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Postmodern Children's Ministry

Misty Anne Winzenried

Discover what this cultural buzzword is all about -- and what it means for your children's ministry.

The unknown is always frightening, and postmodernism, for most of us, is an unknown. Postmodernism is a new idea emerging in our culture -- raising anxiety and fear for some and yet promising change and innovation for others. Youth ministers have been grappling with its ideas for a decade now, and many churches are finding themselves on either side of the dividing line called postmodernism. Most children's ministries, however, have been left out of the discussion of what postmodernism means, either because postmodernism doesn't seem to apply -- or because fear of the unknown has caught us humming our familiar tune a little louder to keep from listening to the strange new music around us.

What exactly is postmodernism, and how does it affect children's ministers? Though the philosophy resists being defined, postmodernism has some distinct characteristics that can help us understand what's going on with the changing thoughts of today's world. And because postmodernism is already impacting children and your children's ministry, here's a guide to help you view postmodernism's values through a Christian lens. You'll also discover how to integrate the benefits of postmodernism into the way you do children's ministry-to keep your ministry on the cutting edge.

Postmodernism 101
Postmodernism is an ideology, an orientation, and an invitation.

*An Ideology-Postmodernism is an ideology, a way of viewing the world, much the same way that modernism or even Christianity are worldviews.

Postmodernism is an attitude toward life, toward people, and toward ideas.

Modernism, the precursor to postmodernism and the ideology under which most of us were raised, views the world through objective eyes, whereas the emergence of postmodernism invites people to view the world with more subjectivity. Neither point of view is right or wrong, Christian and unchristian -- but each view contains some value for a Christian worldview. Check out the "Modern vs. Postmodern Values" box on page 60 for a comparison of these values.

• An Orientation-The postmodern world is orientated more toward questions than answers. For many Christians -- and many people in general -- it's much easier to have concrete answers to the issues we struggle with rather than questions or gray areas. Don Hudson, author of "The Dance of Truth," muses about why postmodernism is so terrifying: "It is a reminder that we are out of control, and a place where we are invited to trust a God who is beyond our comprehension." For postmodern-minded people, questions and doubts are okay -- because they allow us to wrestle with God as Jacob did in the desert.

• An Invitation-A postmodern ideology invites a person to bring his or her experience to the Bible and wrestle with God. Whereas modernism enforces a rigid, unchanging view of God and meaning, postmodernism invites questioning and struggle. This questioning and wrestling seems scary to some Christians; it offers something that our quick "Christian" answers don't offer -- an encounter with another person and perhaps an encounter with God. Postmodernism invites relationship and values the individual person.

Postmodernism has an impact on children's ministries, on churches, and on kids -- whether we want it to or not. The ideals of postmodernism are slowly trickling into schools, media, and even churches. But before we board up the doors of our ministries to keep out this strange new thinking, let's try to understand what postmodernism actually values -- to see which elements are perhaps beneficial to Christian education as well as which postmodern ideas need to be countered with Scriptural truth. Remember: Scripture should inform all of our thinking -- these elements of postmodernism can only be evaluated and valued through the lens of Scripture.

Postmodernism Values Spirituality

Gone are the days when faith seems silly or immature. Our culture has been increasingly open to issues of faith and spirituality. According to George Gallup Jr., 96 percent of Americans surveyed say they believe in God! And 82 percent of those surveyed say that they want to experience spiritual growth! The question of faith is valued in schools, media, and hundreds of other places in kids' culture. For a long time, our culture has been hostile to spirituality, God, and faith -- but things are changing. Fortunately, people are increasingly open to discussing their faith; unfortunately, however, many people are open to discussing any faith except Christianity because Christianity represents to them what's narrow-minded and rigid.

The Scripture Filter-Any openness to conversations of faith is an invitation for the gospel to come alive for people. Certainly, if kids are seeing in the media and at school that it's not only okay but encouraged to have an understanding of God, that may give them courage to talk about their faith. However, such an unclear definition of "faith" also opens the door to many things that don't have a Christian influence; for example, astrology and fortune-telling-type "fun" are increasingly prevalent in magazines and other media that kids are exposed to.

In your children's ministry...
*Encourage kids to introduce questions of faith to their friends.
*For older kids, talk about other religions and faiths; give kids information about why we believe in Christ instead of Buddha or some other "god."
*Steer kids clear of things such as horoscopes and Ouija boards-but help older kids learn to make good choices by giving them an explanation rather than just calling these things evil or dangerous.

Postmodernism Values Mystery

Modernism, the precursor to postmodernism, was a staunch supporter of scientific evidence and rock-solid guarantees. So often, we as Christians want guarantees and make bargains with God that say, "Okay God, if I do X, you do Y...then I'll do Z." Modernists are hesitant to step out in faith unless we have a contract -- signed, sealed, and delivered that God is going to come through. However, postmodernism encourages us to value what's mysterious and uncertain-and certainly, God is mysterious.

Mystery plays a varying role for kids' faith development depending on their developmental stage. Younger kids might have refreshingly childlike faith, still believing in the magic of the unknown. For younger kids, the fact that Jesus can walk on water is a given, and the miracles he performed in the Gospels seem exciting and completely believable.

Older kids, on the other hand, who are beginning to put experiences and facts in more rigid black-and-white categories, might be inclined to a more modern way of thinking. For them, there isn't developmental room for mystery, and they have simplistic (yet quite appropriate) answers to almost any question that can send adults into a tizzy of theological confusion. For kids raised with a Christian education from the time they were babies, this might mean an intolerance for anyone who has questions about faith. For kids with a more recent introduction to faith, their frame of reference might be a more scientific one, and they might be inclined to describe the miracles of the Bible as mere fiction. Either way, it's important to help kids stretch a little to see mystery -- without demanding that they think at a pace that's developmentally beyond what's appropriate.

The Scripture Filter-Depending on your theology, you might view the Scriptures with varying degrees of mystery; however, it's important to realize that our Scriptures contain elements of mystery and clear truth. Any adherence to only mystery (that is, everything in Scripture is unexplainable and mysterious, so there are no clear answers) or only fact (that is, the Scriptures give clear answers to every question we have about Christ, the Christian life, and the world) is walking in dangerous territory. Postmodernism's value of mystery can open the door for kids to see the wonder and awe of God; yet the Scriptures can help us teach kids that many things are clear -- for example, whom we're to worship and some specific ways in which we're to behave.

In your children's ministry...
*Encourage kids to be where they are developmentally. If younger kids are intrigued by mystery, help them explore the miraculous stories of Scripture. If older kids are showing evidence of concrete thinking taking hold, help them make categories for thinking about Scripture, and challenge them to hold on to their willingness to experience mystery.
*Accept that God is a mystery. Explain that sometimes we don't always know why God does things or allows things, but no matter what, God is always in control and wants what's best for us.
*Allow for the mystery in life. Help kids understand that though the Bible makes promises and gives us principles for living, it doesn't necessarily make guarantees. We often give kids the guarantee that if they do the right thing, they'll be spared suffering. Unfortunately, kids learn quickly that even if they choose to do the right thing, there may be suffering. Paul's life shows this mystery -- that persecution includes suffering for what's right. Conversely, the mystery of the gospel is that even in our sinful choices, God creates blessing for us!

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