This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series: ‘The Post-Evangelical’ (Tomlinson)
Nine down, one to go, in this chapter-by-chapter review of Dave Tomlinson’s The Post-Evangelical. Even though the book has been out for some time (published in the UK in 1995) I’ve gone back to it because it seems to have had a seminal importance in the ‘movement’ now known as the ’emerging church’.
In the final chapter, Tomlinson argues that post-evangelicalism is linked to the shift from the modern to the postmodern. The challenge is ‘how to express eternal truth in and through this emerging culture.’ Do we return to the old certainties, or do we engage more positively with the new situation? Only the latter will be effective as we seek to address those who actually live in the world of the postmodern.
What are the key characteristics of the postmodern world?-
- people reject truth claims that are expressed in the form of dogma or absolutes
- dignity is granted to emotions and intuition; people communicate through words linked to images and symbols
- people have a close affinity with the environment, and a strong sense of global unity
- people are suspicious of institutions, bureaucracies and hierarchies
- the spiritual dimension is once again talked about with great ease
Yet in many cases people are not turning to the church, but to some expression of the New Age. And this does not mean that they have rejected God in favour of satanic deception, but that they are actually more open to a life-changing encounter with Christ than many Christians.
The church needs to ask: why, in an age of increased interest in spirituality, the church itself is still so incredibly unpopular?
The evangelical gospel tends to be much too ‘refined’. It offers a package of answers about all aspects of life. But Christ and the apostles never systematised their teaching in this way. And when we offer a full alternative world to postmodern people, we are acting in the imperialistic style that they are actually rejecting. Brueggemann says that rather than offering a grand scheme of dogmatic truth, we must offer ‘a lot of little pieces out of which people can put life together in fresh configurations.’
The evangelical gospel is usually put in terms of, ‘We’ve got it – you need it!” But such dogmatic claims are unlikely to cut much ice with postmoderns. The language of journey is much more useful. We should not think of people as being either ‘in’ or ‘out’ but as already being on a spiritual journey, in which God has already been at work, albeit in an unrecognised way. Evangelism then becomes, not a sales operation, but an opportunity to ‘fund’ people’s spiritual journey. Of those who come to faith in Christ, only a minority nowadays can put a date on the experience: for most it is a process lasting several years.
Corresponding to this recognition of a faith journey in others, is the acknowledgement that we ourselves are on a journey. Our knowledge and experience are partial, and in a post-modern world it is crucial that we are honest about this.
Sadly, the organised church is the biggest stumbling-block to postmodern onlookers. They see and reject its adoption of the hierarchies, bureaucracies and power struggles of the outside world.
In the words of the German ecologist Rudolph Bahros: ‘When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.’
Comment: Well, I’ve come to the end of this small but stimulating book. Of course, it raises interesting and important questions, many of which are still relevant in 2008. Perhaps the most important question is, What is of lasting truth and value in our evangelical heritage, and what needs to be changed in order to address the needs today’s culture? But Tomlinson, in my view, has not simply moved beyond evangelicalism, but has diminished, confused and contradicted it in so many ways that his approach may fairly be characterised as ‘ex-evangelical’ rather than ‘post-evangelical’. He claims to have respect for the Scriptures, but where he has appealed to them at all in this book it is in a largely opportunistic way. Many of his descriptions of evangelical attitudes and behaviours are caricatures drawn from his fundamentalist upbringing or his time spent with the charismatic house-church movement. He has given us very little idea of what the new post-evangelical Christianity might look like. But he has demonstrated that, despite his appeal to ‘eternal truth’, in his view post-evangelicalism would be very different, in substance as well as style, from the evangelicalism with which he appears so exasperated. Of course we should understand culture, and understand it much better than perhaps we have done in the past. But we need to learn how to address the unchanging gospel to the culture, rather than derive it from the culture.