How Did We Get Here? Giant Cultural Shifts and the Church


In the interest of renewing the church in her various forms, it is important to understand the development of the cultural milieu in which the church now finds herself. The transition from a modern to a postmodern culture is especially significant and should be examined in order to understand how it affects the renewal of existing denominations.

History can be divided into three expansive eras:

  1. Pre-modernity
  2. Modernity
  3. Postmodernity


The pre-modern era is best understood as a time period in which life revolved around some form of feudal system. Most people lived in an agricultural society in which they worked as peasants on behalf of someone who represented the ultimate power in the region or state.

In the pre-modern era, the church and state were virtually synonymous. Belief in the supernatural was foundational to understanding life.

In a variety of cultures and across centuries, some divine force was considered to be active in the universe and served as the explanation for much of what transpired in history. This was the general “meta-narrative,” or comprehensive account of the nature of reality, of this era.

This was also the era in which Christendom began. The church existed at the center of power in society and was the dominant social force in all aspects of life (Murray, Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World.)

Humankind had very little knowledge of anything outside of the local community. Communication was primarily oral. Meaning was bound up in the interplay of faith, community, and tradition. Some have suggested that Thomas Aquinas’ famous statement, “Faith has its reasons, reason knows not of,” is a quintessential statement of the pre-modern era (Kimball, The Emerging Church.)


The modern era began with the rise of the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent decentralization of the Christian/Catholic Church. The Renaissance followed shortly on its heels. The church was unseated from the throne of society. It was a time period centrally characterized by:

  • The ascendancy of human reason
  • The elevation of the empirical principle
  • The prominence of the scientific method to achieve absolute certainty
  • The accelerating hope for human progression (Ward, Postmodernism.)

The meta-narrative (a comprehensive account of the nature of reality)  of modernism held that humans and their accomplishments had replaced an active divine being. Humans, not the Divine, became the central characters of history. That history had reached its climax through the outworking of the Enlightenment philosophy (Bosch, Believing in the Future: Towards A Missiology of Western Culture.)

In the modern era, objective truth, moral absolutes, and a religious dualism that separated public life and private faith held a firm grasp on society. NT Wright summarizes the major tenants of the modern era as a confidence in the individual autonomous self. This confidence leads to the belief that knowledge was objectively determinable.

Put more simply, this means belief in facts over values. The right facts would lead to a “Golden Age” of human progress (Wright, The Bible For the Post-Modern World.)


The postmodern era has arisen in response to modernity (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.) It calls into question the values, the power structures, technological advances, religion(s), and aims of the modern era.

This is not to state that postmodernism is in complete juxtaposition to the modern era or the Enlightenment project. Rather, it is an era which has come “after” the failure of that dominant worldview expressed as “modernity” (“Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix” presented by Brian McLaren at Fuller Theological Seminary).

A number of major global catastrophes (World War I, World War II, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Vietnam, and 9-11, for example) caused great skepticism amongst many European twentieth-century philosophers and called into question the Enlightenment project (Kreeft, C. S. Lewis for the 3rd Millennium.)

The progress of science and human reason had not moved the world toward the “Golden Age” once anticipated. At it’s best, the ascendancy of human reason and scientific progress produced modern medicine and technology. However, it was ineffectual to the overall human condition. At worst had helped cause the great problems in the first half of the twentieth century.

The tools of modernity were turned by the autonomous individuals of modernity into instruments of oppression and violence. For instance, the evolutionary theories of Darwinism turned into a Social Darwinism. This filled the powerful nations of the world with a sense of obligation to exercise their authority over the weaker nations (Wright, “The Christian Challenge in the Postmodern World.”)

Inevitably, this philosophy supported the military and political conquests of Hitler. “Postmodernity tells us that at best Enlightenment rationality is but a particular way of construing the world, which has no privileged epistemic status, and that at worst such rationality is an ideological tool of mastery and oppression” (Middleton, Walsh, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be.)

One of the earliest philosophers that can be connected to the current postmodern condition was Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche believed that there was no objective truth, but only a will to achieve power. This  would be used for destructive means (his reaction to modernity is obvious).

He and many others understood that as certainty fades, it leads to a world of “meaninglessness.” He believed that culture was moving this direction and that the central institution of western history—the church—was powerless to stop it. His famous pronouncement that “God is Dead” was not so much a move towards atheism, but rather a recognition of the direction that culture was moving: an absence of the reverence for the God of Christianity and the passing of Christendom.

No More Point of Reference

Both science and the church/faith were deemed a failure. A new epistemology arose, which held that a complete grasp of objective truth and certainty is no longer available (Avis, God and the Creative Imagination: Metaphor, Symbol and Myth in Religion and Theology). Any such attempt is a striving for power, which will ultimately result in oppression (I derived this claim from a public lecture by NT Wright presented at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina). Pragmatism, the concern for what “works” at a particular moment, and relativism, the belief that all truth is personal and contextual, are the dominant thought patterns that have emerged out of this reaction to modernity.

This two-fold combination has not only begun to change the definitions and conceptions of truth that have supported Western culture for centuries, but it is propagating the notion that truth that has some external referent does not exist.

Subjective truth is now upheld as the predominant form of truth in western culture. Truth, if it extends beyond the individual in any means, can only proceed into the realm of an individual community (Ward, Postmodernism.) Only those who have shared, foundational beliefs (which places them “in community”) are able to agree upon any form of absolute truth (Magee, The Story of Philosophy.)

Without trust in the objective reliability of the world, postmodern philosophers have come to the belief that all language is culturally, or sub-culturally conditioned (Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism.) Language can, therefore, be “deconstructed” to expose the lack of coherence between speaker and hearer. What they hear and say is grounded within their own vocabulary and community.

Therefore, meaning never has an exact correspondence between hearer and speaker. Some meaning is always lost in the interchange of language (McGrath, A Passion for Truth.) The concept of an external objective standard has been lost due to the failure of the modernist progress myth.

The postmodern mood suggests that  knowledge cannot be certain, and language cannot be trusted. The result: all views—even if they disagree—can coexist.

The Loss of A Grand Story

Remember the “meta-narrative?” Well, today, a shared larger story no longer exists. As Jean-Francois Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition, states, “We have no grand story to which we can any longer claim assent, all that we are left with are quite local stories.” The world of post-modernity can be understood as a world of tribes that have become fragmented from one another through radical deconstruction and pluralism.

As is apparent in most daily life, not all of these philosophical ideas are espoused in the arena of public discourse and popular culture, but their underlying influences are apparent. It is vital to understand that the meta-narratives that shaped most of church history no longer exist. No wonder we need fresh expressions of church.

Get trained and start a fresh expression!


Chris Backert

Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase.


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