This is the last in a series of three responses to Brian McLaren's book, A New Kind of Christian (Jossey-Bass), followed by some concluding reflections from McLaren.
Recently I received this email from a youth pastor:
Tony, Thanks for your advice … I am kinda discouraged because I have been finding a ton of opposition to the whole postmodern movement—people are just misinformed, from that they misunderstand, and then they base their whole view of judgment on one thing. I have given several people in my church (including my pastor) a copy of McLaren's New Kind of Christian. My friends love it, but everyone else hates it. I've heard everything from "liberal" to "satanic" to "heresy." They're all looking at it from modern eyes. They accept some of it, but, as you would guess, they are stuck on the Bible issue and the "one-way-ness" of Christ. They see the book as taking a stance that it obviously does not take. They say that it is submerged in culture instead of trying to minister to culture. Is this normal, or is it just that I'm in the South?
I have had several talks with my pastor (we usually agree on most things), and they haven't been great. He just told me that he could not support or allow me to use my budgeted money to go to the Emergent Village conference in Houston [at which McLaren spoke]. So that leaves me, a minister who is also married and a college student, to come up with that kind of money. I want to go very badly, but I just don't think we can afford it. I feel like I'm alone and maybe I missed something! Hopefully you can relate. I truly feel like I have finally found my faith again, but everyone else seems bent on destroying it. Sorry if I rambled. Thanks for your comments. Nate
If it weren't about Brian McLaren's book, one might think this email came from McLaren's book, for it is the very dilemma of Nate's email that swirls around A New Kind of Christian—both between and beyond its covers. Within a number of evangelical organizations, the book has stirred passionate responses, pro and con.
So what's the fuss about? Postmodernism? That's one way to frame the debate over A New Kind of Christian, as Nate's email does, and McLaren himself seems to invite that response. After all, doesn't he refer throughout the book to the contrast between the mindset of modernity—which dictates the way the church is currently doing business—and postmodernity?
Yes, but … postmodern is a term that has been bandied about in the evangelical world in a promiscuous way. If you live in a city of 50,000 people, there's almost sure to be a "postmodern" worship service at one or two of the evangelical churches in town. Here's how you tell: the service is on Sunday night; the speaker/pastor is under 40; the worship space is dark, and there are lots of candles on wrought-iron stands; and images from ancient and medieval Christianity are used as the background for PowerPoint presentations. There's another way to tell: they probably refer to themselves as "postmodern" on their website.
And books written by pastors and consultants about "doing church in a postmodern world" are nothing new, nor are treatments of postmodernism by Christian academics. Leonard Sweet and Stanley Grenz have garnered thousands of readers in the pastorate and seminaries. Theirs are thoughtful cultural and philosophical studies.
McLaren, however, is saying something much different. He goes beyond promoting a change in pastoral technique. He's challenging pastors to rethink their message, not just how they deliver the message. He's not writing about a change in context, he's writing about changing the content. In fact, he's doing precisely what the founders of evangelicalism did: he's suggesting that in certain vital ways, the church has become alienated from the source of its life—that evangelicalism, a reform movement with a profound impact, has itself hardened into an establishment deeply in need of reform.
Dan, the evangelical pastor in McLaren's fictional telling, feels like "I'm losing the whole framework for my faith." Neo, a Presbyterian pastor-cum-Episcopalian layman, tells him, "You have a modern faith, a faith that you developed in your homeland of modernity. But you're immigrating into a new land, a postmodern world." And from that point on, the two discuss most, if not all, of the issues that evangelicals have made central. At every point, Neo tries to push Dan beyond the confines of evangelicalism, into new land.
On the Bible, Neo says, "What if the real issue is not the authority of the text … but rather the authority of God? What if the issue isn't a book that we can interpret with amazing creativity but rather the will of God, the intent of God, the desire of God, the wisdom of God—maybe we could say the kingdom of God?"
On exclusivism: "Look, my understanding of the gospel tells me that religion is always a mixed bag, whether it's Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism. Some of it reflects people's sincere attempts to find truth, and some of it represents people's attempts to evade the truth through hypocrisy … Look, Dan, I believe Jesus is the Savior, not Christianity. Is that so bad?" (This provokes Dan to respond, "Damn You!")
Salvation: "I don't think it's our business to prognosticate the eternal destinies of anyone else."
Evangelism: "Stop counting conversions, because our whole approach to conversion is so, I don't know, mechanistic and consumeristic and individualistic and controlling. Instead, I'd encourage us to count conversations, because conversation implies a real relationship, and if we make our goal to establish relationships and engage conversations, I know that conversions will happen. But if we keep trying to convert people, we'll simply drive them away. They're sick of our sales pitches and our formulas."
At one point, Pastor Dan has the thought that many evangelicals have when mentally agreeing with one or more of the above statements: "Oh no. I'm becoming liberal! I said to myself, with an almost physical shiver of fear." The problem that Pastor Dan and many like him are beginning to face is that Neo is voicing some possible post-evangelical positions.
As a minister to youth and young adults—and thus to their parents—I am committed to the depth and the riches of Scripture and the testimony of the church. Much of what passes for "postmodern" youth ministry is mere gimmickry, a pale substitute for genuine instruction and discipleship. But I am also one among a growing host of young pastors of evangelical heritage and training who are desperate for some post-evangelical voices to articulate theological positions on biblical authority, on critical realism, on ecumenism.
Becoming liberal is not the issue. The issue is that both liberal and evangelical expressions of Protestantism are based on modern epistemology and, as such, are running out of gas in a postmodern world. The answer is not retrenchment. Neither is the answer changing the frame around the picture. The picture itself needs to be redrawn, with new colors and new media. It might look different—no, it will. And instead of fearing the new expressions that will follow evangelicalism, we should release Brian McLaren and others to follow the Spirit's leading and begin to paint.
Tony Jones is the author of Postmodern Youth Ministry: Exploring Cultural Shift, Creating Holistic Connections, Cultivating Authentic Community (Zondervan/Youth Specialties), a senior fellow at Emergent (www.emergentvillage.com), and the minister to youth and young adults at the Colonial Church of Edina, Minnesota.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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