May 30, 2020

Beware the “Back to the Future” church

Back to the Future DeLorean Time Machine

Beware of any religious types who roll up in a DeLorean promising time travel to either a nostalgic past or a pristine future (James KA Smith)

One of the biggest traps earnest Christians fall into in their search for authentic expressions of church, is to follow the siren call of those who offer an expression of church that no one in this era has yet experienced. And won’t experience, unless you do church their way.  It’s a Back to the Future church, and like the movies (and hoverboards by 2015) it’s a fiction.

What’s pitched to you by those offering a Back to the Future church is either a golden age from the past, or a golden age of the church sometime down the line. The past or the future. Never the present. There’s no example of that golden age in the present. That’s the one place where church just isn’t cutting it.

Except of course for the example that they are about to pitch to you, and take you along with, possibly even to be a leader in a movement that will change everything about church.

Because, as you are going to find out, that past church that’s been lost in the mists of time, or that future church, towards which we are all straining and desiring, is what they – and what you along with them if you sign up – can deliver. Their expression of church will nail it. It will be the expression of church that will set the template for how church is going to have to be in this post-Christian age.

It will be the evangelistic/just/pure/holy/compassionate church that no church in this current time has been. Perhaps in the past for sure, when things were different. And perhaps in the future when things will be different. Few people at the moment can see it, but they can.

And of course soon you will be able to see it too. Few do see it, but you are one of the insightful ones who will.  Yes you. We’ve seen something in you that could hack it with this new bracing, difficult, but ultimately rewarding way of doing church that will burn off the dross. Who wouldn’t sign up to that?

While both “nostalgia” and “pristine” calls have been bugs in the church system throughout its history, it is especially prevalent today. There’s been a well documented “reset” going on among evangelicals for the past two decades, especially as it pushed into the more progressive emergent and more conservative emerging streams.

But there’s been a significant push by many a young Reformed type back to Rome in recent years, something that the Mortification of Spin podcast picked up on recently. Well worth a listen. And both desires betray that push for a Back to the Future church.

The narrative that led to it goes like this: The hard secular cultural push has either led to or accompanied the decline of the church in West. This decline is getting up a head of steam and we’d better do something radical or things will all fall apart.

The solution is one of two extremes: a clean out of the old in order to prepare for the future.  Or a push back to the old, the very old, and a return to the one church that Jesus always intended, especially the one church prior to the Reformation (a tenuous claim at the best of times).

But take note of that warning from James Smith from his excellent book (his best yet?), On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts.

There is no back to the future church that is going to be the Killer App or the plug and play that will sort out the problems your current expression of church has.  Or indeed the wider church in general. Learn from church history. Even the movements that have done amazing things are generally temporal in their white hot zeal. It’s as if God has put a bug in the system to ensure that we don’t get too ahead of ourselves, and that our aching desire is for HIS kingdom to come, and not our empire to be built. Surely not eh?

And I say all of this as someone who was involved in an integral way with The Crowded House network of churches in the UK, which has recently come under the spotlight of the wider evangelical movement due to the exposure of its leader, Steve Timmis.

And as someone who was theologically well educated, and well-versed in church systems, prior to entering it, I’d have to say, I fell hard for what was on offer when that DeLorean pulled up to the kerb. I was looking at the church and its struggles in the secular world, seeing its failure to move beyond the crowd it was already reaching (and losing), and wondering where to from here.

Nek minnit – up rolls Marty McFly (or was it Doc Brown) in a cruisy DeLorean, offering me a way through the mess and morass, to the way the church should have been, and the way they church once more can be.


hop in kids

If only…

If only…

A lot rides on that “if only”.  There’s a whole bunch of stuff the church could have been and could have done, if only it had done a certain whole bunch of other stuff.  What kind of stuff? Why the kind of stuff the theologically astute, and often ecclesiastically suspicious, McFly and Doc are offering you right here and right now. Things  that your current expression of church could only dream about.

Yet dreams they remain.  It’s a bit like any totalising system. Pesky things like people and their foibles and weaknesses get in the way of the dream. And also like totalising systems, body counts become acceptable in order for the dream to be realised.

Take it from me, if the body count reads any other number than ZERO, then run as far as you can from the group that is courting you.  And if you are already in that group, and you have, sadly, been involved in racking up that body count, repent, repair and run.

As it was, the pristine nature of The Crowded House proved too much for me and my family.  Or more to the point, we as a family proved too little for it.  We ended up being part of that body count.

Not to say of course that it did not have something deep and meaningful and lovely to offer.  Of course, it did, otherwise no one would sign up. It’s like saying an abusive person, or a narcissist, is recognisable by their evil facial features and poor dress sense. Oh and they smoke.  That’s not how these things work. We’re suckered in by the good stuff.

Yet the “back to the future’ that we were part of has, sadly, ended up more like the destructive version of Hill Valley during Biff Tannen’s reign in the second Back to the Future movie.  Same place, some furniture, totally different vibe. Somewhere you don’t want to be.


How bad was the vibe?  Well I have recently been interviewed by a national safeguarding body in the UK about our involvement in that expression of church. And that was fairly harrowing. Revisiting what we went through left me exhausted. And from my conversations with others who have taken part, it drags a lot of stuff up to the surface that needs some serious emotional time and energy to process.

The takeaway point: Any model of church that promises an amazing community for the people of God, yet sacrifices those same people of God on the altar of that hope, is a dud. It’s only nostalgic or pristine because it has photoshopped the body count out of the picture.

And that wasn’t just my experience. The safeguarding body is busy hearing cases from many people who also were lured by that pristine promise, only to be cast off as not good enough, not worthy enough, or not committed enough to whatever it was that they were headed towards. And then to never be heard from again. The water closes over them as they sink below the waves, and the next round of fresh meat is sought.

The stories I hear show me that I got off lightly. Rather than creating a people of God who can do church and do church well, it’s left a lot of people scared to even go back to church at all.  And when they do, they make sure it’s the safest, most vanilla expression of church they can find where they are not asked to participate beyond turning up. Who would blame them?

You see, the pristine future pitched by so many ecclesiastical Marty McFlys never arrives. The nostalgic past we’re beckoned to by so many funky Doc Browns never existed.

And unless we’re grounded in the cold hard fact that the church is a mixed bunch through time and space, getting some things right and some things wrong in every generation, we’re going to be swayed by all sorts of utopias. And the results will be a mess.

Fact: We’re not looking to create a utopia on earth. We’re waiting to receive a kingdom that is being brought to us by the one who is the past and the future, the Alpha and the Omega.

And besides all this, here’s some truth about those DeLoreans. I grew up in Northern Ireland. Every other week on the trip to Belfast in the family car, we would drive pass The DeLorean car manufacturing plant. For some crazy idea John DeLorean thought that 1980s Northern Ireland going through “The Troubles” as it was, would be a good place to set up his car business. It wasn’t.

And what did we see as we drove past the factory?  Hundreds of the things. Rows and rows of unwanted, unloved DeLoreans, all in steel metal grey.  Looking for all the world like a failed business venture. Extras from a movie, who’d missed out on the big part they knew they should have been offered. Unable even to gather dust, as the Ulster mizzle settled on them day after day. There was no magic there, that’s for sure. It was all a chimera. But for a piece of fiction called Back to the Future most of you would never have heard of a DeLorean.

You see, that’s what the church of the nostalgic past, and the church of the pristine future are. They are pieces of fiction. Hollywood fantasy.

And there is no magic in those siren calls from the Back to the Future church leaders.  Resist those calls if they come your way. Why? Because you can be sure if someone pulls up in a DeLorean and beckons you join them, it will be Biff Tannen, not Marty or Doc who is ushering that call. And we know where that ends up.



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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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