Hammett on Emerging Church 3.1

Must Our Churches Deal with Postmodernism?

Further discussion on John Hammett’s critique of emerging church. From Intro, 1.0 and 2.0

Ahhh the postmodern thang. . .

Can I make a prediction? Ten years from now there will be a wave of books criticizing the new forms of church for not dealing adequately with the challenges of complexity and network theory, the power laws of hierarchical modularity in ecclesial networks, emergent behavior in complex environments, collaborative media in a gift economy, or even practical issues like finding balance between on-line and off-line interaction, copyright issues for web communication, or if the clustering coeffient for modularity can be used to measure effectiveness for web-based faith communities? And we will be scratching our heads and asking “why didn’t these people discuss it with us at our events set up for that purpose back in 2005?” We will also be kicking ourselves because . . yes . . there WERE things we should have known back in 2005 but the mainstream church leaders were busy on other projects that seemed important to them at the time so we had to figure out our issues and idols and answers all by ourselves, deep down in the comments sections of our blogs, at our poorly-funded roundtables, and occasionally, when one of the seminaries or institutions has the foresight to allow such an experimental discussion. [yes . . they do happen]

But if people want to talk about it . . . again . . then I will oblige, especially when the critic is such a nice guy and well spoken of by all. The A-Team, [what a cool blog!] who started this conversation by posting John Hammetts paper, have done a great job in summarizing his argument.

“Dr. Hammett asks two questions regarding this premise: Must they? Should they? In regards to whether or not churches must respond, the motivation appears to be that if Christians want to reach people, they must respond to postmodernism. This is a missiological concern. However, there are four factors that challenge this premise:

I will attempt to answer these four factors as briefly as i can, and with my perspective, as a missionary working with the emerging church over the last 20 years in about 40 countries, including 7 of those years spent in USA. Keep in mind that I am not a philosopher. Nor an American.

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1) The shift to postmodernism is not universal. Here in North America and elsewhere in the world there are still large numbers of people who would more accurately be characterized as modern than postmodern.

Agreed . . but . . .

a. Lets not confuse postmodernism with postmodernity. Postmodernism, if it is understood in the narrow sense of the word – an epistemological, philosophical theory, is not universal nor even discussed among many North Americans outside the university. Dang – some people don’t even understand what those French guys were on about. Or even care about it.

But postmodernism is not the same as postmodernity. And the cultural impact of the postmodern age (world after modernity) has significantly affected American life in the areas of architecture, cuisine, art, media, social conditions, aesthetics, economics, etc.

I was chatting to a speaker at one of our conferences in Prague, right before he spoke on the perils of postmodernism. I asked him what kind of a house he lived in and he told me his house was actually a converted horse stables. How strange, I replied, that you live in a postmodern house and I live in a modern, rational, communist apartment complex.

How many of postmodernism’s critics live in houses with open flow planning, attention to light, allowance for complexity and a refusal to compartmentalize rooms. Is the kitchen locked away out of sight like a modern house or is it visible and interactive? What about choice of furniture? Uniformity or juxtoposition of styles? Interesting that the Postmodern house styling (or Pomo Style) is dated by some as 1965 to the present.

b. Even though we all live in a world influenced by postmodernity, the number of people culturally defined by it may only be a third of the population. So Hammett is correct in saying this. There is maybe only 50 million adults in this category. Richard Florida calls them the Creative Class, and before him, Paul Ray called them Cultural Creatives. Also interesting that Paul Ray estimates only 4% of the population were Cultural Creatives in 1964, but that percentage was 26% in 1999 and is still increasing. I believe that if we brought the number forward to 2005, the percentage would be much higher. Probably a third – and that is not counting those under 18 years old – a factor that would raise it significantly.

“As of the year 2000, there are 50 million adults in the United States who have the worldview, values and lifestyle of the Cultural Creatives. (There are probably about 80-90 million Cultural Creatives in the European Union as well.) CulturalCreatives.org

2) There are a number of churches successfully reaching out to postmoderns who are not part of the emerging church movement.

Fantastic. This is an answer to my prayers. I have prayed and labored in every state in USA (except North and South Dakota) for this to happen. I have planted seeds in coffee shops and clubs and bars and have prayed for others to catch the same vision.

Who cares what movement they are a part of? Most of the thousands of emerging-missional churches I have contact with are still connected to a denomination or established organization. The emerging church is not a network or a brand name. It is the part of the church that is interacting with the emerging culture and forming new expressions of church that are contextual, missional responses to that culture. I pray that those responses are influenced by the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, holding fast to the faith, and i also pray that those ecclesiological responses are just as culturally appropriate as the examples of churches we are given in the Book of Acts.

In my opinion, these churches that Hammett speak of actually ARE a part of what God is initiating [something I am calling ’emerging church’ and i use the tag WITHOUT reference to organizational affiliation] and I am thankful that these churches are obeying the command of Christ to go into all the world and communicate the good news of Jesus to this one third of the population we are calling “Cultural Creatives” . . . or Hammett calls “postmodern”. I also thank God for those movements that have chosen to form a stronger identity as ’emerging church’, or ‘simple church’, or ‘cyberchurch’, or ‘house church’, or ‘coffee shop/club church’ . . . and yet do not become cul-de-sac or exclusive. There is one church, the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27) and Jesus is building it.

3) Most teenagers are still influenced by their parents, who are, for the most part, modern.

Ohhhh . . . that the first part was true! Gosh, I wish my teenage kids were influenced by me more than they are now. Maybe I am getting old . . but I really think their clothes are too baggy, their music is too loud, and their diet is atrocious.

Are their Dad and Mom modern? I think my wife’s dreadlocks and nose piercing reflect something more organic and holistic than “modern” As for me? I am actually very attracted to modern architecture – I love the sharp right angles and simplicity and my diet is probably more modern than it should be. But by and large, I would say that the social and aesthetic preferences of the ‘Cultural Creative’ would define me more than those held by “modern” people. But then we are probably a part of that one-third minority. In USA, most parents of teenagers would fit the “modern” designation that Ray estimates is numerically larger than cultural creatives. So yes, Hammett is correct.

But to describe my kids as postmodern as opposed to modern? That doesn’t fit. I have described them as Generation Text – influenced by the values of new media more than old media. If McLuhan was correct in saying that the way we communicate is one of the leading indicators of culture, then we need to find new ways to identify the differences between the generations. This is why I teach so much on the culture of media, and not on the philosophy of postmodernism. My lectures in the past 3 years concerning the emerging church have been more associated with impacting the new media culture (with titles like “Forward Slash“, “Rhizome Cowboy” and “EmergAnt“) because i feel this area is more important to understand right now that the postmodern writings of Derrida or Lyotard. And this is an area that teenage kids seem to know more intuitively than us.

You know . . . whenever i bring up the subject of postmodernism to show how it is not the idol of the emerging church, I bring more attention to it. Its a vicious circle, as this paragraph in Dr Hammett’s paper shows:

“Emerging church leader Andrew Jones has challenged Carson’s characterization, claiming “We are NOT infatuated by postmodernism, defined by postmodernism, shaped by postmodernism or called to defend it.”14 Yet even he seems to concede their defining concern by adding, “We do know that a new generation will need to hear the timeless gospel in their own heart language,”15 and the virtually unanimous consensus in the emerging church is that the new generation to whom they desire to speak must be spoken to in language that is at least cognizant of postmodern sensibilities and sensitivities.”

I wish the “definition” sentence and the “postmodern” sentence were not together in the same paragraph. I did not put them together like that originally. Here is the quoted blog post in fuller context . . .

“we define ourselves by a contextual, missional approach to bring the whole gospel to an emerging culture and are seeing new churches take their place in the fabric of the wider body of Christ, both inside denominations and as part of new networks, lets be clear on one thing:

We are not protesting – and “Protest” should not be the number one characteristic that Carson has noticed (or assumed).

We are NOT defined by “Protest” against modernism or the traditional church.

We are NOT even about reforming the traditional church

We love the traditional church and are NOT trying to reform it – in fact, we should support the traditional church all we can. I often tell new emerging churches to not meet on Sunday mornings but to go and help the traditional churches – teach a Sunday School class or prepare morning tea, run the AV – and let the traditional folk enjoy their worship.

We are NOT infatuated by postmodernism, defined by postmodernism, shaped by postmodernism or called to defend it.

We do know that a new generation will need to hear the timeless gospel in their own heart language and will build ecclesiastic structures around the new believers that may not look like structures from 1954. But that does not make the new better or cooler than the old. The old might have been appropriate for its time, and we should pray that our church structures are also the right thing for our time.”

As for the mention of “postmodern sensibilities and sensitivities”, this is where I see the connection between the emerging culture and postmodernity (experiential relation to the shift in experiencing time and space and motion), which is why i do not say “postmodern theory” and i make no connection to someone’s view of absolute truth. I hesitate to bring it up again lest i draw more attention to the “postmodern” word in my feeble and botchy attempt to move people away from it, but here is the link to read exactly what i mean.

4) Postmodernism will not last long, and may already be fading.

Again, this is true. Postmodern aesthetics (shaded, dark, smudgy), for example, although popular in the 1980’s (thanks to Blade Runner), still make an occasional appearance (Matrix) but it really has faded away, just as Hammett is saying. Look at my website. You will notice a mix of modern (alignment, order, predictability) and postmodern (surprise, play, juxtaposition).

The church (running a little behind schedule) was awakened in the nineties by the challenge of postmodernism. David Bosch described that challenge clearly in Transforming Mission (1991). I was part of a group that held conferences around USA discussing the impact of postmodernism, its dangers and suggesting appropriate, Biblically informed responses. That group (Young Leaders, sponsored by Leadership Network) later became Emergent Village (the group under investigation) but I had left for Europe by 2000 and have not been teaching in their conventions since that time. (They say they miss me, which is nice, but the emerging church scene is far larger outside USA so I choose to spend my time overseas)

In 1999, I felt the word “postmodern” had been overused and it was time to move the conversation on to the next level. Doug Pagitt agreed and we purposefully co-taught a conference at the National Gen X Convention where we NEVER ONCE used the word “postmodern”.

OK – I did actually write some more on the subject . . . but only because the critics were bringing up the subject. In 2002 I wrote some short articles on the subject and I recently said that the emerging church is sometimes characterized by a “postmodern sensibility” but this is related more to the aesthetics and sensitivity to power issues. I have always viewed the postmodern transition as the experiential shift in our perception of time and space and motion.

So yes, the post-structuralist critical theory discussion of postmodernism is fading. Fine. But we are living in a radically new time that must be understood if we are to respond to it with credibility, passion, power and the timely message of God.

So, must our churches deal with postmodernism?

Well, if its relevant to their context, then some ministry leaders may have to deal more with it. Evangelicals have spent a great deal of time on one of postmodernisms main issues [truth] but the postmodern issues of power and aesthetics have been ignored by evangelicals and there may be some scholars and research geeks inclined to do more work on their relevance.

[Please don’t anyone quote that last paragraph as my challenge to the church to explore postmodernism further lest you put the viscious circle into another cycle.]

But really, I feel time would be better spent for churches to focus on the issues that surround them and their children.As for me, and the corner of the emerging church I am connected to, I say we have to impact whatever culture God has planted us in. Whatever we call it. And I am sure most people would agree that the context and the response will be different for every church.

BTW – as i finished this post, i looked for the right categories to assign to it . .. and realized that i don’t even have a category called “postmodernism”. How about that?

4.0 cometh . . .

[Update: The original title for this series was “Emerging Church Hammering”. Out of respect for John, because it did not fairly reflect his intentions towards the emerging church, I have edited the titles]


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • Ali Campbell says:

    Bang on in your last paragraph – thats what it’s about isn’t it? Those who have theorised about and analysed “postmodernism” will struggle to move on from that being their frame of reference as they look at church. We have to hold loosely to everything but the heart of the gospel (which is?) – this is especially true when trying to engage with the sub-cultures within youth culture. It isn’t a case of being modern or out of touch – I feel like an alien visiting a new planet.

  • Jeff says:

    Let me ask, is the “postmodern” way to meet, acceept, and then learn about God different than the “modern” way?
    Is there any scriptural example of a postmodern?
    Or is all this just a cultural sweetened whipped cream covering for the same old un-crucified life?

  • andrew says:

    Well, Jeff – this is what i mean – this is the weird situation i find myself in . . . you are assuming that because i am associated with the emerging church, i am therefore persauding people to be postmodern, or act postmodern, “meet, accept, learn postmodernly . . . whatever . .
    and as i have tried to explain . . i am not doing this {at least i hope i am not)
    it sounds like Dr. Evil on Austin Powers “will it be an EVIL petting zoo???”
    “a POSTMODERN petting zoo???
    and i know the books you may have read about the emerging church characterize us like that so please dont be disappointed if i dont bite the bait
    so this may sound like i am avoiding the question of whether the scripture gives an example of ‘postmodern” or not . . so please do not be offended if i do not answer [ask a philosopher]
    but i can tell you this . . . Jesus said “As the Father sent me, so I send you . . .”
    And it is this same incarnational, crucified, flesh-out, missional, emergent, cross-cultural, whole-life commitment, exampled by Jesus, that we are called into.
    When Jesus communicated to a deaf and blind man, he used sign langage and touch which was appropriate for the context. We should do likewise . .. look and listen and learn and then reach out in the same manner.
    But the kind of emergence Jesus experienced when he laid aside his glory and entered naked and childlike into human history, and then “emerged” into the surrounding culture without compromise or sin, . this cannot be acheived without dying daily and living the crucified life.
    Ahhhhh . . . how few enter the narrow way.

  • Trying to work out what Post Modern means and what Post Modernity is.

    I was talking with my friend Keith, who has been helping me think through the implications of my research proposal. He started off by saying that it might be helpful to have a post modern thinker to interact with but by the end of the discussion he was…

  • bill says:

    Although I sort of liked Hammett’s paper, I noticed something that I believe explains most of the resistance. It’s something I’ve written about several times. And that is that the mainstream rarely see the boundary layer and are never affected by it. They are swimming along in the center of the stream with no clue about what’s happening on the banks. Nor why they should care.
    I found it interesting that Dr. Hammett used the Newsweek data to show that the mainstream considers itself traditional. Sixty eight percent just happens to be exactly two standard deviations and that’s the mathematical (and empirical) definition of normal, typical and most predictable. So, even if the entire population considered themselves postmodern, 68% would also consider themselves “traditional.” Because that’s what they are—by definition.
    For almost 20 years I’ve worked with computer networks and I remember very vividly struggling to get business people to share files on the file server instead of using “sneaker net” to shuttle files around on floppy disks. Then I tried to get them to buy fast network laser printers and share them, rather than buying a slow, loud dot matrix printer for every PC. And then, and then, I tried to get them to use email. But noooo! They were too enamored with new fangled voice mail and fax machines. They didn’t get it until everyone around them was doing it. And that takes at least 5 years, usually 10, as you said at the beginning of this post.
    The mainstream just will not understand that there’s a turn up ahead until the layer just ahead of them begins to turn. They’ll still never see the turn in the riverbed. All they will see is the reaction of the person just in front of them.

  • andrew says:

    yeah – it takes a while
    one of the problems with us using the word “emergent” and “emerging” is that we have all read the books emergent theory and emergent behaviour (like Steve Johnson’s ‘Emergence’), along with the business world and the computer geek world . . . but many of the theologians and pastors have not read that stuff and they think we are making something up or coming up with a cute title for something.
    I expect that in 2-3 years time, when books on emergence theory make it on to the radar (and airport bookshop tables) then many of the emergent critics will suddenly see principles of emergence in their own ministries and will quietly move the argument to something else.

  • Kevin Cawley says:

    thanks as always for the time and energy you are putting into elucidating these issues. I meant to email you the day Hammett read his paper and to tell you that you are not only the authoritative voice of pizza, but that you’re the authoritative voice of the Evangelical Theological Society!
    Looking forward to reading 4.0

  • Mark Thames says:

    Hi Andrew and all
    John Hammett performed Dawn and my wedding, so we’ve known each other 20+ years. I went to see him just before ETS specifically to talk with him about emerging-existing relations. In a very intense weekend, he allowed me to read and comment on a draft of his paper. And we tried to explain each other to each other. (Dawn and I started Lower Greenville Baptist Community in Dallas, Texas, USA, and John studied under Don Carson at Trinity seminary in Chicago.)
    Even in the context of a long and deep personal friendship, it was hard to not talk past each other. John’s main concern is with the cultural captivity of the modern church. He wants to recover what baptists call ‘regenerate church membership’–i.e., church people being actual followers of Jesus. So John’s heart I think has to do with reforming and renewing the existing church.
    On the one hand John sort of wants me to say what’s bad about postmodernism–so that it’s clear that we’re not just trading captivity to postmodern culture for the captivity to modern culture that we’ve escaped–and on the other to make it clear that what I’m doing is a niche ministry, which he supports.
    Part of the problem is with our glocal way of seeing our local stories in global context, whereas John mostly thinks in national or regional terms (hence the denominational and American focus). Part of it is the existing (academic’s) tendency to deductively say, does–or could in principle–this ministry done in this way follow from the gospel? whereas we proceed inductively, saying, i was witnessing to this friend of mine, and she said…so I realized I needed to…and so forth. part of it is our intellectualizing, modernity going away, 500 years, etc., whereas the existing leaders seem so focused on what is happening (in america!) right now and what do we have to do this next three months to meet this challenge–an odd inversion of the usual stereotype of which of us has a long-range or a in-the-moment perspective.
    but there’s a problem with the solution of just saying that emerging is another niche (which is partly why the numbers game is one we can’t totally get away from–props to Barna). the problem is that if we’re a niche ministry we’re okay, and no need to criticize us. but if we’re a niche ministry, there’s no need to pay attention to us at all unless someone is in that niche. you can almost feel John’s relief at finding churches like Capitol Hill Baptist (led by Mark Dever, a college friend of mine)in Washington, DC, which draw large numbers of young people but don’t call themselves emerging or postmodern. it’s true in Texas too: you can see the hope in pastors’ eyes that, please, Lord, not something else I don’t understand or like that I’m going to have to adapt to! they hope we’re not that important a phenomenon, because they are already so overwhelmed doing what they do that having to learn to appreciate what we are doing just seems like too much for God to ask. the desire to dismiss us as a fad is in some people very very strong–and, humanly speaking, it’s perfectly understandable.
    John is comfortable with the idea of thinking of emerging culture as a World A people group in missiological terms, and I (who asked him about it, since it’s what I think) feel that that is one healthy way for emerging leaders to direct the conversation with existing leaders.
    I think speaking Bible to existing people is helpful. I talk in terms of Acts 11, and the relationship between the anonymous housechurches in Antioch witnessing to the “wrong” people (Gentiles), and the mothership, the original church in Jerusalem, sending out Barnabas as…what? a spy? a critic? an enforcer? an investigator? well, whatever they sent him out as, what he proved to be was a bridge-builder, encourager, and needs-meeter. it’s a nice picture of a healthy existing-emerging relationship

  • Pilate and (Post) Modernism

    In the Gospel stories, I can only find one instance where epistemological questions are mentioned. It is when Jesus of Nazareth stands before Pontius Pilate…

  • robbymac says:

    Great assessment and (beginning of a) response. I have also found myself rarely mentioning “postmodernism” in recent years, except when speaking at seminaries who specifically asked me to speak about “postmodernism and the emerging church”.
    Still, for those with honest questions, I don’t mind re-visiting old material as a way of honouring their genuine desire to understand and (hopefully) embrace a more missiological paradigm as they seek to minister to/with/among the culture creatives.
    Hammett raises some very excellent questions here — I hope we’re seeing a new breed of critique beginning to happen.
    Larry Norman once said (this is an inexact quote but I’ll do my best):
    “Years ago, I was saying stuff that everyone said was ‘controversial’ but I thought I was just speaking the truth. Now, ten years later, everybody is talking about the same things I was, but they sound like they’ve always believed it. Which is cool, but I’ve moved on already, which usually means I’m in trouble again!”
    I think Larry could be my patron saint!

  • Craig says:

    I’m enjoying the series; it’s difficult for me to see emergent churches as idolising post-modernism. It’s more difficult for me to imagine life ouside of postmodernity.
    I’m in my early 20’s and constantly run into viewpoints about religion or career that are characteristically modern. Having the terminology to label the world-view helps me deal with the issue — and genuinly hear the person.
    I often wonder how Luther felt, spanning a divide between two worlds.

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