The Church on the Other Side
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
What is the future of the church going to look like? The culture is shifting, and there are new influences impacting the church. The movements provide reason for optimism, but also for caution. We have to remember that there are redeemable things about every culture, which help in the work of the kingdom, but there are also things about every culture which are contrary to the gospel. What is the culture of the next generation going to look like, and to what should we be hopeful and cautious?
Brian McLaren has a very optimistic answer to these questions in the book The Church on the Other Side (formerly entitled Reinventing Your Church, released in 1998). He views movements within the culture as perfect jumping-off points to help revamp the church and make it better. He sees postmodernism as a chance for purifying the stagnant modern culture. He points out some obstacles which may hamper churches from attaining this goal. He claims that the churches which will be successful will understand the culture, be involved in it, and accept it for what it is. But he does not take a cautious enough view of what the culture is, or what the church can do with it.
Postmodernism is a response to the failure of the modern or enlightenment agenda. Modernism held that humans could solve all the world’s problems through the progress of science, technology, and philosophy. The two world wars, the failure of logical positivism, and the failure of science to solve problems of disease and pestilence has led to a sense that humans cannot solve all the problems. This has led to a sense of resignation about where we are, and where we can go. Culture as a whole no longer holds a very optimistic view of humanity’s role in the future.
The modern period threw out any attempts to discuss things outside natural observation. This naturalism has seeped over to postmodernism, but in a different form. Modernism claimed that there was no sense discussing anything outside of natural observation because there was no way to prove its truth claims. Postmodernism has begun to seek for answers to questions outside this realm because people realise the need to answer spiritual questions. Since it retains the restriction to proof by natural observation, it has resulted in a form of agnostic relativism in spiritual questions. This places a high emphasis on subjective experience because it is the only natural ground for answers to these questions.
McLaren claims that postmodernism holds the following 5 core values:
1. Postmodernism is sceptical of certainty.
2. Postmodernism is sensitive to context.
3. Postmodernism leans toward the humorous.
4. Postmodernism highly values subjective experience.
5. For postmoderns, togetherness is a rare, precious, and elusive experience.
I think McLaren’s emphasis on the scepticism of post-modernism is exaggerated. Postmoderns are sceptical of other people’s belief systems, but are relatively sure of their own. There is much more individual searching and analysis of people’s individual belief systems, but they are prepared to defend them as relevant. This defensiveness has led to the “what’s good for me, is good for me, just leave me alone” rebuttal. This agnostic relativism is the main threat to Christianity today.
Postmoderns have resigned themselves to the idea that there is no way to know the truth, but they are still looking for it. People are looking for meaning, for reasons to the existence of things, for direction for their lives, and for a place to belong. They are very sceptical of anyone telling them what to believe. This means that we cannot tell people what to believe any more, we have to show them how to believe. People are open to matters of spirituality and faith, but they do not think that we are able to know which way is the correct way. This openness is very encouraging, as it allows us to present the truth. The problem comes in when we push too hard.
This is part of the wisdom of McLaren’s book. Part of his strategy in to encourage people to ask tough questions and to seek out the answers. Christianity need not be afraid of intellectual interrogation. It can stand on its own two feet. It has a rich history of brilliant people who wrestled with intriguing questions regarding the mystery of the faith, the way it interacts with the rest of the world, and how the faith works as a coherent belief system.
McLaren has a very high commitment to a congregationalist structure of church government. His discussion of the structure of the church completely ignores the possibility of a different structure. The relativism within the post-modern culture would seem to push away from any kind of confessional structure toward an individualistic faith. Since it is harder now to tell people what they ought to believe, they have to work it out for themselves. This makes it harder for people to swallow a confessional tradition, like the Christian Reformed Church, than a loosely defined Christianity in a congregationalist church. The fact that people are more willing to delve deeply into spiritual questions will lead to more people seeking out the confessional tradition than the shallower, more personal styles of Christianity. The confessional tradition will provide a large asset in the future, provided we allow people to explore it and the reasons behind it.
In sum, the postmodern culture is characterised by the search for meaning in an overarching structure of agnosticism. This presents an opportunity for sharing our faith in a more open and honest dialogue. It also presents the challenge to alter the way that we do our evangelism and apologetics. We have to be less challenging, and more empathetic. We have to become more Christ-like as we care for the lost. The church cannot afford to accept the culture wholesale nor can it reject it outright. It has to work within the cultural context it is placed to witness to the eternal truths of Jesus Christ.
Over all I think McLaren falls into the extreme of wholesale acceptance of our current cultural context and does not provide enough critique of it.