Church on the Other Side (by Brian McLaren)

Over the last few years I have very much appreciated Brian McLaren’s thoughtful and challenging books about Christianity and post-modernism. He writes intelligently and convincingly about problems that are encountered in local churches by many of us in the last few decades of the 20th century and perhaps even more so in the last fifteen years.

It’s not that God has changed, or that a relationship with Jesus is no longer important. It’s not even that there’s anything specific ‘wrong’ with the majority of local churches. As McLaren observes, there are many who grow closer to God and find inspiration for the week ahead through traditional or structured church services. Some do tremendous outreaches into the community, either through evangelistic meetings or social groups or perhaps through providing food for the needy. Hard-worked pastors offer support to people who are struggling and a weekly church service may be a beacon of hope for some folk.

Nonetheless, there has been a growing dissatisfaction with local church, particularly in the evangelical wing, for as long as I can remember. I’m in my fifties now, with a great deal of church experience behind me; unlike some, I have no plans to give up on the local church entirely. Yet a Sunday service is far from a high spot in my week. As an Introvert, it’s hard for me to find God or to think when there are other people around me. I’m not musical, and many of the songs used are trite or repetitive. As for sermons… yes there’s an occasional gem or ‘golden thread’, but if I have to listen to someone, no matter how good a speaker, talking for forty minutes or more, I almost lose the will to live.

I say this not to criticise; I recognise that this structure and the long talk is of great value to many. But I am far from alone in feeling that the weekly gatherings should be so much more; and that informal or smaller gatherings during the week are of considerably more value in our path to love God and other people.

Brian McLaren has managed to sum up where the problems lie in this excellent book which is geared primarily to pastors and other church leaders. He sees - as he has said so often - that the modernist era, from approximately 1500-2000 AD, has drawn to a close. We have much to be thankful for in the industrial and technological revolution, including much greater understanding of health conditions, longer life expectancy, instant communication, and of course new means of spreading the Gospel in places where it used to be considered impossible. Modernism with its structure, logical and rational explanations was necessary - and the church (at least the Protestant part of it) adjusted to meet the needs of those who were modernist in outlook.

But we’re now in an era of flexible thought, of compromise and (one hopes) tolerance and understanding. More and more people are aware that there is ‘something’ beyond what they can see and touch. My point of view is as valid as yours. Story-telling and art communicate far more effectively than logic and absolutism. And the church needs to adjust. Not to change the core beliefs - those are set in Scripture - but to look at ways of communicating with today’s teenagers, and young people and also the middle-aged such as myself who have become disillusioned and jaded.

First, McLaren suggests we need to ‘debug’ the church of modernist viruses. That’s not to say we need to get rid of everything. For all its faults, there is much that’s right or good about the local church. But there are also things people hang onto: consumerism, individualism, reductionism, and more. He explains why these are not Biblical, although a natural result of rigid modernism. He offers alternatives - gentleness, positivity, and so on - which we do well to develop as the church inevitably changes over the next few decades.

It’s not an easy read; I personally preferred the pseudo-fictional trilogy starting with ‘A New Kind of Christian’, and also his lengthy ‘Generous Orthodoxy’, which explains where he comes from, with anecdotes and some light-hearted asides. This book, by contrast, is rather dryer; I couldn’t read more than about nine or ten pages a day, and often had to read a paragraph twice as I’d not taken it in.

Nonetheless, there are some excellent points made in this book, and I wish it could be made compulsory reading for pastors and church leaders everywhere! You might not agree with all of it - or even most of it - but there is much that’s worth considering and discussing, even if the conclusion is that nothing needs to change.

At the end of each chapter there are some excellent questions for group discussion - so this could be a good book to use as a study guide for a small group over twelve or thirteen weeks.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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