Church 2.0

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.

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.

 

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”.

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