For years now, scholars have announced the death of postmodernism. After decades of dominance as a cultural mood, the famously cynical and relativistic intellectual stance is finally out. In its place, another ideological outlook is taking hold—as those of us who spend significant time with the next generations (Z and Alpha) may have noticed.

So, the question is this: What fresh dispositions of thought are taking hold—and how might Christians engage well with our evolving cultural frontier?

One term that scholars have used to identify the new cultural mood is metamodernism. First used in 1975 to describe a literary shift, the concept became more prominent in the early 2000s thanks to the work of cultural analysts Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker. In their 2010 article, “Notes on Metamodernism,” they made a convincing case for the new zeitgeist and provided a cultural analysis of its characteristics.

Metamodernism, according to Vermeulen and Van Den Akker, is a “structure of feeling” marked by “(often guarded) hopefulness and (at times feigned) sincerity”—deriving from a realization that “history is moving rapidly beyond its much proclaimed end.” While there are plenty of academic responses to their work, the term has gained little traction in the public sphere.

As a high school teacher, youth pastor, and an older member of Gen Z myself, I’ve not only grown up breathing the ideological air of metamodernism but have also seen what it looks like on the ground. It can manifest in a few tangible ways, including in what I call apocalyptic hope, inverted worldview-building, and highly narrated identities.

Apocalyptic hope (or what Vermeulen and Van Den Akker call “guarded hopefulness”) arises from and stands in contrast to the staid pessimism of postmodernism. It acknowledges that the world is in some sense “doomed” or at least in crisis, but responds to this fact with dark humor, sincere hopefulness (often expressed through irony), and a revolutionary spirit that actively rejects the passive resignation of past decades.

The next generation of young people have grown accustomed to viewing their futures in bleak terms, expecting dystopian outcomes from technologism and government overreach, natural disasters resulting from climate crisis, and global instability in the face of competing nationalist and globalist visions of the future.

Despite all this, most young people have not embraced a head-in-the-sand mentality to preserve the innocence of their youth, nor have most responded with obvious despair. Instead, my generation often faces the future with a dark joke on the outside and a fierce resolution to change the world on the inside.

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In contrast to one of postmodernism’s signature aspects—what professor and cultural theorist Ag Apolloni called “the era of endings”—the metamodernist generation yearns for a new beginning.

Vermeulen and Van Den Akker described metamodernism as a realization that history isn’t over yet. If that’s true, then there’s still hope for change—which is why the next generation has a zeal for solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems. When it comes to environmental, economic, or social issues, today’s youth are far more likely to identify with a cause and to seek to act on it—perhaps in drastic ways that can look like alarmism or overreaction. Having grown up believing our future may only be saved by drastic action, it makes sense for us to greet it with a wry sense of humor and a strong drive to remake the world.

Why should this matter to the church? It matters because one of the most essential elements of a worldview is its expectations for the future. Today’s young people expect things to get worse before they get better and feel a real burden to act quickly to avert the numerous disasters that humanity has brought upon itself. And as it happens, Scripture can meaningfully speak to and resonate with this attitude.

In Romans 8, Paul writes that all creation is groaning as it awaits redemption and re-creation. This groaning is not a natural feature of our world—it is an ongoing consequence of human sin and its destructive impact on God’s good world. The Christian story of reality speaks directly to the frustration and fear that plagues the metamodernist generations: Our world is plagued by the evils that we have wrought.

Fortunately, Scripture does not stop at diagnosing the problem. The gospel also prescribes a very real solution—the promise of re-creation, inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus, as sinners share in a foretaste of the new life found in Christ and await our own resurrection patterned after his own. Seen through this lens, the gospel gives real substance to the apocalyptic hopefulness of metamodernism.

Another key facet of real-world metamodernism is what I like to describe as inverted worldview-building.

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The historic norm has been to ground our worldview in metaphysical foundations and build up to ethical conclusions. In other words, at least on paper, we start with questions of ultimate meaning before moving on to questions of temporal purpose. As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in After Virtue, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

But among the rising metamodernist generations, it seems this conventional order has been reversed. In response to the moral relativism of postmodern predecessors, the metamodernist generation first seeks to be grounded in certain essential ethical principles and then selects the best ideological framework to match those ethics. It’s a “cart before the horse” generation, in the sense that we often base our religious or philosophical positions on prior ethical assumptions rather than the other way around.

The new impulse, then, is to work backward from a kind of ethical certainty to whichever religious claims align with the ethical outcomes preferred by one’s crowd—and to reject those with ethical outcomes that are deemed “problematic.” According to this new ethical absolutism, some discard and denounce any religious outlook that seems to produce unpopular ethical conclusions.

Where truth and morality were once dismissed as little more than personal preferences, we now see people explicitly condemning many aspects of orthodox Christian teaching for its ethical failures. This also means that postmodern “tolerance” is decidedly out of vogue. In his book Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth, Thaddeus Williams observed that “since [the 1990s] we have watched a culture that prided itself in its nonjudgmentalism turn into one of the most judgmental societies in history.”

But while it may create some new challenges for Christian evangelism, this new cultural mood is not without its benefits. After decades of shadowboxing against ideological opponents who claimed to reject any moral reality or ethical standard, the church may find it refreshing to present its truth claims to people who acknowledge our frequently immoral world rather than trying to defend a purportedly amoral one.

From an apologetic standpoint, this shift in popular ideology also demands a shift in evangelistic approach. Rather than teaching young Christians to merely defend the existence of truth, we should be teaching them to better understand and articulate the grounds and benefits of biblical ethics. In communicating with the metamodernist generation, it is vital to defend a thoroughly scriptural view of Christian ethics.

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As Rebecca McLaughlin points out in her book The Secular Creed, secularists and those who have moved on from a Christian worldview based on ethical outcomes often still cling to other ethical principles (like the weak holding the strong accountable), thinking such principles are “basic moral common sense” instead of realizing that many of “these truths have come to us from Christianity.”

Much of pop-culture ethic today can be reduced to the “harm principle,” an essential component of modern liberalism articulated by philosopher John Stuart Mill. Christian philosopher Charles Taylor describes the harm principle as the notion “that no one has a right to interfere with me for my own good, but only to prevent harm to others.” Some further conflate the harm principle with the biblical ethic, imagining that all God wants is for us to refrain from hurting each other—a simplistic reimagining of the Golden Rule. When filtered through the metamodernist mood, this can lead to a forceful condemnation of Christians who teach that there is more to morality.

“The injunction ‘Thy will be done’ isn’t equivalent to ‘Let humans flourish,’” Taylor points out, “even though we know that God wills human flourishing.” Scripture does not only call us to stay out of each other’s way and otherwise do what feels natural to us—it calls us to a way of living that goes beyond what is merely “natural” and often pushes us to lay down our own desires and even our own lives. Christ calls us to be transformed, and in Taylor’s words, “This transformation involves our living for something beyond human flourishing, as defined by the natural order, whatever it be.”

The final influential component of metamodernism, as I’ve observed it, is the tendency toward highly narrated identities.

One of the biggest practical differences between the younger generations (from millennials to Gen Alpha) and their predecessors is the level of comfort and familiarity with topics of mental health and psychological development. According to the American Psychological Association, members of Gen Z are “significantly more likely (27 percent) ... to report their mental health as fair or poor” and are “also more likely (37 percent) … to report that they have received treatment or therapy from a mental health professional.”

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Increased comfort and familiarity with the historically stigmatized topics of mental health diagnoses and development certainly isn’t a bad thing. This rise has been correlated to increased empathy and transparency about internal struggles and is already reshaping the modern workplace. But there are also side effects, especially thanks to the distorting influence of pop psychology.

Pop psychology today includes the large-scale dissemination of psych-adjacent opinions and advice offered in bite-sized portions on social media platforms. Madison Marcus-Paddison, a trauma therapist and counselor, points out that this type of content often suffers from oversimplification, lack of context, limited professional credentials, and loss of personalization when it comes to real and complex matters of mental health.

The real-world impact of this array of positive and negative shifts is a cultural mood characterized by widespread self-diagnosis, which can produce an over-narration of one’s identity under the guise of bettering one’s mental health.

Therapist Jessica Jaramillo, who works primarily with college students at the University of Colorado, has pointed out the rampant danger among youth in self-diagnosing mental health illnesses and identifying too much with their diagnoses. Even without a technical diagnostic label, there is a tendency among young people to overanalyze their own story to explain, justify, or solve their problems.

Like other metamodernist tendencies, this movement brings with it both positive and negative cultural shifts that Christians must meaningfully engage with.

On the positive side, this shift means that young people are far more willing to speak openly about the mental and emotional challenges they face and the burdens they bear. This openness may (often) take the form of sarcastic self-deprecation, but it nonetheless represents an increased vulnerability that can be a launching point for more honest conversations—which can be an inroad for sharing the gospel.

The dark side of this shift, however, is the sense of paralysis that often accompanies it. The more you attribute your sense of self to your past negative experiences, the less possible it will seem to hope for meaningful change in the future. Perhaps this sense of fatalistic determinism helps explain why the rate of suicide has tripled for adolescents and risen nearly 80 percent for high schoolers in the last decade.

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In my experience as a teacher and youth pastor, this feature of metamodernism probably has the most impact on my interactions with the students I work with daily. Buried beneath wry, self-deprecating humor, many of my students feel it is impossible to escape the flaws that their past has built into them.

Once again, however, the gospel can speak a word of hope to the metamodernist mood. You are flawed, yes; you are a sinner, incapable of simply fixing yourself and becoming the person you want to be. But God’s mercies are “new every morning” (Lam. 3:23), and there is deep and abiding hope found in Jesus, into whose image we are daily “being transformed” (2 Cor. 3:18), and one day, “we will all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51).

Your identity today is not an inescapable trap. This does not need to minimize real pathologies and their treatment—it simply reminds us that we are more than the stories we tell about ourselves.

There is certainly more to be said about metamodernism today, but my hope is to help shift the conversation at the popular level away from an outmoded postmodern apologetic. And as we work together to proclaim the Good News in a changing world, by the grace of God, I pray we might soon see revival in the metamodern age.

Benjamin Vincent is a bi-vocational pastor and teacher in Southern California. He serves as assistant pastor at Journey of Faith Bellflower and as the department chair of history and theology at Pacifica Christian High School in Newport Beach, California.

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