Wineskins Archive

February 11, 2014

Book Review: “More Ready than You Realize” (Sep-Oct 2002)

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by Deron Smith
September – October 2002

When I’m eating a juicy steak and a baked potato smothered in butter, I’m in a quandary: on the one hand, I want to savor each bite. On the other hand, I’d like to devour it. Either way, I’m disappointed when I get full.

Reading Brian McLaren’s book, More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix (Zondervan, 2002), was like that meal. It was gourmet yet simple. I wanted to savor each page and at the same time was compelled by the fine flavor to stuff the next page in as fast as I could.When I finished I was disappointed. I wanted more.

McLaren has served up a fresh, stimulating book, a full-course feast that places evangelism within the context of a dynamic, trusting relationship between the Christian and the non church person (as McLaren refers to those who are not Christians). As an appetizer, McLaren tells us in his introduction that a non church postmodern person may be turned off by both evangelism–a word with a good heart, in spite of its dirty reputation–and by Christians themselves. McLaren rightly implies that it is not simply evangelism that has the dirty reputation; it is Christians. Evangelistic methods as well as Christians themselves often close the door on non church postmoderns. McLaren insightfully shows that most methods of evangelism are constructed from modern frameworks using modern terminology expressing modern attitudes. Non church postmodern people are turned off by the attitudes and assumptions of modernism, which, based on rational, scientific constructs, too often gush easy, black and white answers to complex questions.The gospel doesn’t sound like good news to many when it is presented as a five-step plan in a pamphlet or as a commodity to be purchased, like insurance. How are non church people supposed to feel about conversion if it’s about closing a deal or “winning” an argument, or a soul? Un-Christian Christian attitudes may be even worse. McLaren claims that many people are seeking spiritual fulfillment and are open to dialog about faith. Dialog, conversations between people where each is heard and understood without being judged, is highly valued in the postmodern ethos.

Since many non church people perceive Christians to be closed-minded and judgmental, they find no safe place for conversation about spiritual things. To introduce us to a postmodern seeker, McLaren tells readers about Alice, a university student he met at a book signing. He helped her load a heavy, awkward harp into her van, which gave her the opportunity to ask about the genuineness of his Christian faith. Their brief conversation at her van was extended through a series of emails. What developed was a spiritual friendship, a dance where two people are moving fluidly, creatively, and uniquely to music provided by the symphony of the mystery and the mundane in life. McLaren gave Alice space to question, criticize, wonder, and feel.

Many seekers have poked a toe in the water, asking questions or making statements similar to the ones McLaren’s friend Alice does, only to find the waters frigid. What postmodern seeker wants to jump in icy waters where criticism and skepticism offend and where answers to their questions are frozen and packaged like halibut steaks? Through the framework of his email correspondence with Alice, McLaren accomplishes two things. First, the emails from Alice, which McLaren includes word-for-word (typos and all) are the primary window into the mind, heart, and soul of a non church postmodern.He selects a few phrases from her letters to expound on the different attitudes, emotions, values, and perceptions commonly held by postmodern non church people. I felt like I got to know Alice almost as much as I did McLaren. Second, McLaren shows us the kind of spiritual, intellectual, and emotional posture we ought to have as we seek to relate with and connect people to Jesus.

It is important to understand that McLaren is not trying to offer an evangelistic approach to reach everyone. He concentrates on post-moderns who are open-minded, seeking, questioning. McLaren is certainly not going to offer any more five-step outlines or predictable formulas. He does, however, advocate that we have an essential Christian identity from which our attitude and mission flow. McLaren says Christians must be humble learners who show respect for non church people. This attitude will be manifested as we truly listen to others and learn to ask good questions and make the most of opportunities to serve.

McLaren’s analysis of modern evangelistic methods caused me to reflect on experiences I’ve had. One was in Bristol, England, where I passed by a “marketplace” preacher standing on a bench in front of a trendy shopping mall. Streams of people were shuttling about and he was preaching at the top of his lungs (he had no p.a. system, thankfully). I happened to walk by him as he said something like, “If you do not believe in Jesus Christ you are living in sin.When you die in that condition, you will live forever in hell!” Any truth in that message is lost because of the approach. Here was a stranger standing above the scores of passersby bellowing bad news. No one stopped to listen. Did he expect people to fall on their faces in front of him, confessing and repenting and begging forgiveness? I couldn’t think of any occasions when Jesus preached a message like that to the masses. I could, however, think of several occasions when He scalded the self-righteous religious folks with such hot language. I entered the mall, embarrassed for him and for Christians everywhere.

Another experience I had was through a friendship with a white South African who had seen Christianity at its worst in apartheid. Encounters he had with Christians cemented his disdain for their faith, as he experienced just what we’ve described above: closed-minded, judgmental hypocrites who wanted to convert people to their way of life. He wanted no part of such a “life.” It’s no surprise, then, that, despite being an intelligent, enjoyable person, he was not a seeker.

Through shared experiences at school functions, meals, and common outdoor interests, a dear friendship was formed between his family and my close fellowship of Christian friends and mission teammates. He and I had lunch together on occasion and discussed our worldviews, sharing openly, unafraid of the other’s questions or faith. I remember how surprised he was when I agreed with him that Christians had made lots of messes in the church’s history, that many Christians were indeed offensive –even to me–in the way they seemed to see non-believers as the enemy (which made Christians an enemy also) or as prey (which made Christians predators). While my South African friend does not yet believe, he is at least now seeking.

I recently heard about a Christian who had tried for months to lead a friend to Christ but was without success. She was despairing and on the brink of letting go of the friendship. This troubled me: do we form spiritual friendships with people to lead them to Jesus only? Certainly that is what we ultimately want to see. What about the “sinners” that Jesus often hung out with? Do you think all of them put their faith in Him? Did He not serve and feed and heal even those who wanted only the physical benefit He offered? It seems to me that as we follow our Model we will be friends with people just because we want to extend God’s love to them. As Paul reminds us in 1 Cor. 3,we plant and water, but God gives the growth.To use another metaphor, I will try to be a matchmaker and introduce people to Jesus, but I will leave it up to the other person and the Lord to exchange marriage vows.

Postmodern seekers admire humility, says McLaren, and asking questions is one of the best ways to show it. McLaren often answers Alice’s questions with questions, and repeatedly asks questions of the reader. He also shares that he has not always said “just the right thing” and that some of the people with whom he forges spiritual friendships never turn their lives over to Jesus. He establishes that he is choreographically challenged. I laughed out loud at his self-debasing description of his physical dancing (in)ability, but his evangelism dance is poetry in motion. McLaren’s use of scripture (such as Acts 10 and 2 Cor. 5:17-21), his personal experience, his correspondence with Alice, and his philosophical insight make for an exhilarating dance style. He is also not afraid to share part of the reality of the evangelism dance: sometimes we inadvertently step on toes. The only point of contention with the book, for me, was McLaren’s discussion of conversion as process rather than a one-time event. He argues (though he might not like me to use such a modern legal term) that conversion is often mysterious and that it is possible for a person to not know the point in his life when he/she is saved. While I do agree with some of his process theology (salvation is spoken of in past, present, and future tenses), there seems to me to be much more emphasis in scripture on the event of salvation/conversion. Is there not a point at which a person must say “Yes” to Jesus? McLaren is right to preach the mysteries of God’s grace, of faith, of Jesus, of the Bible.The frequent focus on the mysteries, as beautiful as they may be, can actually blur the many other aspects of relationship with God that He reveals to us with clarity. Not everything is shrouded in mystery; some things are indeed black and white. With the above disclaimer in mind, I urge you not to get bogged down in elements of the book you don’t agree with. Savor the bite. Enjoy the warmth. Move to the music. If McLaren’s work had been a song instead of a book, I would have liked it loud.

And, Lord help us all, I probably would have danced.New Wineskins

Deron Smith is pursuing a Ph.D. in theology at Trinity College in Bristol, England. He was a missionary in Uganda,1994-2002. He and his wife, Becca, have three daughters, Abby, Makayla, and Toria. Contact Deron about this review.

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