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Postmodernism and Community Memory

Does your church want to be relevant to postmodern people? If so, how much should your worshiping community connect or disconnect with memory? A feature story exploring Postmodernism and Community Memory.

Theologian and former architect Murray Rae suggests answering these questions by starting with the idea of space—physical, musical, or liturgical space —created by past generations.

Local congregations are exploring how to become both a community of memory and a community of hope. They’re learning, as postmodern Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith puts it, “to be not just thinking things…but embodied, practicing, liturgical animals.”

Murray Rae is a former architect who now teaches theology and ethics at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He also chairs the Theology and the Built Environment Colloquium, a joint project between the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Theology Through the Arts. He wrote the following essay on how church buildings bear witness to the gospel and form the people of God.

Places to encounter God

In the Western world we are heir to two great traditions of thought, the Hebrew and the Greek. As a general rule, the Hebrew tradition has been much more concerned than the Greek tradition about matter, and about time and space.

As can be seen in the Old Testament, Hebrew faith is bound up with land and place and space. Israel’s story gets underway with the promise of a new land in which a people would be formed and a covenant lived out.

As Israel journeys towards that land, altars are built marking places of encounter with God, marking moments of divine guidance and new understanding. Then, in time, a city is built and a temple is set in its midst.

The city and the temple become particular places of meeting with God. They are the places in which Israel is gathered for worship. The “psalms of ascent” speak of the joy of going up to Jerusalem because that is the place where God has encountered his people in the past.

These Old Testament places of divine encounter—the altars and the temple—function in Israel’s story as coordinates of a particular understanding of the world. They are markers of God’s covenant with Israel, visible signs of his promise, guidance, and faithfulness.

Israel’s lament, when in exile, that it cannot worship God in a foreign land (Psalm 137) does not entail that God is not present in Babylon. It indicates, rather, that Israel experiences a deep sense of dislocation when separated from the places that speak so powerfully of their covenant relationship with God.

Sacred spaces today

The same can be true for the church buildings that worshiping communities now inhabit. They too are places where God has been encountered, where promises have been made and prayers have been uttered and received. They are places where God’s Word has been heard and a covenant people have been formed.

By virtue of these things, particular churches have become sacred places. They have become instruments of God’s purpose. Architects and builders don’t construct sacred space. Sacred space is formed through God’s engagement with his people in particular places where they have gathered for worship, or where God has met them “on the road.”

Though architects and builders do not construct sacred space, they may construct buildings that offer testimony to God’s covenant relationship with his people.

There are many ways of doing this. Some are quite explicit, as using stained glass windows to tell the biblical story. Others are more subtle, such as using numerical symbolism in gothic churches—three for the Trinity, four for the evangelists, seven for the days of creation, twelve for the apostles, and so on.

Likewise, a building communicates its connection with the wider community in particular ways, perhaps as a beacon set on a hill or as a sanctuary for withdrawal. The architecture may invite people to enter, or it may express the imperative to go into the all the world in service of Christ.

Inside the building, the place for worship may give prominence to the preaching of the Word, to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or to a choir or music group leading worship. Each of these possibilities offers subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, communication of how worship is understood.

There are sharp differences in architecture between a church in which worshipers are conceived as spectators of an activity that happens “on stage” or as a community of people gathered in fellowship with one another and with God. These building features shape people in particular ways. They set limits on what can and cannot be done within the space they make available.

Traditional church, postmodern worship

Church buildings usually outlive the people who built them and come to be inhabited by new communities. The habitation of old buildings can be a good thing. It is quite moving, for instance, to walk through an ancient cathedral and see footsteps of thousands of pilgrims worn into stones upon which you now tread.

Those stones communicate something about the rich heritage of the communion of saints stretching back many generations. It is an important feature of Christian life that we are heirs to a tradition. We have been nurtured in faith by those who have gone before and are commissioned to hand on what we have received (see 1 Cor. 11:23-26). Old buildings can remind us of that.

Sometimes, however, they offer a testimony to the gospel in a language no longer our own. The changing culture may have eroded the clarity of their testimony. And so there may come a time to rebuild. We may dramatically clear the site and start again. Less dramatically, we may rearrange pews, change sanctuary furniture, or add on a place of meeting and fellowship not so easily accommodated by the original building.

Should the time come to change our church buildings, whether in large ways or in small, we have the dual task of safeguarding what has been received from the past and moving into the future. We must take care to honor and preserve as best we can what has been learned and brought to expression through architecture of God’s faithfulness and blessing.

Should it come time to strike camp and move on, we must take care over the promises that have been made, the vows exchanged, the words of God heard and accepted within the buildings.

We must find ways, I suggest, formally, carefully, and in the context of worship, to acknowledge all that is represented in bricks and mortar that will remain important as we move on together. These bricks and mortar have become part of the story of God’s formation of a people.

In rearranging our space for worship, we must remember that we do not need a new story to tell. We are simply moving into a new chapter.

Christian Communities and Cultural Change

Like many urban churches, First Hamilton Christian Reformed Church began with a firm identity. This mother church in Hamilton, Ontario, an hour’s drive west of Toronto, welcomed Dutch immigrants and planted eight churches. But that identity changed, along with the neighborhood.

First Hamilton recast itself as an ethnically diverse missional church. Its senior citizens stayed. Its share of people age 35 or younger grew. “But we don’t have many people between ages 35 and 60. The modern worldview versus postmodern worldview has caused bitterness, disrespect, and tension,” says worship coordinator Beth Terpstra.

First Hamilton and similar congregations are learning to peel back assumptions about what it means to be a Christian community. Postmodern Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith says the key is, in part, to focus on faith as a way of life rather than simply a way of thinking or believing.

Re-membering as one body

“We were talking about misunderstanding between old and young. We wanted to show honor to church members who’ve been here many years,” Beth Terpstra says.

Artists brainstormed a communal art piece. They asked members to bring in small objects representing who they are or what they remember. They attached the objects with beeswax because of its gold color and lovely aroma.

“We didn’t know whether anyone would show up or contribute,” Terpstra says. But people brought in enough treasures to make seven pieces.

One artist decided to put a letter on each piece. Together they spelled ONE BODY. “That Sunday she discovered the pastor was preaching on the text ‘you are many parts but one body.’ It confirmed for us that God was working,” Terpstra says.

At that worship service, people shared their traditions. One gave a brooch from a pastor’s wife who had died. A woman brought a Daughters of Priscilla photo and talked about what it was like when that group used to meet. Another gave a fabric square from a pulpit runner and table vestment that she helped sew years ago and that the church still uses.

“Their stories helped us younger folks realize this church has been around a lot longer than we have. As older members shared precious memories from years ago, we could feel understanding and appreciation come into the room. It helped us understand why they’ve been frustrated with all the changes and why they mourn the loss of what used to be,” she says.

For weeks after, people would go up after worship and say, “I brought that,” or “I think Jonny brought that because he loves biking.” The art project, along with listening conferences about worship issues and a “thank you” barbecue, also helped.

“We’re all unique and different. Some people still get upset. But the general feeling in our services is now peace and purpose, instead of division and mistrust,” Terpstra says.

Beyond bobblehead spirituality

Churches trying to evangelize in a postmodern setting do well to consider how culture has shaped Protestantism.

“In spirituality and practice, evangelicals tend to be cognitively and didactically focused on the head,” James K. A. Smith said in a recent discussion about his book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?.

He said that churches often unwittingly foster what he calls “bobblehead spirituality,” as if we, as humans, are “ultimately a thinking sort of thing. Discipleship is about getting the right ideas in your head. Worship is about filling you with the right ideas.”

Smith is not suggesting “going from ‘we’re thinking things’ to ‘we’re believing things’ ”—at least not “if the way you go about it is heady and cognitive.” Nor is he championing anti-intellectualism. Instead he’s asking “a strain of modernism” to integrate thinking and believing into a holistic “vision of human flourishing that’s embedded in the practice of the liturgy, of the worshiping community.”

He says that a postmodern critique of rationalism and modernism need not lead to skepticism…or to thinking that the church has failed…or needs to be reinvented…or that salvation is irrelevant or outside Jesus Christ.

“This critique of modernity sends us back to tradition without sentimentality,” Smith said. It helps worshipers experience “the thickness of the church’s institutional life and practice.” It restores the sacraments, which through taste, aroma, touch, movement, and sound remind us that Jesus took on flesh to become one with us.

Postmodern church choices

So what happens when Christians, as Smith suggests, “peel back still-lingering Cartesianism [I think, therefore I am] and honor themselves as embodied, practicing liturgical animals”? Besides challenging a blind spot in the philosophy of religion, here’s how this move plays out in congregations.

First Hamilton and other urban churches in Hamilton, Ontario, are living out their faith beyond sanctuary walls. They’re working with nonprofits and city government to bring God’s entire gospel to rich and poor, as in Luke 4:16-21.

In Indianapolis, Indiana, Redeemer Presbyterian Church sees itself as “in the city, for the city.” Its sanctuary was built back when high, deep platforms marked the difference in status between pew and pulpit. Redeemer’s worship leaders use the front of the platform to lessen the gap between them and worshipers.

Englewood Christian Church is another Indianapolis congregation that decided to stay put. Ten years ago, their blog notes, 75% of the congregation commuted in to worship. Today 75 percent of the congregation lives in the neighborhood. In the shalom of neighbors they once feared, they are discovering their own shalom.”

Besides continuing to inhabit physical spaces where others encountered God, worshipers inhabit liturgical and musical space created by communities long ago. Jim Forest describes in Sojourners how Orthodox Church liturgy offers a holy slowness

 that is a “healing experience in a society moving at high speed.”

Students in the Reformed University Fellowship sing theologically rich hymns set to new tunes and rhythms. One RUF chapter says singing hymns helps God’s people see themselves as part of something larger, to not “live in the past but be informed by the past.”

Learn More

Check out research by Murray Rae and colleagues on Theology and the Built Environment Colloquium, a joint project between the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Theology Through the Arts. Read the book Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption by T. J. Gorringe.

The psalms of ascent are psalms 120-134. Watch travelers sing and recite psalms of ascent in Jerusalem. Read brief sermons on the psalms of ascent.

See more of the communal art at First Hamilton Christian Reformed Church. Learn about its role in the Urban Stained Glass, a Work Research Foundation project.

As the late theologian Stanley Grenz said at the 2005 Calvin Symposium on Worship, “One culture is not better than another as a seedbed of the gospel. Culture simply is. So look for how to connect with postmodern people. The goals isn’t to embrace postmodernism, it’s to embrace people. We’re called to be people of God in the context of where we’ve been placed.” Grenz also called for churches to be “communities of memory” and “communities of hope.”

Not an academic but curious about postmodernism? Gather a group to read and discuss Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? by James K. A. Smith. This very readable book uses three popular films—The Matrix, Memento, and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest—as lenses to understand key issues of postmodern thought. It explains how to use postmodern ideas to embrace Christianity.

Subscribe to The Church and Postmodern Culture blog to keep up with the conversation. This fascinating essay by Sally Morgethaler, author of Worship Evangelism, tells why she took down her emerging worship resource site, Sacramentis.

Thinking of building or renovating your church? Jump start the discussion by reading brief articles on sanctuary as sacred space, the return of traditional religious architecture, community memory, the ministry of culture, and citizen architects who build shelters for the soul. Enjoy a Speaking of Faith episode called “An Architecture of Decency.”

Read thought-provoking Christianity Today essays on incarnation. Subscribe to Ministry & Liturgy and check out its active forum on Catholic liturgy.

Browse related stories about ancient future faith and worship, architecture and community, Christian funerals, and the Lord’s Supper and architecture.

Start a Discussion

Talk about whether or how your church is a community of memory as well as hope:

  • Where does your church worship fall on a scale of “same Bible version and hymnal as Grandpa used” to “we sing no music older than five years”? How well does this approach help you connect with postmodern people?
  • What do you gain or lose by seeing Christians “as more than,” as James K. A. Smith puts it, “thinking things or believing things”?
  • In what ways does your worship help people remember God’s actions in the past (including people between biblical times and now) and see or re-enact God’s actions today?
  • What do you think about the idea that an aesthetically beautiful building or liturgy can offer a “ministry of culture” or “shelter for the soul” to people who are poor or marginalized?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to give your worship and church community roots and wings?

  • Did you design a participatory project that helped worshipers and seekers understand traditions and heritage worth keeping? Did it include an element that explained how changes in your worship or mission build on (or write a new chapter) in your church’s story?
  • Which methods have worked best to move your congregation toward a greater sense of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” unity? This could apply to your church worship, life, or relationship to culture or your local community.