most of us don't really understand what it means. I'm no philosopher and don't have a philosopher's understanding of the abstract thinking behind the term, but I can tell you how I've come to understand it as a layperson.
In order to understand how something can be postmodern, first we need to understand how something can be modern. Think back to the European history and philosophy classes you had in college or graduate school. Most likely you studied something called the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason that came around 1700 A.D. This era is commonly thought to be the beginning of the modern era. (In light of the church's resistance to postmodernism, it strikes me as quite ironic that my Christian college had no qualms about requiring a course on the Enlightenment.) Your professors may have talked about how philosophies of modernity came about as a reaction to the more superstitious, mystical, and religious thought of the Middle Ages.
During the Enlightenment, men and women (though mostly men) began to discover they could exert some kind of control over their world and conquer parts of it. Life, it was discovered, was not just a serendipitous journey where everyone was at the mercy of circumstances outside of personal control. Machines were invented that could do some tasks better than human beings. And people were discovering that the human ability to reason and solve problems was a useful tool for taming and mastering the external world. Perhaps, the philosophers mused, humans could be the masters of their own destinies. The only things human beings needed to make the world better was men and women who learned how to think and use their innate talents and skills more effectively. If humans could uncover the mysteries of the world, then perhaps it was no longer necessary to believe in that all-knowing, all-seeing God of the Middle Ages.
Philosophers believed human beings could discover the absolute truth about reality within themselves and that if they thought long enough and hard enough about it, they could solve any problem the world had to offer, eventually perfecting the world and themselves. Many of the thinkers of the Age of Reason had little use for the God of the Bible.
Moderns believe in absolute truth and that all truth is objective. They believe that the final word on all things, the understanding of objective reality, is out there somewhere and humans can find it through our capacity for reason. This objective, absolute truth is not subject to the whims or perceptions of kings, rulers, priests, or cultures. An assertion is true if it accurately and objectively represents the independent, external world. All this knowledge is accessible for all humans; there is nothing we human beings can't know if we just put our minds to it and analyze the problem or the situation. There is nothing humans can't do or understand eventually. Modern thinking holds absolute faith in the rational capabilities of the human mind.
Modernity is scientific. The sciences with their hypotheses, theories, seeming objectivity, and ability to experiment and test for truth are held up as one of the best pathways to absolute knowledge and truth. Modernity prizes analysis. If we can just look at a problem from all sides and use all of our brainpower to figure out the causes and effects, we'll eventually be able to find a solution. The best way to think, then, is logically, linearly, analytically, and unemotionally. Because the world is making progress in a straight line toward something better, moderns are extremely positive and optimistic about the future.
In addition, modern thinking emphasizes the work and well-being of the individual over and against group and community life. Men and women are on their own in what they accomplish. Each individual is responsible for herself and has the right to make her own decisions and mistakes. Pulling ourselves up or making something of ourselves is more important than the needs or abilities of the greater community. So modernity has great faith in the individuals to grasp and understand the absolute truth about the way things are. Once that truth is applied to individual lives and societal problems in a logical and analytical way, the world will be on its way to perfection. We can think our way to a better life and a better world.
Over the last 300 years, this modern way of thinking has infiltrated our culture-Western culture in particular-so completely that few people have ever considered that it is not necessarily the only way of understanding the world. As the minds of each generation have been formed by this modern way of thinking, so too were the institutions of those generations, including the church. The modern church, therefore, holds to some of these same ideas: the belief that we must defend our faith with solid arguments and spiritual truths, the insistence on personal acts of faith, the idea that the only secure faith is one built on a foundation of absolute, unshakable truth.
The Postmodern Era
Postmodern literally means "after modern." So when we say we've moved into an age of postmodernity, we're saying that the modern age has passed and we've moved into a new paradigm, a new overall worldview.
But these kinds of cultural shifts are never easy-or quick. When the world was moving from the Middle Ages to the Age of Reason, not everyone got there at the same time. People didn't wake up on January 1, 1700, look at their calendars, and say, "Goodness! Look at that! We've moved into the Age of Modernity." These cultural changes, while tumultuous and significant, are gradual.
And that's where we are now. We find ourselves in a world slowly leaning toward postmodern but still populated by a lot of people who hold a modern worldview. This leads to conflict and to at least one popular misconception about postmodernism. Lots of speakers and writers like to use the word postmodern and generational monikers like Generation X or millennial interchangeably. They treat the postmodern worldview as a life stage that one will likely outgrow as maturity settles in.
While it's true that many people under 30 tend to think in postmodern ways, viewing the world through postmodern glasses cannot be chalked up exclusively to life stage analysis. Research shows that about 30 percent of Baby Boomers, 50 percent of Baby Busters (or Xers), and 60 percent of millennials have postmodern sensibilities. And although I am squarely part of the Baby Boom generation, I have carried around postmodern sensibilities my entire life. I just didn't know what to call them. I've never felt like I fit in with most Baby Boomers. I've thought and felt differently from most of my peers all my life-and now I know why.
But let's go back to those percentages for a minute. While I strongly believe this is not primarily a generational issue, it's worth noting that those with the strongest tendency toward a postmodern worldview are those currently labeled the Millennial Generation or Generation Y. These are the children we see currently in our churches. The Millennial Generation has been described as those children born between 1980 or 1982 (social science makes no claims to being an exact science) and 2001. Some generational specialists believe the Millennial Generation ended on September 11, 2001.
So, sitting in your preschool classrooms every Sunday morning are a bunch of cute, curly headed postmoderns! Whether you agree with the postmodern way of thinking or not, ministering to these children demands that you understand their worldview.
Our world's new cultural and intellectual paradigm is truly a shift in the way human beings process information and in the way we view the external world. We're seeing a world where all the old certainties are dissolving. It's no wonder moderns are scared. Everything they've always hung onto as absolute truth, from our safety as a country to the way life is created, is being challenged and questioned. But it's happening. It's here. The church must understand it. And the church must deal with it.
Just as moderns believe there is discernable and knowable absolute truth and objective reality, postmoderns believe there is no overarching truth or ultimate ideal that explains and undergirds all of human existence. Postmoderns believe that reality or truth is always subjective. One's reality or truth grows out of one's perspective and life experiences. It is not imposed from the outside. Therefore, the modern idea of a metanarrative or a grand story that explains everything about the world is greeted with incredulity. J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh, authors of the book Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, explain it this way:
But if metanarratives are social construction, then like abstract ethical systems, they are simply particular moral visions dressed up in the guise of universality. And in falsely claiming universality while being blind to their own constructed character, metanarratives inevitably privilege unity, homogeneity, and closure over differences, heterogeneity, otherness, and openness. The result is that all kinds of events and people end up being excluded from the way in which the story gets told. No metanarrative, it appears, is large enough and open enough genuinely to include the experiences and realities of all peoples.
Okay, that's a mouthful. Let's talk about it some. Big stories whose intent is to explain truth or the meaning of life all had to come from somewhere. That "somewhere" is other human beings. All humans live in some sort of place, country, community, or tribe. All humans live in a subjective context. No one can stand outside of her own reality. Therefore, no big story can ever claim to be objective because it cannot help but be colored by the prejudices, beliefs, customs, and stories of the context from whence it came. (Interestingly, missionaries have understood this for years.) So postmoderns instead acknowledge that one's beliefs and stories are local.
Excerpted from Postmodern Children's Ministry by Ivy Beckwith Copyright © 2004 by Youth Specialties. Excerpted by permission.
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