Postmodern PilgrimsPostmodern Pilgrims
Leonard Sweet
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Must Christianity adapt its message to make it attractive to the postmodern generation? Or is it simply the medium of the message which must change? If you are struggling with these questions, Postmodern Pilgrims is the book for you.

Leonard Sweet has written numerous books discussing how the church can interact with and transform postmodern culture. In Postmodern Pilgrims he argues that a better understanding of the first century church will allow the twenty-first century church to truly reach and affect the postmodern world. Sweet deals effectively with the tension between tradition and innovation, proving that a strong historical foundation is the best way to propel the church into the future, the postmodern future.

Sweet focuses on four aspects of postmodernism, offering hints on how to translate the language of the good news into the language spoken by postmoderns. The first aspect is that postmoderns are experiential. Information, for the postmodern, is important only in how it is felt or experienced. The second aspect is participation. Postmoderns act in an interdependent, interactive way, preferring participation over simple observation. The third aspect is that postmoderns are image-driven. Images generate emotions, and for postmoderns, emotions are the key. The fourth aspect is connection/community. Postmoderns have combined the words connection and community into connexity because they are both so important to them after the futile pursuit of individuality.

Understand these four aspects of postmodernism, Sweet says, and you will be able to witness to them and to effect transformation in their lives. Sweet includes practical advice and Web sites for more information and interaction. Meet the postmoderns where they are and give them the experience of a lifetime. Give them the experience of God's love.

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From the Foreword:
(to read a footnote, click on its number)

"The Twentieth Century is the name of a train than no longer runs."

--David Lehman1

Between 1947 and 1949, a conservative Christian philosopher and theologian delivered a set of lectures at the universities of Tübingen and Munich at which he broadcast a "crisis": the end of the world. "Today the modern age is essentially over." The church was on the right track, he argued, but riding the wrong train.

These lectures are as relevant today as when they were first delivered. Entitled The End of the Modern World, their author Monsignor Romano Guardini (1885-1968), sought "to apprehend the nature of the world epoch which is being born out of the womb of history," a history which yet "has not named its offspring."2
The chains of cause and effect that it established will of course continue to hold. Historical epochs are not neatly severed like the steps of a laboratory experiment. While one era prevails, its successor is already forming, and its predecessor continues to exert influence for a long time. To this day we find elements of a still-vital antiquity in southern Europe, and we run across strong medieval currents in many places. Thus in the yet nameless epoch which we feel breaking in on us from all sides, the last consequences of the modern age are still being drawn, although that which determined the essence of that age no longer determines the character of the historical epoch now beginning.3
What Guardini saw as the three historical ages of Western history (classical, medieval, and modern) were bound together by remarkable continuities. The "historical epoch" that now lies before us is so new, Guardini argued, that Christians cannot either "go back" or "go forward." We can only make a fresh start, a new beginning. Given our "radical discontinuity" with the past, we must restate Christian faith in a manner that takes full account of an anti-Christian, Einsteinian universe.
This book you are holding in your hands goes halfway with Guardini. He's right about this: It is a whole new world out there. More and more are admitting it. Of the five coping mechanisms for relating to any transition ("hold out," keep out," "move out," "close out," "reach out"),4 fewer and fewer are able to "hold out" and deny the changes that are taking place.

A poll of business executives found an astonishing 49 percent taking the most radical position they could about the future: we are living in revolutionary times and are at the beginnings of an entirely new economic era that requires a fundamental reinvention of how we live, work, and play.5 The most respected corporate executive in the world today, General Electric's Jack Welch, corresponds with this team under the signature of "," short for "" In a 1999 New York Times interview, Michael Armstrong said of AT&T's new cable venture: "We need to figure out how to build it, how to deploy it, how to support it, how to maintain it." I challenge you to come up with a better definition of a start-up than this by the chair and CEO of AT&T.

In October 1999, the Dow dropped from its index Texaco, Sears Roebuck, Union Carbide, Chevron, and Goodyear. It put in their place some technology companies and recent start-ups: Microsoft, Intel, SBC Communications, Hewlett-Packard, and Home Depot. We are all poised at the beginning of something very new--a start-up culture which (for want of any better designation) is being referred to as "postmodern."


The challenge for the Net is to create new models for the new world, as opposed to porting over old models. We take things from the physical world and put them on the Internet and then wonder why there's no profit in it; of course, there's no profit in it! Shame on you."

Jay S. Walker, founder, Priceline.com6

There may be fewer and fewer "holdouts" to such a view. But the numbers are increasing of "keep outs" (hunker in the bunker), "move outs" (relocate and hide in nostalgic yearning for the status quo ante), and "close outs" (toss in the towel and admit defeat).

This book you are holding joins Guardini in a "reach out" strategy that responds creatively to the new world. But this book departs with Guardini over how Christians are to "reach out" and enter this new world. Guardini contends that Christians are unable to move either forward or backward. Postmodern Pilgrims "reaches out" for a back-to-the-future methodology of movement that is simultaneously backward and forward.7

The essence of an ancientfuture mode of locating the Christian faith in this new world is what I have called and developed elsewhere as the "double ring."8 British evangelical theologian John R. W. Stott calls it "double listening"9--one ear listening to God's Word and the other to God's World. According to Stott, "double listening" is
the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us. These voices will often contradict one another, but our purpose in listening to them both is to discover how they relate to each other. Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and Christian mission.10
The greatest symbol for the inherent "doubleness" of the Christian faith is the cross: the intersection of the horizontal and the vertical, the overlap of the divine on the human, the interface of the ancient and the future.
A cross Christianity, a faith that is both ancient and future, both historical and contemporary, is what is outlined in this book. Postmodern Pilgrims is an attempt to show the church how to camp in the future in the light of the past. It argues that the Bible outlines a double procession of rejection and affirmation in terms of culture: a movement away from the world to God is followed by a movement back to the world as we love what God loves and do what Jesus did. Unless we can hear God's voice calling to us from out of the whirlwind, can we hear that same voice calling to us from within the whirlwind?

In fact, Postmodern Pilgrims argues that ministry in the twenty-first century has more in common with the first century that with the modern world that is collapsing all around us. Postmodern Pilgrims aims to demodernize the Christian consciousness and reshape its way of life according to a more biblical vision of life that is dawning with the coming of the postmodern era. Hence the subtitle: First Century Passion for the 21st Century World.

Christians should not embrace a postmodern worldview; we must not adapt to postmodernity. Jesus is "the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb 13:8 NKJV). In other words, Jesus is the same in three time zones and two dimensions: the timely (past and present) and the timeless (forever). But we do need to incarnate the timeless in the timely. Postmoderns do need to probe the living-out of our faith in light of the classical Christian tradition.

The ancient ways are more relevant than ever. The mystery of how ancient words can have spiritual significance in this new world is evident in the culture quest for "soul" and "spirit." The very talk of soul and spirit is the talk of a very ancient language, a first-century language largely abandoned by the modern world but a language more fitting today than ever.

The "double-ring" or "double-listening" method is elaborated in Acts 8:32-33. After Jesus' crucifixion, Philip and the Ethiopian are traveling on the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The Ethiopian read aloud what was to him a perplexing passage in Isaiah (Isa 53:7-8). Starting from where he was, Philip "proceeded to explain the Good News of Jesus to him" (Acts 8:35). In other words, the Ethiopian was confused, disturbed, and searching. Philip believed in the interpretive power of the gospel to help us understand all of life. By bringing into convergence one eye focused on the Word of God and the other eye focused on the implications of that Word on the world God made, that Ethiopian's life was transformed, and he became a "new person."

The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.

--Ludwig Wittgenstein11


Postmodern Pilgrims reads what is going on in the world in the light of the Bible. It attempts to exegete today's culture by the light shed from the cross and to understand all of life in the light of the Christian tradition. Movement into the future is based on the dynamic interplay of contraries (preservation and transcendence) that are less binary opposites than complementary forces that fuse together to form a superior synthesis. In the words of philosopher Peter Marshall:
In logical terms, thesis and antithesis may be subsumed into a higher synthesis which contains them both. In biological terms, father and mother may be said to be united in their children....Without the interpretation of opposites and their resolution, the world would remain in a static condition of rigid immobility.12
In short, in an ancientfuture methodology of movement, the affirmation of the past can become an acceptance of the future.

Postmodern culture is no the first crisis culture, to be sure. Culture and crisis go together like A&W, A&P, Abercrombie & Fitch. Everyone knows what crisis stands for in Chinese characters: danger and opportunity. Even better is what crisis stands for in Hebrew: mash-her, a word also used for birth stool, a seat upon which a woman in ancient times sat as she gave birth.

If ever there were a moment for birth-stool creativity, it is now. Of all the leadership arts,13 creativity and imagination are some of the most "in crisis" in the church. Humans live in the imagination. Without imagination, all hearts are closed, all desires unknown. Like a spider spins from within the web, so we spin from our imaginations the worlds we inhabit.

The history of civilizations is the history of the human imagination.
Unfortunately, the postmodern imagination is proving more creative at faking reality than fixing reality. Our best minds today are obsessed with helping us escape more than engage our multiple "crises." Compare the state of the Disney World's Main Street USA with the condition of USAmerica's small-town min streets. Compare what you can do at the cybergames Age of Empires II (Microsoft) and SimCity with what we're doing at Harlem, Watts, and other similar cities. We consume in our real lives (even our church life), and we create in our cyber life.

A case in point is the megahit television special Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Unlike any other game show in history, here is a program that draws from all demographic groups. When most game-show watchers are over fifty-five, the views of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? virtually mirror the U.S. population. College students turned its show times into campuswide parties. Even the narrow band of diversity in its contestants does not prohibit a widespread diversity of its views.

What is the secret of its success? What do the show's producers know about how to reach postmoderns from which we in the church might learn?

First, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is less a game show than an experience. Through music, lights, suspense, symbols, and fast-paced narratives, viewers are summoned into a shared experience with both contestants and other viewers.

Second, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is built on a participatory--not a representative--model. "Lifelines" enable the studio audience and the cyber audience to become part of the "experience" itself. By inviting the contestants to call on friends, family, and the audience for help, there is a blurring of the lines between viewers and contestants.

Third, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is image-based. The image of a million dollars and what it means to be a millionaire is well established in postmodern culture. Add to the millionaire image the everyman image of the contestant, with questions easy enough for everyone to answer, and the question mark at the end of the show's title begs entrance into every heart. Here is a game show built not on who is smartest but on you're-smart-enough-to-be-sitting-here assurances if only you had the luck of the draw.
Fourth, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? positions a lone individual at the center of the state but surrounded physically by an audience rooting for him (some of whom are carefully spotlighted as friends and family) and surrounded virtually by a community of twenty-three million plus cheerleaders, some of whom contestants can connect with at any minute it they get in over their heads and need help. In other words, the success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is that, unlike other game shows, it has successfully transitioned from rational to experiential, from representative to participatory, from word-based to image-driven, and from individual to connecting the individual and the communal.

Through a process of "double listening," Postmodern Pilgrims introduces an EPIC model of doing church that is biblically absolute but culturally relative: Experiential, Participatory, Image-driven, Connected. Like the church of the first century, the twenty-first century church must learn to measure success not by its budgets and buildings but by its creativity and imagination. Like the church of the first century, the twenty-first century church must measure success not by the size of bank accounts or biceps but by the strength of brains and birth stools. In the midst of a consumer culture that is built on earnings, yearnings, and bottom lines, the church must be a conceiving culture that is build on God's grace where the "top things" and "top of the lines" in life are given freely, tended and tilled conservatively, and distributed liberally. If conception doesn't replace consumption as the primary GNP in the church first, it never will in the wider culture.

Those who have lived well for their own time have lived well for all times.

--Ancient proverb


The challenge for Postmodern Pilgrims is to give postmodern culture a "witness": to "do church" in ways that measure success by conceivings rather than consumings. Any church that says and does otherwise is a product of "this present evil age" (Gal 1:4 KJV) and not Christ's gospel.

The crisis of evangelism in a postmodern world is this:
  • In a culture of Bible-believing churches filled with people who don't read the Bible...
  • In a culture of soul-saving churches filled with people who never get personally involved in soul-saving14...
  • In a culture where the last five U.S. presidents (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton) all described themselves as "born again Christians"...
  • In a land where Deepak Chopra, Oprah Winfrey and Larry Dossey are more authoritative than Moses, Jesus, or even Mohammed...
  • In a culture where the Bible no longer provides the spectacles through which people gaze...
How do you lift up the Messiah's message of the cross in the midst of this Mars Hill culture?
How do you present the "old rugged cross" as the most powerful symbol for understanding life and transforming lives?
How do you convey the belief that what Jesus says is more relevant to people's lives and our postmodern crisis than all our philosophers and scientists combined?
How do you hand people the Bible and tell them what they are getting: the black book of living, the essential text for solving every crisis out there?
How do you How do you convey the truth that the true "experts on what is going on in the world today are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and that this Bible is the text for solving whatever crisis slaps us in the face?
How do you hand postmoderns a Bible and say to them, "Here's a book that is custom designed by the Holy Spirit for you. This book has your name written on it and all over it."
How do you persuade postmoderns that the Gospels contain an anthropology of religion that has never been surpassed by anything the social sciences have ever come up with? or as Dallas Willard puts it, how do you convince postmodern professionals "that Jesus is the smartest person in their field"--whether that field be psychology, biology, immunology or theology?


  1. David Lehman, "The Answering Stranger," Operation Memory (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990), 20. (return to the text)

  2. Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World (Wilmington, Del.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1998), 51. Romano Guardini (1885-1968) was professor of philosophy and theology at the University of Munich. His classic work The End of the Modern World was originally a set of lectures delivered at Tübingen in the winter session (1947-48) and then during the summer session at his own school, the University of Munich. (return to the text)

  3. Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World, Part II: Power and Responsibility (Wilmington, Del.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1998), 118. (return to the text)

  4. These are elaborated by Wesley K. Willmer and J. David Schmidt in The Prospering Parachurch: Enlarging the Boundaries of God's Kingdom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998). (return to the text)

  5. Roper Starch Worldwide Survey, "2004: A Personal Odyssey," Fast Company September 1999, 262. ( (return to the text)

  6. "Fast Talk: New Ideas for a New Medium," Fast Company, October 1999, 70. (return to the text)

  7. My initial groundwork for an ancient-future methodology was laid in Quantum Spirituality: A Postmodern Apologetic (Dayton, Ohio: Whaleprints, 1991). (return to the text)

  8. As elaborated most fully in my postmodern trilogy, SoulTsunami: Sink or Swim in New Millennium Culture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999); AquaChurch: Essential Leadership Arts for Piloting Your Church in Today's Fluid Culture (Loveland, Colo.: Group, 1999); and SoulSalsa (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000). (return to the text)
  1. John R. W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian: Applying God's Word to Today's World (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 24-29. (return to the text)

  2. Ibid., 29. (return to the text)

  3. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, as quoted in H. L. Hix, Spirits Hovering over the Ashes: Legacies of Postmodern Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), v. (return to the text)

  4. Peter Marshall, Riding the Wind: A New Philosophy for a New Era (New York: Cassell, 1998), 7. (return to the text)

  5. For more on these "leadership arts," see my AquaChurch. (return to the text)

  6. Ninety-two percent of Southern Baptists will die without ever witnessing to another person about Jesus, argues one executive of the North American Mission Board. If it's that high for Soughtern Baptists, think how high the figure must be for other tribes? (return to the text)