Brian McLaren’s book about the need for an ecclesiology to fit post-modern times, The Church On the Other Side was written twenty years ago this year. 1998.
It may as well have been 1788.
For the kaleidoscopic “postmodern” world he says we were headed for, one towards which the church should position itself with a much more open hand towards a more inquiring culture, seems light years from the grey hyper modern zealotry of the post-Christian secular frame of our current experience. McLaren did not see 2018 coming at all.
McLaren’s central thesis begins his introduction: “If you have a new world, you need a new church. You have a new world.”
McLaren was looking for a Church 2.0 to fit a World 2.0. but the mistake he made was to assume the world had changed at its core, when in fact it had remained the same, and merely had changed the trappings. A bit like Sixty Minute Makeover. All of the soft-furnishings and paint jobs in the world won’t make up for a dodgy substructure.Perhaps World 1.0 just needs Church 1.0 after all. Though that may not sell as many books.
This is not to criticise everything McLaren says. Much of the cultural Christianity he picks on needs to be put down. But he tended to throw the theological baby out with the ecclesiological bathwater, and more so over time. If he’d been more critical of the cultural direction he may have come to different conclusions. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he was simply mapping his own world for his own journey away from orthodoxy.
Simply put he failed to pick where the culture was headed, and his solutions are therefore inadequate. If you were prepping your church for the future he described, you’d be sorely disappointed, or you’d have shut down by now.
So, sure he did get some things right, especially about the churn in the post-modern times. But those churning times did not last all that long. The state of flux in the Western world in which all sorts of possibilities would be open, giving the church time to reposition itself, did not last all that long. Indeed it has settled into an aggressive, disagreeable time, in which all positions have settled, the middle ground of inquiry has been vacated, and the discourse of the public square has soured.
One of his assumptions was that Christians think that post-moderns didn’t believe in absolute truth. No, he reasons, they just don’t believe in absolute knowledge. Really? Try telling that to the secular fundamentalists today, ready to shout down or shut down at the drop of a hat. In fact there’s a far more humble epistemology among the church these days than there is in the secular culture.
For the Christian, truth is primarily a Person who knows us intimately, who dwells in us, yet whom we are getting to know over time. And we won’t have full knowledge until the day we see Him face to face. No such epistemological uncertainty exists in our hard secularist counterparts.
McLaren makes this statement. One that seems a trifle naive looking back over the past twenty years:
Even an agnostic or an atheist, then, can see the need for new kinds of churches in the new world – churches that once again replenish the spiritually hungry and thirsty, that understand them and connect them with the mysteries they seek; churches that promote a healthful, whole, hearty spirituality rather than an ugly, thin, hateful, insipid, or anaemic religion.
Two decades later it is clear that the culture, whether agnostic or atheist, does not see the need for a church at all! Two decades later, and it’s clear when we read the like of Charles Taylor and James Smith, the church is not seen as a promoter of any of those good things people want, but a burr in the saddle that needs to be rooted out and jettisoned.
McLaren’s mistake was to assume that the culture understands that only a transcendent message from above could be leveraged to fulfil people. He didn’t count on the Sexular Age, and its insistence that it too could provide what transcendence does – ultimate meaning -, only with way less buy in, or the need to gather corporately with people one does not care for, and give sacrificially, and love the unlovely and stuff like that.
And he didn’t count on the church being viewed not as part of the culture’s relational solution , but as part of the problem. Hence I can’t imagine him writing this today:
Societies and individuals alike need healthy families. Two parent, heterosexual families, whenever possible, are a pretty good idea after all.
I can’t imagine him writing it because he himself has shifted in his understanding of sexuality and the gospel. But more to the point, to hold such a view today, that what he just described is a “healthy family” would invite strong censure at best, and deep , rabid hostility at worst.
Yet McLaren continues to write and speak about an “evolving theology”.
What makes the likes of James Smith’s writing so much stronger is that he fundamentally acknowledges that what we are dealing with in the current culture – indeed in any culture – is not a face-off between worship systems and non-worship systems. But, rather, a battle to the death between two ways of worshipping – false worship and true worship. Worship 1.0 versus False Worship 1.0, if you like.
Smith gets that the modern framework that eschews transcendence is not looking to the likes of the church to provide ultimate meaning that it cannot create itself. No. That modern framework has created an ultimate thing out of a penultimate thing, and has given all of the emotional, spiritual and existential weight that transcendence was meant to bear, to itself.
That is why the battle is so hostile. That is why the church is not being viewed by agnostics and atheists as a solution to our modern malaise, but rather an integral part of the problem. That is why to say in 2018 that “two parent, heterosexual families..are a good idea after all” is viewed as a violent and dangerous idea that leads to all sorts of social ills.
McLaren did not pick the times at all. Yet he continues to write best-sellers. This is not to pick on him personally, but to showcase that he and his ilk led a lot of Christians down a path that ill-prepared them for the hostile reality of a “post-post-modern” world – or in other words, late secular modernity.
The great service the likes of James Smith do, is that they have highlight that Church 2.0 simply needs to be a doubled-down version of Church 1.0 because of the inherently religious nature of the battle.
By contrast McLaren’s work misses the desire by many for a return to a thicker, ancient liturgical tradition in the church as this religious battle increased in intensity. Corporate gatherings in which the words we have used in the past, sown and steeped in Scripture and steeped also in centuries of use, are still the forming words we need in a world of alternate, secular and incessant liturgies that beguile and bedazzle.
And not just corporate gatherings, but corporate sendings. Church 2.0 will recognise that it is sending its people out to live and move and have their being in a culture that is both hostile and aggressively evangelistic itself. World 2.0 is not looking to be told. It’s not even looking to have dialogue. It’s looking to tell. And it possesses a plausibility structure that requires a Christian framework that can double down on plausibility itself.
And forget seeker sensitive. Late modern culture and its allure and glow reaches out to seekers indiscriminately in a manner so flagrant as to make one blush. Witness the sophistication of the latest Mercedes Benz advertising campaign. It’s totalising in its reach across the generations and transcendent in its claims. And there is more transcendence on offer, albeit of the smoke and mirrors variety, in a 30 second Apple ad than in most sermons these days, mired as they are in offering advice and sloganed solutions, instead of painting the grand narrative of God.
If you’re looking for a good overview of how the church could mix it in the harsh realities of the world today, a Church 2.0, then you could do worse than this article by a Jewish writer, Seth Kaplan from Johns Hopkins University, about how the Jewish faith has survived and thrived in hostile conditions. Synagogue 2.0, you might call it. It’s well worth a read.
Most of all it takes deep difference seriously. For all McLaren’s worthy endeavour, I suspect the new church he offers us for the new world ended up looking more like the world than it will the church.
Kaplan ends with this timely word that, if we’d heed twenty years ago, may have positioned us better for World 2.0:
Christians do not have to diminish doctrine in order to thicken the practices that can enable them to flourish as a minority—on the contrary, they’ll find that practices deepen it.
Amen to that.
There’s more depth of wisdom in that one sentence for Christians going into World 2.0 than in many an emerging church book.