catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 11 :: 2003.05.23 — 2003.06.05


The Church must change or die

Christianity as we know it is dying. It is dying along with the Enlightenment, the nation-state, and organized religion because the modern era is over; postmodernism is settling in. Those who haven't been paying attention will fade out of history, just as Christianity is about to do.

That is, basically, the thought behind Brian McLaren's book, A New Kind of Christian. The book has received quite a bit of attention since it was published in 2001. The idea that the Christian church is fading fast and must turn postmodern or die does not sit well with generations for whom postmodernism represents all that is going wrong with the world: liberalism, relativism, heresy, higher criticism.

For others, A New Kind of Christian lights the path to a new way of being a Christian, a way that does not need labels, dry doctrines, stingy definitions, or cultural warfare. This new way embraces the mystical rather than the doctrinal, sees evangelism as a dance toward God rather than a sales pitch with four spiritual laws; it looks backward for a sense of history and continuity rather than toward progress, souls won, and the rapture. This new way is relational instead of individual, organic not organizational, ritual and artistic rather than marketed and industrial.

The book is really a story, or a conversation between a pastor and a high school teacher who quickly become friends. It begins as the pastor has a midlife crisis and is looking to get out of vocational ministry, while the teacher has already left it. They meet at a school function, and as they talk the teacher realizes Dan, the pastor, isn't having a midlife crisis but is stuck between the modern and the postmodern eras. The teacher, Neo, the new kind of Christian, is ready to light the way to postmodernity. And this is where I begin having problems with this book.

McLaren sets up his fictional scenario and promptly begins avoiding questions he seems to not want to answer. What does this midlife crisis have to do with living at crossroads of the modern and postmodern? Are we really living at this juncture? Did this same thing happen to priests as Western civilization moved from ancient to medieval to modern? But that is not really the point. The world is changing, as it always does, but why does it seem to cause so many problems for these two baby boomers and why must Christians respond by being Christians in a new way? Is that even possible? And why is McLaren so angry with moderns? Neo says, "I know that moderns don't have much capacity for poetry, having been enslaved to modern technical correctness for so long."

In another conversation, Dan proposes to Neo, "Let's say that most modern churches can't or won't handle complexity. Let's say they won't accept anyone into their fellowship who does not already live by their moral code. Where does that lead? . . . maybe a hundred years from now, the descendants of my fellow evangelicals today will be like the Amish of tomorrow, but instead of maintaining 1850s German culture, they'll perpetuate 1950s American culture."

This kind of modern bashing and straw man beating continue through the book, but despite such flaws, McLaren raises questions and issues that Christians should address. Our experience of Christianity is tied deeply to our culture. Just take a look a television preachers. Often they sound exactly like Jesus-y daytime television psychologists. Neo says, "Sometimes your radio preachers seem so concerned about "saving America" that you'd think the gospel existed for the sake of American culture. Sometimes, I think, religion loses its soul in this way, and culte [French for "a religion"] simply becomes a facet of culture."

In many ways, religion serves our cultural needs. The Modern period sought to quantify and understand: think Galileo, Kepler, Pasteur, Einstein. And Christians sought to do the same with God: think systematic theology, Christology, angelology, eschatology, Ryrie, Packer, seminary. As society heads toward postmodernism, in response, McLaren says, so must the church. As community, relationship, experience, mystery, history, and many other postmodern values take precedence over modern ones, the Church must adapt. So quit saying, "If you were to die today, are you 100 percent sure you would go to heaven?" and instead say, "Let's go for some coffee and talk about God and spirituality and see where it leads us."

McLaren's right. Christianity may become irrelevant if it continues going door to door asking people if they're 100 percent sure they'll go to heaven, when most people don't believe in the same heaven Christians do. (Though McLaren doesn't explain why it is terrible when the church caters to modernists. He says it's not a matter of right or wrong but of appropriateness, yet, in this book, moderns are inappropriate and wrong.) Modernist concepts are hindering Christians and non-Christians from knowing God. McLaren says the ideas that the longer your "quiet time" the more spiritual you become and that certain spiritual techniques lead to a closer relationship with God, along with today's over-individualized praise and worship craze are not helping people experience communal worship.

McLaren's postmodern solutions may be helpful to the many Christians who want to know God but can't stand church. Church should be more than a weekly gathering, McLaren says, it should be villages of Christ. Preaching the path to heaven isn't as important as developing followers of Jesus. Winning souls isn't as important as redeeming the world, discipling nations. Don't market the church, he says, just be real and genuine, like Jesus.

A New Kind of Christian offers a lot for readers to think about, and McLaren's group Emergent offers a place to find more information and, if you like the book, like-minded sojourners. McLaren's ideas are thought-provoking, inspiring, and needed, if sometimes contradictory and incomplete. I look forward to reading his follow-up, The Story We Find Ourselves in: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian.

Discussion topic: The postmodern church

In what ways do you see the Church adapting successfully to the challenges of postmodernism? In what ways is the Church not adapting well?

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