Thursday, 19 April 2012

Mission Implausible - Book Review

I've decided to stick a few book reviews up on the blog.  Some of them were written a while ago.  This one relates to a book that is now sadly out of print.  Shame.  It's a good 'un.  Still might be possible to pick one up second hand.  Anyhow, here's the review.

Duncan MacLaren, Mission Implausible: Restoring Credibility to the Church (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2004)

The latest edition of Religious Trends from Peter Brierley’s organisation, Christian Research, catalogues the ongoing, dismal decline of the UK church.  Brierley predicts that if current trends continue 1.3 million (net) members will leave between the years 2000 and 2020, a loss of 23%.  This is the context for Duncan MacLaren’s very helpful contribution to the growing literature on mission in western societies.   Specifically he offers insights from The Sociology of Knowledge a field pioneered in the 60’s and 70’s by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman.  His hope is to discover strategies that the church might adopt to recover credibility for itself and its message.

MacLaren is sympathetic to Grace Davie’s contention that the dramatic decline of the fortunes of Christianity in Europe is something of an oddity when compared to the remarkable resilience of religion elsewhere.  In accounting for this decline  he allows for influences arising from the history of ideas since the enlightenment.  However, more weight is given to sociological factors.  Here MacLaren lines up with classic secularisation theorists such as Bryan Wilson and Steve Bruce, attributing the decline of the church to the inhospitality of modernity (at least in its European form) towards institutional Christianity.  His analysis of the impact of such issues as urbanisation, industrialisation, and privatisation covers familiar ground with commendable clarity and lightness of touch.  Similarly we are offered a very useful introduction to Berger’s notion of plausibility structures – those aspects of any given society that bolster the credibility of  certain beliefs. 

Next, Maclaren identifies various forms of religion that seem to buck the secularisation trend.  For instance sectarian forms of religion such as Pentecostalism or the latent religion associated with high profile tragedies such as the death Diana.  He then goes on to suggest various reasons for such resilience.  This thinking is cashed out in terms of five “imperatives for practical action for restoring credibility to the church”.  Very stimulating stuff this.

With echoes of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture we then get MacLaren’s consideration of the positioning of the church viz a viz the rest of society.  He identifies three promising strategies: tension (the sectarian option which maximises internal coherence and maintains distinctives); momentum (making the most of favourable societal trends by going with the flow) and the middle way of significance (engaging in public issues in ways that maximise the visibility of the church).  The suggestion is that a missionary-minded church needs to find ways of simultaneously becoming distinctive, inculturated and engaged.  Interesting, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the suggestion that the Columban mission of the Celtic church is an example of how this might be achieved.

All in all I found Mission Implausible a very helpful and worthwhile read; so much so that I now use it as one of the core text-books for my course on Mission In Contemporary Britain.  Its value lies in the combination of sociology and missiology.  While there is little here that is brand new, MacLaren is a well-informed and reliable guide to both fields and his handling of the conversation between the two is very stimulating.


Andy Goodliff said...

I've just requested that Wipf & Stock look at reprinting this.

Glen Marshall said...

Thanks Andy. Didn't realise they were open to such requests. Here's hoping. I still use it on one of my courses and students almost invariably find it helpful.

Andy Goodliff said...

yeah, got their site and on the left-hand side down there's a form you can fill in with any books - i got john colwell's doctoral thesis reprinted this way and out of that his promise and presence also got a reprint ...