Postmodernism and the Great Protestant Exodus

During lunch with a friend and former pastor a couple of days ago, our conversation steered into a question for which we each offered a different answer. At issue was the cause behind the phenomenon of young protestants who have disengaged from the idea of membership to a church congregation or denomination. Running parallel to this is the observation of non-denominational churches springing up suddenly in the last few decades.

His answer: the American spirit of rugged individualism. My answer: postmodernism. In truth, it’s probably a mix of the two, and someone better educated in the history of religion than I might point out additional factors.

“Rugged individualism” refers to the pioneering drive that has always characterized Americans, beginning with the first settlers. But if there is anything “in our genes” to this effect it most likely originated from immigrants who came from all over the world and risked everything to start anew in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” In its positive forms, individualism places a premium on taking personal responsibility for one’s choices and not mooching off of other people. The negative side of individualism emerges when it is wrongly interpreted to mean that we don’t have any responsibilities toward, nor do we need, one another. That misunderstanding just turns people into inconsiderate and lonely jerks.

Postmodernism is a philosophy that rejects tradition in favor of… well, nothing in particular. Just not tradition. It began in the arts and moved into a more broad cultural idea—primarily through higher education—as we moved toward the latter part of the 20th century. The overriding concept is that what we have been told from history is a constructed lie, and that we must unleash freedom of thought and action by casting away those outdated ideas. It is not a matter of finding “truth,” because there is no “truth” to find—it is up to each person to decide.

“The overriding concept is that what we have been told from history is a constructed lie,…”

Recent generations have been somewhat indoctrinated with this philosophy, if not at home then through the school system and Hollywood. Mixed in with a touch of the individualist spirit, I believe this view has caused today’s Christians to have decreased confidence in traditional answers and methods, and increased dependence on their own ability to sort out 2,000 years of history and theology.

I myself claim no denominational label, for several reasons, but I do expect to gravitate towards a general body of tradition in due time. I have come to appreciate time-tested practices and ideas in religion, just as I do in the legal system. Of course there is corruption here and there, and different people have had it completely wrong when they were sure they had it right. But that’s human nature, and it’s everywhere.

An independent mind in the search for truth is essential, and we should not set our reason aside when we walk through church doors. At the same time, as Aristotle claimed and Christianity supports, man is a social animal—we are designed for relationship and dependency. By downplaying the role of a local congregation and denominational ties, we are entering a wilderness alone and without a map or compass.

“By downplaying the role of a local congregation and denominational ties, we are entering a wilderness alone and without a map or compass.”

I do not mean to imply that a person cannot discover things on their own, nor am I shying away from the fact that we can be misled by false doctrines and group think. The point is to connect and engage with people and ideas that will help you to deepen and refine your understanding of God and Man, while building meaningful relationships with others who can laugh, love and struggle along with you. When you know you’re in the wrong stream, step out and move to another. Don’t use it as an excuse to stay out altogether, or you may end up dry and wilted.

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