How’d We Get Here?

Dan Hodge | Jan 12, 2005

I am sitting at the back of a large hall on the first night of an “outreach” camp watching seventy-five energized, predominately African-American middle schoolers waiting expectantly for what was going to come next. As the band comes forward to sing music, I notice that only their adult leaders are singing along with the lyrics. Upon second look, I notice that the middle schoolers are actually singing along…extremely sarcastically and by mimicking the song leader. What is more, there are groups of several students lurking around, looking for the first chance to sneak out.

Finally, the end of the last song! The kids seem to clap in relief that it is all over. I then prepare my notes, as I am the speaker for this “outreach” camp for the whole week. I take a deep breath and begin my introduction: who is Christ? I feel confident tonight. I am part African-American, part Mexican, I speak Spanish, I am tall, big, bald, and I get what it means to be urban. I know that I can “relate” to these youth, or so it would seem.

I begin my talk. Things go well for the first five minutes. I tell a couple of stories and have gotten a few laughs out of the crowd. “Good,” I think, “Now I’ll hit them with an introductory bible verse. That’ll get ‘em!” Upon opening my Bible to read what I thought was a great scripture to begin, John 3:16, there came a sound from the entire crowd: a unison “lip smack.” I thought, “This is weird, urban kids smacking their lips when the Bible is open.” Next to “mama,” God and God’s word are some of the most revered things in the urban community. Surely, these kids could not be smacking their lips at the Bible, could they?

The second night came and sure enough, for both of the scriptures read out of the bible, the crowd smacked their lips and sighed. It was then, on that second night, with all of my training, my “know it all attitude,” great talks I’d given in the past, and years in urban ministry that I realized times were changing. These young people needed something different and something more than just “preaching.” They needed to connect with me. The following several nights, I put down the Bible, my notes, and all the “pre-packaged” sermons I had heard and spoke from my heart.

So what has changed? Are young people so disinterested that they are not even affected by the reading of God’s word? What does leadership look like in the current conditions? What does indigenous leadership development look like among young people in the midst of our changing culture?

Defining The Postmodern Environment [[For a broader understanding of postmodern theory, see Fredric Jameson (1991), Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press. This is not a user-friendly book, meaning that it is written with the sociologist in mind, but if you want to gain a conceptual framework of postmodern theory, Jameson is a good start.]]

To begin, we must first take a look at what the postmodern environment looks like. The postmodern environment seems to have the following characteristics:

Rejection of the Universal Narrative (of Modernity):

In modern times, beliefs and culture often could be explained by one theme that was universal and programmatic. Issues needed to be easily explained and required simple answers. [[Noted by George Ritzer (2000) in, Sociological Theory. Mc Graw Hill: 602-603.]] In the postmodern environment, there are many different explanations for events and issues; not just one. Tony Jones states:
In the modern church, the key problem to be solved was to find the right methods and techniques and to organize a campaign, crusade, or drive. This put a premium on program rather than the formation of a community of disciples. We’ve taken salvation, a complex concept that Jesus spent his life living out and teaching and that theologians have been trying to explain for 2,000 years, and we’ve reduced it to Four Laws and a quick prayer. Does that really do justice to the message Jesus died to share?” [[Tony Jones (2001), Postmodern Youth Ministry. Zondervan/Youth Specialties: 126.]]

Art, Film, & Media That Reflect the Changing Times:

Most films today do not have the answers and “neatness” of films done 40 years ago. Leave it to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, and even the Flintstones are all relics of the modern era. Films such as Stigmata, Memento, The Matrix Trilogy, and 8 Mile are examples of films that send a message that things are not quite right. The media is more open to “reality” and “edgy” material including sexual situations and “swear words” that were previously banned.

A Loss of Historicity:

A loss of historicity is not the same as a loss of history; quite the opposite. George Ritzer states, “There is no clear sense of historical development, of time passing. Past and present are inextricably intertwined” [[Ibid.]] in the postmodern situation.

Deconstruction of Concepts & Theoretical Frameworks:

This means that there is a large part of society today that is skeptical and cynical. Tony Jones states:
Deconstruction gained momentum in the first half of the 20th century as it became clear that science is not capable of answering all questions and the human mind may not be able to solved every problem. All the foundation constructed during the modern period were questioned, and all of the premises that were taken for granted were scrutinized. [[Tony Jones (2001), Postmodern Youth Ministry. Zondervan/Youth Specialties: 22.]]

The idiom “That’s just the way it is” is losing its meaning. Most young people will want to know more and why, and they will question you as well. This can be a problem for many in a modern mindset who might believe that “Young people should respect their elders, and that respect means you don’t question me all the time.” Young people, and people in general influenced by postmodernity, question everything; nothing escapes the broad scope of deconstruction.

Communication Through Stories:

“Narrative is becoming the primary means of communicating beliefs.” [[Ibid. p.27.]] That is why when I was at camp speaking, I finally figured out to tell stories about my life, Jesus, and how the two intersected. Most of the young people I have encountered strongly desire stories.


There is a powerful craving to “experience” life, as opposed to reading about it in some book or seeing it in a movie. [[For an in depth look at this current generation, the “Millennials.” See, Neil Howe & William Strauss, Millennials Rising: The Next Generation (New York, Vintage Books 2000).]] More and more video games interact with the player. Internet gaming is on the rise as well because of its “experience” with other players. The postmodern individual wants to “feel” you, not just “hear” you.


Spirituality is a “cool thing” and religious themes are seen throughout our culture as well. [[See Wilbert Shenk (1999), The Changing Frontiers of Mission. Orbis Books: Chapter 14.]]

Pluralistic: Plain and simple, you have choices. Christianity is not the only religion out on the market. Once again, Tony Jones is insightful when he states, “Modern technology has made everything available to everyone—and its lack of adequate grids of interpretation has created confusion.” [[Tony Jones (2001), Postmodern Youth Ministry. Zondervan/ Youth Specialties: 31.]]

While there are more characteristics of postmodernism, this list gives us at least a partial groundwork for where we are—and where we need to go.

Leadership in the Postmodern Environment

Life and ministry leadership can be tricky in these types of conditions. Below are some suggested platforms for the existing leader in a ministry/organization to build upon while looking at developing indigenous leaders for their context. (These are merely suggestions since there is no one-stop-fix to postmodern leadership development.) [[These concepts are taken from Dan Hodge’s MA research write up: Spring 2004; Fuller Theological Seminary.]]

1. An Understanding of the Media Culture:
If a leader is to move out and grasp what is happening, then there is no avoiding contemporary culture. I know many Christians feel that we need to be “in the world and not of the world.” But Jesus engaged people in their cultural settings, so clearly “not of the world” does not mean disengagement from culture. Furthermore, because the Master is our model, we are compelled to do the same and engage with our culture. If we truly believe that God will guide us and is with us, then venturing into contemporary culture should not be a “scary” experience. We can go with confidence that God is with us at all times. We can begin by:

  • Reading the newspaper.
  • Subscribing to different popular magazines such as The Source, Vibe, and XXL.
  • Going to your students’ school (if allowed).
  • Getting to know new students.
  • Interviewing your students and beginning to ask what makes them tick
  • Watching popular films (“Veggie Tales” and “The Ten Commandments” don’t count!)

These are merely suggestions. But postmodern leaders will be able to interpret and understand different aspects of culture. They do not have to agree with all of the issues in culture, but they must be aware.

2. Realistic Expectations:
The reality of it is that when you work with teenagers, there will be failure and there will be setbacks; expect them and deal with them. Students today are busy, and even as you are trying to develop them as leaders, they might not always be able to make it to a “program” that evening. Life is complex, and as a leader training other leaders, we must realize that and move forward with realistic expectations.

3. Intercultural Communication:
One of the most damaging things a leader can do is to ignorantly degrade another student’s culture or ethnicity. The fact is our country is changing, rapidly, both demographically and ethnically. If you have not had a recent course on Intercultural Communication, I suggest you sign up for one. American, Western, and European centered perspectives are not the “best” fit for every culture. Realize this and begin to understand the cultural backgrounds of your students.

4. The Ability to Deal with Change:
At a moment’s notice, you may have to scrap all your current plans, programs, and studies to make time for an emerging leader in crisis. Crisis happens, and leaders with type A personalities—not that type A’s are bad—will have a hard time adjusting to “schedule changes.” However, in the postmodern environment things change and move rather quickly.

5. The Ability to Push & Argue:
Postmoderns love to argue and debate. Furthermore, if you live in an urban environment, conflict is often a daily event. In the urban environment, it is not uncommon to have a yelling match with your best friend, curse each other out, then get on the bus to the game and hang out the rest of the week. More importantly, postmoderns love a good debate. Let me make this clear to modern minds and to people who feel young people disrespect older people: QUESTIONING IS NOT A FORM OF DISRESPECT. It is merely a form of postmodern communication. The postmodern communicates in extremes (i.e.: “This always happens”, or “This whole thing is a waste of time”, or “Our church never does this or that”). This simply means that you, as the existing leader, must be ready and able to figure out the subtle meanings of postmodern communication and that means you will have to develop good listening skills.

Leadership Development in the Postmodern Environment

As we begin to develop the leader that is a postmodern in an environment that is postmodern, while there is no one method for leadership development, there are good starting points. The starting points I am using are taken from Wayne Gordon. His many years of ministry and urban leadership development in Chicago’s inner city have led him to these suggestions that have worked for his ministry and his environment.

Gordon lays out the basics to the actual “practice” of indigenous urban leadership. He makes eleven recommendations for those of us who want to develop indigenous leaders: [[Taken Directly from Wayne Gordon (1995), “Indigenous Leadership Development.” In Restoring At Risk Communities: Doing it Together & Doing it Right. John Perkins ed. Pp 181-194. MI.: Baker Academic: 186-190. Please also note that Gordon and his team practice these regularly with their leadership development program; these are not only suggestions, but also what has worked for Gordon and his group.]]

  1. See 15 Years Into the Future: Gordon argues that it will take at least 15 years to develop a new generation of leaders. In his church, he has leaders investing this kind of time with the next generation of leaders. That way, the young people will grow up with the church and know the people that are in it, thereby having a stake in the community.
  2. Never Go Anywhere Alone: Gordon states that leadership development should not be done alone. No matter where the “senior” leader goes, they should take someone emerging as a leader with them. This, he states, might be one of the first times that this young person is ever out of their environment; moreover, this deepens the relationship with that young person.
  3. Be Available/ Socialize With Them: According to Gordon, to develop leaders you must spend time with them. You must be accessible and available to them when they need to talk. This is a challenge, but it is needed in the urban community. Socializing is a huge part of the urbanite, and this goes right along with the development of that young leader.
  4. Expose Them to Role Models: John Perkins and Tom Skinner were available to help bring vision and hope to young people. They were able to see themselves succeed because they had positive and genuine role models. This is important as the leader develops and so that they have a network of friends that they can call upon when needed.
  5. Have Your Family be A Part of Your Ministry: The family is a great asset in leadership development. Gordon believes that many times the family is unfortunately left at home. Great conversation and life lessons can be taught and learned when the entire family is in on the ministry and the leadership development.
  6. Travel With Them: This falls into line with number two, but one-step further. Instead of inviting an emerging leader to daily events and seminars, invite him or her on family vacations; make them a part of your family. This is an enormous step in the development of the leader.
  7. Love, Love, Love: One of the critical keys to leadership development is to love people and let them know it. Love them in every way you can and know how, Gordon argues. It is very important that we let people know that we love them.
  8. Be Positive and Affirm Them: Gordon states that it is extremely important that we tell people that we are developing as leaders that they are doing a great job. The old “pat on the back” goes a long way in affirming an emerging leader.
  9. Give Them Responsibly and Let Them Fail: Letting people know that they have an area for which they are responsible for and then allowing that person to decide for that responsibility, even though they might fail, promotes growth and wise decision-making in the emerging leader. Placing a leader in charge of an area of ministry is an important step in promoting their maturity. [[Richard Clinton (1996) “Selecting & Developing Emerging Leaders.”; Perkins (1982) “With Justice for All.”; Anderson (1999) “Leadership that Works: Hope & Direction for Today’s Church & Parachurch leaders in Today’s Complex World” ; Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy (2003) “Leadership: Enhancing The Lessons of Experience.”; & Clinton (1988) “The Making of A Leader.” all agree that giving emerging leaders a set responsibility is a large part of the development process of a leader.]]
  10. Make Them Feel Important: This all ties back into spending time together and affirming the young person. However, Gordon advocates that this also involves listening to young people and allowing them to express their thoughts and feelings openly. [[Gordon also gives suggestions from his experience in helping emerging college leaders as they begin to think about leading back in their communities. He suggests a back to school dinner, a winter retreat for the college group, visit them on campus, monthly newsletters, adopt a family, care packages, allowing collect phone calls, and even financial help. This will set up the new generation of leaders so that they will be ready to deal with whatever comes, but more importantly, it reinforces the idea that someone cares for them (1995: 191-192).]]
  11. Having Education Does Not Qualify You For Leadership: Just because someone has a degree does not mean that they are ready or even a good fit for urban leadership. He argues that there must be a heart commitment and a true vow from that person that they will commit to being in that community for the long haul. He argues that many of the best leaders will come from people that do not have a formal education. [[This was the case for a young woman that had been in Gordon’s group. She had no education, did not even graduate from high school, but turned out to be one of the best leaders he has ever seen, but he had to get passed the fact that she did not have the formal education first. We must not overlook someone because of educational setbacks. Although Gordon strongly advocates higher education, we must simply not disqualify a person because they do not have a “diploma” (1995: 190).]]

No one has the right answer for you and your ministry. That’s why God gave a team to you and a mind to your emerging leaders. You need to find what works best for you and your situation. One thing is for sure: times certainly have changed, and we can either fight and resist, or trust God to help us along the way.

Action Points

  1. Take a minute to really look at culture. What are some of the obvious issues that stick out? Where are the areas you have trouble with? Why? What is it about popular culture that makes your church cringe?
  2. What are some of the different postmodern qualities that you have seen? Make a list. How do they interact with your team and ministry? How can you help your church better understand the influence of Postmodernity?
  3. Take some time and go watch Thirteen (2003), Mean Girls (2004), Barbershop II: Back in Business (2004), and Napoleon Dynamite (2004). Make a list of the postmodern themes that arise in each movie. If you were a character in the film, where could you have helped, objected, remained silent, or developed a new leader? What are some of the different Postmodern elements that are present in the film that are also present in your current ministry? Take your entire team to go see these. More importantly, take your students with you and have them “break it down” for you.
Dan Hodge

Dan White Hodge, PhD is a dynamic speaker, scholar, Hip Hop theologian, urban worker, & racial bridge builder that connects Urban popular culture with daily life events. Dan has been an active member of the Hip Hop Community for over 20 years and continues to not only study the culture from both an academic and practical perspective, but live it as well. He has over 16 years of urban youth work experience having worked for Young Life and now working with undocumented peoples in Los Angeles with his wife Emily. Dan’s books are “Heaven Has A Ghetto: The Missiological Gospel and Theology of Tupac Amaru Shakur” (VDM Academic 2010) and “The Soul of Hip Hop: Rimbs Timbs & A Cultural Theology” (IVP August 2010).

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