The name Alister McGrath may or may not be familiar to you. I try to read everything that he writes. For the last twenty years, McGrath has been known as a person with great acumen in evangelical circles. He writes as a scientist, a theologian, a philosopher, and a knowledgeable evangelical Christian scholar. We have reviewed a number of his writings over the years and highly recommended each one, including A Passion for Truth and a biography of J. I. Packer.
McGrath personifies our challenge to know the word, the world, our surroundings, and how to communicate to this generation. He shows that Christianity is indeed a religion of the mind and heart founded on the word of God. In this book, he attempts to help the reader understand the tremendous change that has taken place in twentieth century relating to Christianity, but also in religion in general.
We are hearing the echoes of many disturbing yet challenging questions from numerous sources: Will Christianity survive and if so, what will it look like? What about religion in general and the church in particular? What does the future look like? Of course to answer those kinds of questions we need to understand not only where we have come from but also how we have arrived where we are. From that vantage, we can look at the trends and project where we might be headed.
For example, there is definitely a renewed or new interest in spiritual things. However, the interest is far different today from what we have seen in the past. It is multifaceted. Part of the resurgence stems from the rejection of the Enlightenment’s logical, rationalistic, and scientific approach to life. Another part of it stems from modernity’s attempt to privatize religion and remove it from the public square. Finally, some interest springs from a type of cynicism present in western civilization about all kinds of things: reason, logic, organized religion, televangelists, and distrust in church leaders.
McGrath poses a haunting question at the outset of his assessment. “Might the erosion of confidence in the institution of the church lead to a corresponding erosion of confidence in the Christian faith? Or might it open the door to new forms of Christianity emerging in the west, which deliberately play down the institutional aspects?” When coupled with the realization that the west is no longer the numerical center of the Christian faith because it has shifted to the developing world, we have to ask what is the future of Christianity, as we know it?
As McGrath so clearly points out, we must realize that “all is not well in the household of faith of the west, supremely the mainline Protestant denominations.” Though modernism subtly led us to either reject religion or to assign it to a private area of life, we cannot ignore religion today. One of the problems we face in dealing with people of Middle Eastern countries is they do not separate their religion from the rest of life. All is not simply political for them, as we attempt to make it in the west. As a result, many people who have responsibilities to fight evil and terror do not understand that strategy has to include religion as well as politics and economics.
What are some of the things we should anticipate and then how can we prepare to respond to them? For example, based on a present trend a global religion is rising which is an “amalgam, constructed to taste” of bits and pieces from different religions. There is a continued diminishing of Christian influence on culture, as demonstrated in European countries. Also, there’s a resurgence of Christianity in Africa countries. The global interface of Christianity-Islam is also an important dynamic.
From there McGrath talks about the death of American denominationalism. He quotes George Hunter who points out, “the real issue is how well churches are able to adapt to their host populations and communicate their faith in ways that connect with where people are.” This calls up the question, of “whether or not the denomination has any real future.” Since “evangelicalism” is transdenominational, should not the Christians of the future attempt to be transdenominational? Is there a valid place for denominations, as we have known them? He points out that we are seeing less and less demonstrated loyalty to denominations. Becoming like the culture in which we live has brought much of this about. The question is how far can we go with that? How can we keep it from leading us from the path of truth and the gospel? What should the standard of churches be today? The business model? The marketing strategies of the world around us? “The McDonaldization of Christianity” as McGrath calls it or the dumbing down of the Christian faith?
In chapter four, McGrath lists a number of challenges that are confronting Christianity. First there is the threat of fundamentalism, driven by the fear that secularism is out to eliminate religion. Also, there is the new fault line between Christianity and Islam. With Islam growing so rapidly globally, what will be its impact on Christianity? There is new ecumenical spirit that emphasizes putting aside differences, not only theological ones, but religious ones in general. Therefore, we face the challenge centered on “what forms of Christianity are likely to emerge from the complex forces that will shape the twenty-first century.”
With the widening gap between academic theology and the everyday life of the church, the danger is going to be, who is equipped to deal with all of these issues? How do we not throw out the baby with the bath water? How do we avoid a wholesale sellout of our Christian religion? How can biblical theology relate to the postmodern theology of today?
This is a must-read book for leaders and teachers. Part of our role is to help people understand the word in the context of today’s world. McGrath has plowed the ground for us. This book is more descriptive than prescriptive but that’s how the process works.