In a sense, the generational gap has never been wider, and the church is not immune from the vast differences of perspective this gap represents. For some of us, the shift to postmodernism is the most exciting thing to hit the church in decades. For others of us, it is so peculiar that our hackles go up, way up. For still others, postmodernism has been around long enough now that you are a postmodern and a pastor and you speak their language. The rest of us see you gather in clusters at district meetings. We are not just trying to figure out how to minister to postmoderns, but how to minister with postmoderns (and how to get in on the Starbucks cups you always have in your hands). Some of you are on our staffs. Some of you are our senior pastors! Superintendents scratch their heads and wonder how to integrate us all.
While denominations outside the Holiness movement are facing many of the same challenges, our theology and mission, indeed our very identity, revolves around the proclamation of the sanctified life, and thus takes us to the interesting intersection of postmodernism and holiness. When we juxtapose these two words, do we end up with an odd oxymoron? Or, in other words, how does “holiness” fare under a postmodern frame of reference? Is it a concept that has reached the end of its usefulness, indeed relevance? I, and hopefully all of us, would like to think that holiness is a way of life that transcends time and space, one that is applicable to all “cultures” and therefore never irrelevant. At the same time, if we do not preach and teach holiness in a way that captures the postmoderns— so that they experience it, become passionate about it, and preach and teach it in turn—our tradition is one generation away from extinction. We must play our part in passing the baton. The good news is that we are not alone, for the Holy Spirit is working and active and more than capable of keeping us alive.
One way I believe that the Spirit is already at work to convince the next generation of the call to holiness is that in many ways the postmoderns (in this case, I mean postmodern Christians) display certain dispositions, or intuitions, that make them ripe for the message and the experience. We can recognize this as the heart preparation we call prevenient grace. We just need to adjust our vision and see the Spirit’s work in more unexpected places.
Postmodern churches are not responding to a passing fad but to deep, permanent, and pervasive cultural change.
Henry Knight has offered key comparisons between this postmodern Christian consciousness and Wesleyan theology. He writes, “Wesleyans should support this new movement because the purposes and values [postmodern] churches seek to embody—their vision of discipleship, church, and mission—[are] highly congruent with those of the Wesleyan tradition.”1 Knight’s analysis should be taken seriously. Indeed, “[Postmodern] churches are not responding to a passing fad but to deep, permanent, and pervasive cultural change. Subsequent generations will be shaped to an even greater extent by postmodern culture.”2 It is true, as Knight and countless others have suggested, that the world has permanently changed. While there may be some holding onto the idea that a return to a Modernist approach is necessary to “save” the holiness doctrine, such an endeavor will certainly prove futile. It would be the equivalent of putting our theological heads in the sand.
This is exactly where some churches are stuck: moderns and postmoderns seem to think so differently, but our churches are filled with both. It is understandable why some pastors feel they are walking through a mine field. In a very real sense, pastors must speak two languages, perhaps even two languages about holiness. The good news is that postmoderns are already intuiting their own new metaphors that do intersect the essence of holiness. I have come to believe strongly that it is possible to communicate the message of holiness to postmoderns in ways that change lives.3
I turn now to some insights gained through my interaction with postmoderns. First of all, I want to address some of the dispositions I mentioned earlier—signs that the Holy Spirit is still preparing persons to hear and embody the message. Secondly, I will turn to aspects of holiness that I hope postmoderns will come to understand, aspects I hope you will try to convey to them, thus taking them from holiness as an oxymoron to an orthopathos about holiness—a holy passion that will lead them to spread the message to the generations to come.4
What Postmoderns Already Know
Jay Akkerman has suggested that postmoderns resist anything that is not authentic and are suspicious of anything that seems “canned.” They are seeking religious experiences that are not compartmentalized but affect their whole lives.5 This is especially true in the context of worship. They seem to intuitively know that worship is to be about telling the story of God in Christ. This may explain why some “purely” postmodern churches are drawn to some of the forms of ancient Christianity, which tend to be narrative rather than highly conceptual. They don’t want three conceptual points out of a sermon but something that directly connects to their lives. Narrative preaching often does this best, I find.
They also know that worship is to be an integrative experience that is holy and holistic. Their bodies, minds, emotions, and senses come to the act of worship. Some are drawn to visual art or images that draw them to deeper meaning. This also explains why Communion can be very significant to them. It appeals to their preferences for mystery, sense perception (taste) in worship, and immediacy. The truth is that they intuitively know that worship is to be a means of God’s sanctifying grace to them. They come expecting to be changed.
One complaint postmoderns have about the church is that it does not demonstrate authentic community. If we are honest, we will admit they may be right. For too many decades, holiness meant showing your perfection, especially on Sundays. This often kept us from interacting with each other on any genuine level. The postmodern is communal almost by nature. They seek places to be real and vulnerable. They intuitively understand that holiness is necessarily social and relational. If they stick with us, they may just be able to help us break through the walls of pretense and find the kind of radical honesty about our Christian journey that Wesley once required of everyone called Methodist.
Further, while I grew up understanding the sarcasm in the song “Please Don’t Send me to Africa,” with the fear that God would call me to be a missionary, postmoderns really want to go to Africa and really want to be missionaries! They desire to be used by Jesus to reach the world—something that comes more easily to them because of their daily experience with diversity. In fact, this desire is so strong that sometimes my colleagues and I have a hard time keeping them in college: “Why finish my degree when I can go to Uganda now?”
Postmoderns have a deep intuitive sense that faith works; even more so, that faith is embodied and incarnational.
Postmoderns have a deep intuitive sense that faith works; even more so, that faith is embodied and incarnational. They fully expect that when they give their whole lives to God, God will use them. At our university, this is true across majors. It is not only those called specifically to the ordained ministry who have this passion. If a postmodern is anything, he or she is passionate; they long for something to be passionate about. They are not the pew potatoes of the baby boomer generation. They really do want to change the world. Our job is to direct that passion toward communicating holiness in a holy way as they go.
What Postmoderns Need to Know
The problem is postmoderns do not know the holiness message. I share a concern with many others regarding the lack of understanding to which postmoderns like my students attest. When I ask the students from holiness denominations about the doctrine of holiness and entire sanctification, it is clear that they have not “heard” the message. This does not necessarily imply that they did not hear it from the pulpit or in the Sunday school class, but it is evident that they have not retained such teaching in any meaningful way.
I have a theory as to why: I believe we have a whole generation of pastors who were deeply affected by the very legalistic period in the history of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. Without going into a 20th-century history lesson, let’s just say the world obviously shifted in dramatic ways in the 1960s. For the emerging generation of holiness youth of that day, perfectionism would not cut it. Many left the tradition. I believe it is precisely the generation of pastors either going through this shift or being born in it who perhaps failed to find healthier ways to express our doctrine. We certainly did not want to continue to preach legalism. And so, perhaps, we ceased to preach Christian Perfection at all, or we chose words and metaphors so different from traditional holiness language that my students now fail to recognize what they heard as a unique or distinct message. I find this particularly acute around their understanding of sin, integrity, and sanctification.
Disturbingly, it seems as if the pendulum has swung from the legalism I battled against—those profound feelings of guilt about not being perfect—now to a pessimistic view of victory over sin and great dissonance between the postmodern’s faith and lifestyle. I am surprised by my students’ belief that sin is inevitable, pervasive, and enduring in a Christian’s life. Sadly, they seem to be unaware of a different way to live. Even when I define sin in a Wesleyan way, and explain that victory over sin is only through the grace of God, they are very hesitant, sometimes argumentative, as I try to take them further. In more private moments, it is clear that they do struggle with their lack of integrity. They do want something more. I want them to know that bondage to sin is not inevitable.
One aspect of postmodernism that has been criticized by Christians is its tendency toward ethical relativism. It is true that some postmoderns’ morals seem situational. But the answer is not to give them more rules; rather, it is to give them the reasons to be good. It is no longer adequate for an authority figure to simply say “obey me.” Those authority figures must prove themselves trustworthy first. Even as they struggle with their own ethical choices, they will not tolerate moral ambiguity in those they choose to follow. They know integrity matters. Further, they have a need to understand why they do what they do. Therefore, my students need to be shown why a Christian ethic matters in this life. I want my students to know about the ethics of Christlike love. I want them to know that they can be persons of integrity as they grow in Christ. I want them to know that their choices have deeper meaning and purpose than they might immediately see. Ultimately, I want them to know that it is grace that will help them become all Christ intends for them to be. I want them to be sanctified.
Let me be confessional: mine is the generation that has pushed back against entire sanctification, or more precisely, how entire sanctification was wrongly taught to us when we were young. We push back against the perpetual revivals and special services and the dozens of trips to the altar to make sure we had “gotten it.” We push back against the suggestion that entire sanctification takes away all our problems, especially if we get it before puberty! And so, I understand deeply how we might resist some of those old forms and formulations. But the problem is that we are pushing back against things that no longer exist the way they did. We are pushing back against our own memories and our own demons, which are not the way things are now. We’ve made sure of that.
The problem is that where we were constantly asked to make that one big decision, they are not.
My students don’t have our baggage. Some of them don’t know what a revival is. Some of them don’t understand what an altar call is supposed to accomplish, if they have even ever seen one! They don’t understand the conviction of the Spirit that can come from hearing a particular song. I ask them, “In what context do you feel conviction?” They stare blankly at me. My fear is that we have failed them because we don’t want to impose on them what we experienced. The problem is that where we were constantly asked to make that one big decision, they are not. I fear that in the process of our pushing back, we have failed to call this new postmodern generation to a decision to be entirely sanctified.
And so, the last thing I want my students to know about holiness is that yes, we grow in grace daily. Yes, the gradual and continual process is vitally important. Yes, holiness means so much more than a moment in time. Yes, we have to preach holiness in a healthy way! But do we still believe that life changing decisions are crucial, and the decision to surrender all to Christ no matter what the sacrifice is a decision that will allow God to more fully change and transform us? I guess you could call me oldfashioned, but I believe our “distinctive” needs to find its way into the hearts of those who hold our future.
DIANE LECLERC is professor of historical theology at Northwest Nazarene University and the author of Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology, published by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City.
1. Knight offers seven congruences. For these see, Henry H. Knight III, “John Wesley and the Emerging Church” in Preacher's Magazine (Advent/Christmas 2007): 34.
3. The context in which I work is as a professor and mentor to college students. I teach two classes a year on holiness: one for students from a wide variety of majors and one for those going into the ministry. In the church realm, I have taught the college and career Sunday school class and small groups for over 10 years.
4. One caveat here: when I use to the words “to know,” I am intending to employ a very Hebrew meaning, which goes beyond an intellectual body of facts and is much more holistic. Wesleyan theology tends to lean strongly toward this Hebrew understanding. This can be seen through what some scholars call variously the orthopathos, orthokardia, and orthopraxis of Wesley’s theological emphases. The emphasis is not on orthodoxy—“right doctrine”—as an end in itself, although Wesley certainly knew where he stood on every doctrinal issue. His emphasis was on right worship toward God, right works of mercy toward others, and right affections of love toward both, as God changes the depths of our hearts and our very character through sanctifying grace.
5. Jay Akkerman, conversation with Diane Leclerc. Akkerman is also a co-editor of Postmodern and Wesleyan? Exploring the Boundaries and Possibilities, published by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City in 2009.