The Church on the Other Side


When I first came across Reinventing the Church around 1999 I knew I wanted to get the book (especially after reading a favourable review from NEXT WAVE) . So my friend Daniel got it from Bookstore and sent it to me. This was my first Brian McLaren book which blew me away (I’mean challenged me and comforted me at the same time!) Those days he was an unknown.

Here’s how it looked like (before the revised edition) I think there’s still one copy at the Glad Sounds Resource Centre near my house 🙂 It’s interesting to compare the reviews on this book in Amazon with the Church on the Other Side.

Anyway, I was asked by Kairos Reseach Centre to write a book review on a book I was passionate about guess which one I chose (this was my maiden book review so I’m still very romantic about it *grin*)? Check out the cover of the magazine …


Anway, why all this little history? I guess I’m gearing up how would I respond (in my view) to questions like “What is emergent?” , “Why are you engaged in this?”, “Seeing as one of the emergent values is missional, to whom is your mission?” kind of questions. Way before “emerging church”, “emergent” or even “postmodern” became buzz words, or labels or whatever .. it was simply a genuine resonance with ideas and questions and possible directions to move forward. Of course, now I might explore the word “post-colonial”, “post-western”, or even “global” to engage further in conversation … but then words are meant to help, clarify, stimulate not make things too difficult 🙂

I liked the book because it gave me a picture of how a pastor “reflectively” works through the pressing challenges before him and doesn’t want to be boxed up in pre-fixed answers or pre-packaged mindsets. I gave one away two weeks ago to a fellow pastor friend who was open to share what’s going on in the head and the heart in the midst of challenging ministry situations. I felt this book might open up some possibilities or hope (which it gave me)

So here’s my maiden book review written in 2002. I’ll probably follow up with a second thoughts kind of post later.

The Church on the Other Side
Brian D. McLaren Zondervan, 2000

The author of The Church on the Other Side is not pastor of a mega church; neither has he written books that flood our bookstores. Yet, I believe he has something worthwhile to say that is worth listening to. Unlike purpose driven Rick Warren or seeker targeted Bill Hybels, Brian McLaren sees himself as a “reflective practitioner … focused on the down and dirty of doing ministry, but trying to have a high altitude understanding of when, where, how, and why we are doing it.” This book gives us a glimpse into his thinking and provides us with an opportunity to resonate with his passion for “doing ministry in the post modern matrix.”

His basic premise is simple: “if you have a new world, you need a new church.” But don’t misunderstand him, he’s not talking about forming new denominations or initiating new church movements or religious campaigns. He goes deeper. He defines “new” as new in kind but not in age. McLaren carefully points out, “We won’t need a new religion per se, but a new framework for our theology. Not a New Spirit, but a new spirituality. Not a new Christ, but a new Christian. Not a new denomination, but a new kind of denomination.” His focus is on changing our attitude towards change itself and carefully wrestling with what must change and what must not.

McLaren proposes that we are born in an age of a transition from Modernity to Post Modernity. He uses the analogy of “tectonic activity” which describes the constant but imperceptible movement of the large fractured plates of the earth’s crust. Once in a while, an earthquake occurs. Only then do we become aware of the unseen forces acting on the earth. Almost immediately, the changes in our world force us to admit that our “old maps” no longer fit into the new reality.
It may be said that human history is not unlike the physical earth in that it, too, is susceptible to ‘tectonic activity’, albeit of a different kind. The resulting ‘tectonic’ changes such as those sparked off by scientific discoveries and developments create new situations to which society must adapt.

For instance, think of the impact the automobile has had on the environment, the economy, the family unit, and even courtship and sexuality! Think of radio, air travel, birth control pills, antibiotics. Think of space travel, the personal computer, the Internet, genetic engineering … the list goes on! Even the cultural, political and religious realms are not as stable as we think.

How has the church fared in the face of all these developments? Has it been contented to remain “the way we’ve always been,” and assume that it is doing fine and make good progress using the ‘old maps’ of the past as guides to the new, post modern age? Or should it not, during this time of transition, respond by seeking creative solutions to new realities? In this regard, McLaren helps us by suggesting a 13 strategy framework for doing ministry in a fast changing world:

I Maximize Discontinuity.
2 Redefine Your Mission.
3 Practice Systems Thinking.
4 Trade up Your traditions for Tradition.
5 Resurrect Theology as Art and Science
6 Design a New Apologetic.
7 Learn A New Rhetoric.
8 Abandon Structures as They are Outgrown.
9 Save the Leaders.
10 Subsume Missions in Mission.
11 Look Ahead, Farther Ahead.
12 Enter the Post modern World Understand it, Engage it, Get Ready for a Revolution.
13 Add to the List.

Though McLaren writes from a North American context for a North American audience, he acknowledges that some of his reflections were stimulated by his contacts with Asians. After reading the book, I was pushed to think about what the whole discussion on “Post Modernity” means for us in Malaysia. Whether we follow the Western classification of Pre modern, Modern, and Post modern is up for debate. But one thing we do agree on is that we, in Malaysia, also live in a fast changing world.

Think of the social impact that is the result of our latest economic recession, the political uncertainties after the sacking of the former deputy prime minister and the religious climate since the last general elections. Think about the on going controversy concerning the status of Malaysia as an Islamic State; and the struggles and challenges Christian students in the universities must face as they are exposed to the sciences and to conflicting religious viewpoints. And of course, the recent September 11th incident has undoubtedly changed the world.
Closer to home, think of cell phones interrupting our worship services and Bible studies, the impact of satellite TV (ASTRO) on youth ministry, and the content of our conversations with our non Christian families,and friends. Those in urban churches must think through the demands of the marketplace for their time, attention and energy, and the resulting impact on church participation. We need to grapple with all these issues urgently and understand what the repercussions are, not just for the individual, but especially for the church.

As a young pastor turned church planter ministering in these times of fast changing realities (whether we call it post modern transition or not), I am challenged by McLaren’s book to reconsider many ‘sacred cows’ I’ve inherited in the course of my church life, seminary education, and interaction within the Malaysian Christian community in general. These ‘sacred cows’ include the search for the perfect church model/structure (usually with a “Big is better” mentality), or the particular evangelistic programme that will solve all our problems (usually copied wholesale), or some revival experience that will rev up the whole nation at one go (usually one mass event), or clinging on to a particular theology or tradition that is considered most faithful to God (most of the time without considering the differences in historical and cultural contexts).The list goes on! Certainly, there is much value in these things, and through them I have discovered helpful tools for ministry. My philosophy of ministry has also been expanded and my heart has been warmed by the passion behind these efforts.

And yet I am concerned that in our desperation to make things happen in our churches, we are tempted to grasp at any available answer or to resort to ‘fix it all’ solutions. However, the real answer lies in having a proper understanding of the momentous changes that are happening in the world today. Only then will we be able to develop an effective response that integrates theology, mission and church ministry. In this regard, McLaren’s book serves as an excellent resource for struggling pastors.


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