Book Review: The Church in Transition

church in transitionby The Rev. Dr. David Robson

The Church in Transition

Conder, T. (2006). The Church in Transition: The Journey of Existing Churches into the Emerging Culture. Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan.

One clear goal of Western Christianity is rooted in “saving souls. Today, “the Christians are the ones who need to be saved.” Sadly, this poignant statement is accurate. Sadly, live in denial of this reality. Tim Conder, a pastor, writes one of the moist insightful books I have read on the changing culture and church. In the early pages of this insightful book, he notes he feels like he is standing in a deep chasm between two towering cliffs. One is the church with its long history of effective ministries empowered by passionate faith in Jesus while the other cliff “is a radically changed world that reflectively finds the language, idioms, assumptions, and affirmations of the church – where it considers them at all – to be irrelevant, alien, impenetrable, or even oppressive. It’s my hope that this book will help existing churches bridge this gap.” (p. 13). 

In recent years, some books expounding the need for new models of Christian identity seem to focus on the decline of the church in Western Society.  Conder’s image is that we cannot live God in the rear view mirror. In turn, as he offers ideas to reconstruct the church, he notes that we must first deconstruct old models.  Likewise, he explores these issues with positive affirmations rather than reactions to old failed (failing) models. He notes that we must move beyond past models of structure, management etc. and begin to focus on spiritual development. For example:

While interest in spirituality remains high, persons in this emerging culture look to a variety of sources for spiritual meaning. Their spiritual searches often come with a wide range of prejudices (some accurate, others less so) about historical and institutional Christianity. Sadly, rather than seeing the church as the light of the world, many people in the emerging culture see the church primarily in terms of its grave moral inadequacies. (p. 20)

Emerging culture persons prefer spiritual worldviews to the mechanistic and scientific explanations of the previous age’s modernism. Though individualism remains a hallmark of American society, in the emerging culture the yearning for community is growing, as community experiences are viewed as a source of truth. (p. 20)

Conder also challenges society to consider the Bible as more than a cultural chaplain. He says scriptures are devalued when we use then to support our “selfish politics, consumerism, individualism, the American way, and our many other cultural agendas, its radical message is silenced.” (p.64) He talks of how we need to appreciate the radical message of Jesus and how we reduce scriptures and Jesus  as “invocations that bless our appetites and excuses our failures, instead of the redemptive story that shakes human culture to its core and offers freedom the lifestyle that is killing us.” (p. 64.)

One image that I found powerful is that of how we often view spiritual growth as a linear and progressive. He states:

A modern worldview built around the scientific method and propositional truth reinforces the burdensome assumption that one can measure spirituality and consistently discern gradations of spiritual maturity. Assuming spirituality to be linear can also place an inordinate amount of attention on specific personal sins. In this mindset, certain sins are deemed so heinous that they interrupt the linear progression of spiritual growth and take the sinner back to square one. (p. 107)

To counter this fallacy, he writes, and I think correctly, that: 

The advent of the emerging culture is causing a reformation—perhaps even a revolution—in the church’s understanding of spiritual formation. Instead of a compartmentalized spirituality that focuses on personal choices, we are seeing the growth of a new approach to spiritual formation that emphasizes a rule of life and rhythms of spiritual practices drawing from a vast array of Christian traditions. (p. 111)

Throughout this “gentle read” book Conder notes perspectives and prejudices of the existing and emerging church, offers challenges to church leaders and the church to move beyond conversations into deep dialogue and encourages all to move from beyond thoughts into action by way of clear thoughtful transitions. 

Finally, at the end thorough this excellent book Conder notes

We live in a culture that encourages fragmentation and compartmentalization, ripping our daily living apart from our spiritual convictions. We are emerging from a theologically reinforced, modern consensus that exalts individualism (over community), objective realities (over the subjectivity of experience), the compartmentalization of life (over a holistic perspective), and scientifically validated knowledge (over beauty and mystery). (p. 192)