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Issues Facing Missions Today: 49. The New Tribalism of post-Postmodernity and Christian Mission to the West

Issues Facing Missions Today: 49. The New Tribalism of post-Postmodernity and Christian Mission to the West 


Christian mission to the West is facing a new challenge that requires moving beyond the categories of ‘Modernity’ and ‘Post-Modernity’ for the worldview of the larger society.  We are witnessing a fundamental change in the western worldview, a new outlook that might be called ‘Tribalism.’  The Church is caught in the challenge of how to position itself in this new reality, which involves persecution from the Tribe.  Yet is also able to offer a profound witness at this time if it is willing to ‘become the Gospel’ in communities with far more depth than they have had in recent decades.

Enlightenment Modernity

Modernity was characterized by the encyclopedic, progressive accumulation of knowledge, the authoritative lecturer in the classroom, the scientific method and the reign of science over other disciplines in the university, and the relegation of faith to the private and individual sphere of life.  Modernity championed scientific and logical rationality and the ‘system’ (political, social, logical—whatever).  In this world, the body is understood for what it is—how it was made.  It is not a canvas to be tattooed with personal expressions of art.  Modernity is a world open to ideologies as diverse as democracy, fascism, and communism, but it is a world that can be characterized by ideology and the wars that were waged to establish them.


Postmodernity was characterized by its objection to a metanarrative to explain life, a deconstruction of rational foundations and the philosophical, moral, and scientific edifices built thereupon, the role of students to explore meaning through discourse (rather than the lecturer), the triumph of language and literature over science in the university, and a new permission to hear the mutterings of faith—and everything else--in public places.  Postmodernity championed narrative rationality, diversity, and self-expression.  In this world, the body is understood not as something given but as something to be personalised.  It was a canvas to be tattooed with personal art: there was no natural order.  Freedom of choice was the ruling ethic, over against the order of nature or some common understanding of justice.  It was a period in which to apologize for the past abuses of power and to bring out of the shadows groups that were marginalized.  Its deconstruction of ideologies and powerful authorities brought a certain easing of tension, but also a relaxing of moral argument and an uncertainty about what limits there are, if any, in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

The New Tribalism

Unquestionably, the page has now been turned in the West.  A new, totalizing discourse has and is emerging.  If Modernity ruled from the science department of the university, or from the history department operating as a science (a closed system of cause and effect that was swinging dialectically but positively towards some goal), Postmodernity ruled from the literature department.  Whatever post-Postmodernity is, the sociology department is gaining control of the university.  And so it is that perhaps the best term for this development is not ‘post-Postmodernity’ but Tribalism—an appropriately sociological term.

The tribe champions not the individual but the group, even though it recognizes that there are other tribes out there that must be kept in their places.  It is not apologetic for its own abuse of power but attacks the use of power by others as abuse.  It controls the speech, laws, and public square with its own, immense power.  Freedom is no longer based on conscience but is determined by the powerful majority and defined as the support of privileged groups.  All others must be silenced, made to conform in the marketplace, on the job, and in public discourse.  Not the emergence of individual tattoos of Postmodernity but gang uniforms and tribal tattoos for all members are the marks of political correctness.  If Postmodernity argued in favour of sexual diversity it was as a matter of the freedom to act as one wished.  Tribalism, however, argues for sexual identities and also insists that gender is not, as Modernity would have claimed, a biological matter but an innate orientation despite biology.  The tribal mentality shuts down free speech in the university and public square—it forcefully defines the new, totalizing ideology not by arguing from science (including politics, history, and economics interpreted as sciences) but by arguing sociologically.

If Postmodernity opened up some space to explore religions as legitimate expressions of faith that were, at times, oppressively shut down by the championing of science in the period of Modernity, the new Tribalism is decidedly opposed to faith, particularly Christian faith.  It often affirms Islam not as a faith but as a minority group (think ‘Sociology’) that needs to come under the Tribe’s protection because the Tribe wants to support minority groups.  It defines Transgender persons as a minority that is determined by its gender orientations over against its biology.  This argument is only compelling because the Tribal mentality assumes the dominance of the sociology department in the university and the agenda of supporting marginalized groups as groups, with no academic enquiry into their legitimacy apart from their social status.

The Church in the Age of Tribalism

Christians need to realize that the apologetic landscape has changed.  Mission in this context is no longer that of evidentialist argumentation ala the scientific paradigms of Modernity.  Nor is Christian mission going to succeed merely by means of a compelling narrative.  In the Tribalist world in which the Church now finds itself in the West, a sociological argument will be the most compelling.

Ecclesiology is now the most important theological question.  However, the sociological argument comes with persecution and martyrdom for the Christian faith as the pattern of life for Christians is increasingly at odds with the Tribe in which we find ourselves.  What is needed, though, is a compelling witness of Christian community living against the grain of Western society both ethically and socially.  This community—the Church—cannot argue much from common understandings of nature or from appeals to the legitimacy of diversity in a complex world.  It will have to argue by means of its life together that its alternative society has answers to what others seek.

The Christian response to Tribalism cannot come in the form of mega-churches desperately trying to get a robust cell group or home fellowship programme going despite its mass gatherings.  This witness if far too weak.  It cannot come in the form of calls for individual conversion alone; rather, the focus must become baptism of converts into a new community, the one body of Christ, the church.  It cannot come in the form of polished speakers offering a message, no matter how well crafted.  It has to come in the form of the compelling life together of a Christian community that is either winsome or worth persecuting for its stark challenge to the controlling Tribe.  Mainline denominations have so identified with the Tribe that they have lost any reason to exist.  On the other hand, truly Christian mission to the West must come in the form of faithfully orthodox communities of Christ that have so deeply participated in the life-transforming good news of Jesus Christ and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit that they have ‘become’ the Gospel message in community together.[1] 

The bad news is that the Church faces persecution in tribalist societies.  The good news is that Tribalism strips away the unfaithful and compromised so that the Church offers a purer witness, and it forces the 'church' to be a real church--a family whose life together shines forth the Gospel.

[1] See Michael Gorman’s Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 2015).