Challenges Facing the Innovative Pastor in a Post Modern Era





Alex Tang



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Challenges Facing the Innovative Pastor in a Post Modern Era                            

by Dr Alex Tang



1.    Introduction

                    As  the Church moves into the later half of the twentieth century, it finds itself in the midst of turmoil and change. In the undeveloped and developing country, the Church is being persecuted and is trying to survive in a hostile environment. In an Indian state the Hindus have threatened open warfare and mass conversion of the Christians.[1] In the developed countries, the Church finds itself increasingly marginalised and alienated from society.

                   There have been a lot of changes in the twentieth century. It has been noted in this one century, there has been more technological and social changes than has been in the whole of human history. We have moved from an agrobased society to an information-based society in space of a hundred years.[2] Such rapid change is inevitably accompanied by social upheaval. Technology and Materialism has replaced Religion as the guiding worldview of society.

                The church has not kept pace with the changes in society. Instead the church has been likened to a ‘frog in a kettle’.[3]  In face of these changes, there are those who doubt that the church will survive intact in the next century where the pace of changes and technological progress will continued unabated at the present pace.

2.      Challenges of the Post Modern Society

2.1   Lack of values – the nuclear man

                 The word ‘post modernism’ has been used so often that there is a lot of confusion in its definition. Modernism, which alleged began roughly in the 1700s and alleged ended in 1950s, is the cultural outlook that puts faith in optimism, progress, the pursuit of objective knowledge and science.[4]

                       Henri Nouwen in his book Creative Ministry effectively described Post Modernism when he described his “Nuclear Man”. Nuclear man is a man who has lost naďve faith in the possibilities of technology and is painfully aware that the same powers that enable man to create new lifestyles carry the potential for self destruction.

                      Nouwen described three predicament of the Nuclear man :

1.      Historical dislocation

                   In which there is a break in the sense of connection which

       men has long felt with the vital and nourishing symbol of their cultural

       traditions: symbols revolving around family, idea systems, religion and

       life-cycle in general.

2.      Fragmented ideology

             There is no fixed value system. The nuclear man lives by the hour

  and creates life on the spot.

             3.   A Search for new immortality

                                   The core problem of a  nuclear man is the threat to his sense of immortality.

We have only to look around us to realise how apt was his description of the nuclear man in the Post Modern Era. In our newspapers, television programs, movies, books and arts we see a generation lost with no fixed values. Added to this is the problem of pluralism.

2.2           Pluralism

                  As the world become more cosmopolitan and as McLuhan’s global  village becomes a reality, we find we are faced with a multitude of people from many races with different religious and value systems. Even here in Malaysia, we are experiencing  pluralism as the Chinese, Malay and Indian communities become closer in their interactions. We are also exposed to the world wide materialistic worldview of the North American Culture .[5]  Exposure to this many and often contrasting viewpoints, lead one to be able to accept two or more conflicting viewpoints at one time. Hence there is no absolute standards when all standards are acceptable.  In this uncertain state, one either turns inward to escape the world or turn to his or her peers for a standard to conform to.

2.3           Consumer mentality

                     Another aspect of modern life is the consumer mentality. One is exposed to many choices for example, brands of rice in a supermarket or different types of dresses in a boutique or different makes of car to suit one’s taste and budget.  This culture of overchoices is very pervasive in our daily living. Then one goes to church where one size fits all. When one is not impressed with the pastor or the social level of the congregation or the church decorations, one could just move to another church and another until one feels comfortable. One can church hop then one drops. There is no loyalty, no commitment. The goal is to get as much out of the activity as one can, not to give to it. This is the same philosophy of life that states that our children in the future will most likely change 2-3 jobs in their lifetime – a consumer society.

2.4           Electronic church

                   Technology has made available to all where once it was the privilege of a few. With access to the Internet, availability of audio cassette, video cassette, CD ROM, DVD and chat lines, the average christian now has tremendous resources at his or her finger tips. He can watch the morning service of Schuller and his Hollywood style worship service on Video tape or television, listen to hymns sang by professional singers with full digital orchestra recording and listen to a sermon  of J.I.Packer or John Stott on audio cassette. Is it then a surprise that they find their local church service a bore ? How can the local pastor compete with these.

2.5           Embittered profession.

                  The pastor finds himself increasing marginalised as his congregation consult other professionals for their problems. Where once the pastor was the first person they will seek to solve their problems, they now turn to professional psychologist, psychiatrist, marriage counselor, physicians and empower contact groups. When it involved the administration of the church, most pastors find their congregation better qualified with their MBA and expert marketing and administrative training. Is it any wonder that some pastor found a lack of relevance in their calling ?

3.    Challenge of the Post Modern Church

                 The key to the church is the pastor. He has been given the sole charge of the members of the church. He is called shepherd, elder or overseer of the church. Whether the church will survive will depend very much on the pastor. Unfortunately the church has not been doing very well in the last few years. Even though there been published data of increase in numerical growth in church membership, often these statistics are suspect. Often the counting has is inaccurate. Many churches have been growing more by membership transfers than real conversion.

                        The other problem is keeping the faithful. It has been the experience in many local churches that there has been a high turnover of the members. The numbers dropping out of church membership is often more than the new converts. The church loses as many converts as most drug rehabilitation programs.


3.1            Pastoral Theology

Pastoral Theology is the framework in which pastor works. Hence it is important to have the correct pastoral theology for the pastors to be effective. Here the Seminaries, Bible Schools and Evangelical scholars have an important role to play. Defective pastoral theology leads to defective pastoral ministries.


3.1.1   Pastoral Theology and Context

                              One of the many reasons why the church is losing its faithful may be that the pastors labored under defective pastoral theology. The pastoral theology which they have learnt in the seminaries may be more suited to the 19th Century – in a horse and buggy era than in the modern supersonic internet linked era. The core theme and teaching of the Bible is eternal but its application must be contextualised and suitable for its times. Instead of finding ways to help the pastor fit into a post modern era, the seminarians encourage the pastors to look backwards. To read the classics and look towards the examples of the long dead pastors.

  Eugene Peterson,[6] a respected professor of spiritual theology at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada wrote : “But pastoral work gathers expertise not by acquiring new knowledge but by assimilating old wisdom, not by reading the latest books but by digesting the oldest ones.”(italics mine )[7]   What is not taken into consideration is that in the 19th Century, things were different. At that time, Christianity and Christian Values were regarded as norms and when one talk of God, heaven, redemption and salvation, everyone knew what was meant. There was a standard point of reference ( Modern Era ).  In our present era, there is no standard of reference and when the pastor preaches on God, Salvation and redemption, the audience may not understand the concepts – not as the way the pastor wants them to understand it. The Muslim conception of heaven is obviously different from the Christian’s. Even amongst Christians, the concept of heaven differed in different decades.[8] Hence there is confusion in terminology and the post-modern man often do not understand what the pastor is speaking about. After a while people began to be bored and leave the church. George Barna [9]was one of the early few who called on the church to prepare for the future.

3.1.2   Pastoral Theology and Candidates

                 Paul, in I Tim 3: 2-7 listed the qualification of a pastor/elder as:

For an elder must be a man whose life cannot be spoken against. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exhibit self control, live wisely and must have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his house and must be able to teach. He must not be a heavy drinker and not be violent. He must be gentle, peace loving and not one who loves money. He must manage his own family well with children who respect and obey him. For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church ?  An elder must not be a new Christian because he might be proud of being chosen so soon, and the Devil will use that pride to make him fall. Also people outside the church must speak well of him so that he will not fall into the Devil’s trap and be disgraced.[10]


Implied in this list of characteristics is that the pastor should not be very young but have some life experience in work and family. The problem in our society especially in the church in Malaysia is that the pastors are often young, often barely out of school. After a few years of theological training, they are pushed into leadership of the churches and are expected to make an impact. Most of the time, they are more involved in finding their own identity in terms of self, family and relevance.

3.2            Unrealistic expectations

                     Pastors are also affected by the materialistic values of our society. They followed the standards of the secular world – the bigger the better. So they aim to build megachurches. Often they justified their motive by saying that God wants their churches to grow. So they work hard to increase their membership lists. They use whatever means to do so, whether spiritual and secular. They read a lot of church growth books which promised easy answers.[11] [12] If you do this and this and this, then your church will grow. Soon instead of pastors, they became Chief Executive Officers of the church, working towards the bottomline which in this case is a big church. Unfortunately many find that church growth is not so simple and they became discouraged, depressed or burnout. Their driven flock too became discouraged , depressed and burnout.

3.3           Inflexible Church Structures

                        Other pastors who sees the need to move with the times but are restricted by inflexible church structures. These structures can be material like church buildings or immaterial like church rules and traditions. Denominational rules that worship must be in a certain order, or that only organ or piano be allowed to provide music in a service or certain bible study materials and not others can be used in Bible studies. Many churches are still following traditions and practices that were invented last century. Because the church has been doing things a certain way for many years, any attempt to change will be met by resistance. The information age seem to have passed the churches by.

3.4           Unrealistic Worldviews

                         The pastor often has this artificial division between themselves who are often full time staff and the laity who are often working in a secular job. The pastor often runs his church in either of two ways :  he demands very little of his lay members and tries to do everything by himself or he demands too much of his lay members and become disillusioned when they failed to deliver. Rarely do we find a pastor who can balance his involvement of the laity fully for the ministry. Often the enthusiastic layman is placed in a ministry where he or she is unsuited for. Is it any wonder they became frustrated and drop out (or burned out ) after a few years.

3.5           Health and mental/emotional problems

                       With all of the above mentioned problems , the pastor will come under increasing stress as he struggle to find a relevance in his professional standing and to minister in a society with no fixed values. Stress will lead to health problems and burnout.

4        The Innovative Pastor

                        The pastor in this post modern era has to change and adapt if he is to be effective in his ministry.

4.1           Inner Life development

                    The basis of any pastoral ministry is his personal growth in Christlikeness and his walk with God. This transcend any era and time. Unless and until a pastor develops in this area, he will never be effective in any ministry. Henri Nouwen mentioned teaching, preaching, individual pastoral care, organising and celebrating as the pillars of creative ministry.[13]  Until and unless the pastor masters these spiritual disciplines, there is unlikely to be growth and effectiveness.

4.2           Fulfilling a Need

                  Faith Popcorn, a noted futurist writes about sixteen trends for the future.[14] Trends are important because we can anticipate future developments and prepare for it. Four of the trends are useful for the Church (see Figure 1)




       Takeaway for Church


The core of Anchoring is taking comfort in what was safe and secure from the past in order to get ready for the future……..Spirituality is the very heart and soul of the Anchoring Trend

Given our culture’s present insatiable spiritual thirst, pastors will need more than ever to train new followers of Christ in “church”. For example, that the church is not an it-doesn’t-matter-what- I- believe sort of place



Clanning hitches us up with those who share our interests.…..[It] is a Trend that asserts,’I’m a part of a group, and proud of it. I belong’

This identifies the deep need of humans to be part of something larger than themselves. The payoffs of service are the relationships and identity it provides.



Me, myself and I are the driving forces behind Egonomics. ‘Me’ wants customization; ‘myself’ is a name, not a number; and ‘I’ demand personal service. If you Click into the Trend of Egonomics, it’s one of the most effective ways to reach customers, by appealing to their individuality, the singular part of them that says,’ There is no one out there quite like me.’


This reinforces the idea that people desires their service in the church to be customized to fit their specific gifts and abilities.

Many people- especially white collared folks- feel underemployed at work; the church has an opportunity to customize church ministry in a way that provides eternal significance.

99 Lives

For millions of Americans, the feeling of being over scheduled, overcommitted, and always-on-the-run is a fundamental part of our high-tech life

This only means volunteers need meaningful work, not another committee meeting.

Figure 1: Faith’s Trend Applied to Church[15]

                    What Faith stated was that there is a deep spiritual need in society and the Church must have something to offer that can confer identity, meaningful commitment and work for the individuals.

                      That the Church has – Grace. “The world can do almost anything as well as or better than the church,” says Gordon MacDonald,” You need not be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry, or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.”[16] The Church must revive and emphasis the Theology of Grace and offer it to a hungry world.

4.3           Flexibility/ Adaptability

                   Flexibility and adaptability must be an essential characteristic of a pastor of the post modern era. Coping with the Information Age requires the ability to self-learn, absorb new knowledge faster, think “outside the box” and challenge existing ways of thinking and doing things.[17]  The pastor must be able to move out of the current thinking of the structure of the church and  innovate to attract a postmodern generation. There must be changes in the music, the order of service or even the concept of service itself.[18] The sermon and teaching must be comprehensible to the postmodern mind and relevant to their existing lifestyle.

                 George Barna writing on the reengineering of the local church for the next millenium highlighted the following changes:[19]

                            Change factor                          Changing from                    Changing to


                                Authority                              centralized                             decentralized

                                Leadership                            pastor-driven                        lay-driven

                                Power distribution               vertical                                   horizontal

                                Reaction to change              resistance                              acceptance

                                Identity                                  tradition and order               mission and vision

                                Scope of ministry                 all-purpose                            specialized

                                Practices                                tradition bound                    relevance bound

                                People’s role                         observation  and support   participation and innovation

                                Principal product                  knowledge                             transformation

                                Success factors                     size,efficiency,image            accessibility,impact,integrity

                                Primary challenges               momentum,                            heresy,

                                                                                   relationships,                        relationships,

                                                                                    leadership,                             unity,

                                                                                  complacency                         leadership,


4.4           Management Skills

                   Management skills are essential and must not be despised. Modern management techniques, as long as their principles are biblically sound should be welcomed and used in the church administration. For too long the church are used to mediocre work. Just look at the standard of some of our sermons, the way church functions are organised and the way church accounts have been kept. A lot of problems can be avoided in the church if we have proper management of resources, financial management, employment contracts, job description, marketing research and strategic planning.

4.5           Relationships

                           The postmodern mind appreciates personal honesty, integrity and transparency. This is the constant they have in an inconstant world. The pastor must be able to reach them through person interactions and meeting their felt needs. As such, ministries may need to be specialized - single parents, teenage pregnancies, abused children, battered wives or newly married young couples with children

4.6           Support Group

                         To keep mentally and physically fit in this post modern era, a pastor must have a support network. No man can work alone but should seek people of like mind to talk, discuss and pray for each other. The pastor must be able to delegate and mobile his laity to support his ministry. He must also be willing to work with the parachurch organizations ( such as the Promise Keepers, Salvation Army or Malaysian CARE ) to avoid duplication of effort and wastage of resources.

5. Conclusion

                        The pastor in a post modern world has a very important role. He is the proclaimer of an objective truth ; the person of Jesus Christ and the Word of God. He may be the only person who can confidently offer what the rest of the post modern society cannot.

                         William Willimon, professor of Christian ministry at Duke University, has said, “ The good news is, we are entering a period in which the old, modern world view is losing its grip. People are wandering and exploring. We ought to say to them, ‘ The world too flat for you ? Okay, we can help you with that. Your life is an impenetrable mystery to you ? We love to talk about that………..Secularity, our old enemy, is in big trouble.”[20]

                     This post modern era offers a tremendous challenge to the pastor but it also offers a tremendous opportunity to spread the gospel. It will be an innovative pastor who will seize this opportunity.

                                                                                                                                                              Soli Deo Gloria


[1] New Straits Times, July 11, 1998

[2] Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave ( Bantam, 1980 )

[3] “ Place a frog in a kettle of boiling water and it will quickly jump out, aware that the environment is dangerous. Place a frog in a kettle full of room temperature water and slowly increase the temperature of the water until it is boiling. The frog will stay in the water until it boils to death. Will the Christian Community be like the frog ?” George Barna, The Frog in the Kettle ( Ventura CA: Regal Books, 1990 )

[4] David Goetz The Riddle of Our Post Modern Culture (Leadership.Winter 1997) p. 53

[5] Though their control of world news media and entertainment industry.

[6] Eugene Peterson is a great teacher of Spirituality and has all my respect. However in his three books on pastoral theology, Peterson started well in his discussion of various aspects of pastoral work namely prayer directing, story making, nay saying, pain sharing and community building ( Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work ). The discussion was convincing. In his next book, Working the Angle: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Peterson expanded into pastoral work concerning prayer, scripture and spiritual direction as the foundation of pastoral work. The work is as usual well written but when it comes down to practicality, Peterson became a bit vague in his applications. In his third book in the series, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Peterson went back to his discussion on spirituality. This leaves the reader to wonder how to apply all his wonderful inspirations into the practical everyday life of the ministry.

[7] Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work ( Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) p. 10

[8] Jeffrey Burton Russell, A History of Heaven (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,  1997 )

[9] Unfortunately George Barna is more of a statistician and futurist than a theologian. He sounded the clarion call but did not provide the theology for the future.

[10] Holy Bible : New Living Translation

[11] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,  1995 )

[12] George Barna, The Power of Vision (Ventura CA: Regal Books, 1992 )

[13] Henri Nouwen, Creative Ministry ( New York: Image Doubleday, 1971,1978 )

[14] Faith Popcorn & Lys Marigold, Clicking : 16 Trends to Future Fit your Life, Your Work, and Your Business ( New York: Harper Collins, 1996 )

[15] David Goetz, The Church’s Ten-Year Window: Today’s trends are opening opportunities for Christianity, A conversation with futurist Faith Popcorn  ( Leadership Winter 1997 ) p. 22-28

[16] Quoted in Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace ? ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997 )p. 1

[17] Technology In Asia (Far Eastern Economic Review, May 14, 1998) p. 49

[18] Ralph Moore, Friends: How To Evangelize Generation X ( Honolulu:Straight Street Publishing, 1997)

[19] George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church ( Nashville:Word Publishing, 1998) p. 177

[20] Quoted in David Goetz, The Riddle of our Post Modern Culture ( Leadership, Winter 1997 ) p. 56



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