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Bishop Alan May Be Impressed by Brian McLaren. But Where’s the Firm Foundation?

Church of England Bishop Alan Wilson was impressed by emerging church guru Brian McLaren:

I am impressed by the logic of Brian’s argument. It sheds light on why the fastest growing Church of England congregations, by and large, are Cathedrals. Following it up would involve reimaging our context in a more realistic, low-key, creative and rooted direction. I think I’m up for it.

One service that +Alan Wilson did provide is a photo of McLaren’s famous “bridge to nowhere” (right.)  As somone who has spent most of his working life as a professional engineer and involved in major civil works projects, I can finally make an intelligent critique of the analogy which he tirelessly propagates.

It’s not unusual for bridge approaches to settle or otherwise fail more than the main span of the bridge.  Many bridges have the “bump at the end of the bridge.”  That’s due to the fact that the bridge is generally on some kind of deep foundation such as driven piles or drilled shafts, which are generally designed these days to withstand axial (vertical, such as the weight of the bridge and the traffic) and lateral (such as seismic and scour loads.)  The approaches are generally not on deep foundations but on (hopefully) compacted earth.

The upshot of this is that approaches are generally more susceptible to settlement than the bridge itself.  In this case, they are also more susceptible to scour damage, i.e., loads from fast moving water.  In the case of this Honduran bridge, the scour loads driven by Hurricane Mitch were simply too much and washed the approaches away, leaving the bridge.

The difference that McLaren misses is this: the bridge was built on a firmer foundation than the approaches.  Jesus himself emphasised the importance of a firm foundation, but McLaren isn’t enough of a civil engineer (and won’t bother to ask one) to make the analogy.  The core problem presently in Christianity in general and the Anglican Communion in particular is that we have spent so much time trying to make people feel good about themselves that we have not bothered to properly disciple them in the essentials of the faith, which is one reason why we feel like a “bridge to nowhere.”  McLaren’s questionable orthodoxy only exacerbates the problem.

In a comment on MissionalCOG on why it’s not wise to revise the Church of God’s Declaration of Faith, Louis Morgan made the following observation:

… but I have to say I’m reluctant to mess with the DoF as it now stands. I understand how it may be slightly more binding than scripture in some areas, but I’m afraid any change at the moment could make room for more fanatical doctrines within our movement– and, thus, make it even more binding than scripture. To be honest, I don’t think the majority of our church has a solid understanding of the foundation of the basic tenants of Christian faith and practice and their historical development. If we had a better grasp on such, then I would be less reluctant for us to re-examine our doctrinal statements within genuine spiritual community.

And this doesn’t even get into some of the really serious deviations we see in the Anglican Communion!

The importance of a firm foundation cannot be underestimated.  Using a scripture which Clarence Dunham cited in part in the front matter of his Foundations of Structures:

In fulfillment of the charge which God had entrusted to me, I laid the foundation like a skillful master-builder; but another man is now building upon it. Let every one take care how he builds; For no man can lay any other foundation than the one already laid-Jesus Christ. Whatever is used by those who build upon this foundation, whether gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, The quality of each man’s work will become known, for the Day will make it plain; because that Day is to be ushered in with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of every man’s work. If any man’s work, which he has built upon that foundation, still remains, he will gain a reward. If any man’s work is burnt up, he will suffer loss; though he himself will escape, but only as one who has passed through fire.  (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)


6 Replies to “Bishop Alan May Be Impressed by Brian McLaren. But Where’s the Firm Foundation?”

  1. All analogies break down sooner or later (usually sooner).

    I thought this particular analogy was more limited than the way you seem to be reading it.

    This bridge analogy seems to me to work if is taken only as:

    “An object was designed for one set of circumstances but then the circumstances changed and things need to be re-addressed in the light of new circumstances”.

    Old church structures (of what ever brand/style/denomination/theology/insert-category-here) aren’t working as well as they need to in the changed and changing contemporary culture.

    That’s not to say that in a separate simile we don’t need secure foundations.

    But it is to say that you seem to be attacking a straw analogy^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hman here.


  2. Straw man? Maybe not.

    I don’t see anyone in Evangelical Christianity–and that includes McLaren–really grasping why Christianity is in the pickle it seems to be in the West, or whether it really matters in view of the ascendancy of the “Global South.” McLaren, like most Evangelicals, is short on “why.” Perhaps that part of the “Protestant theology” oxymoron I deal with in my review of Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis.

    In analysing a bridge failure such as this, engineers do some forensic study on the nature of the failure, propose solutions, and (hopefully) get the bridge rebuilt prepared for the conditions it actually faces. But in the process they also try to discover what went right, which also points to a solution.

    That was my point in bringing up the issue of the firm foundation. But too many are afraid of being considered “judgemental” or “bigoted” when in fact the “culture” that dictates such things is in more serious trouble than it wants to admit.

    If the church attempts to merely placate a dying culture, then when the culture dies, so will the church. Maybe before then.


  3. don,

    fascinating. amazing how metaphors work, all these different interpretations that arise.

    I might not have heard you right. Are you saying that it’s OK to have a bridge stuck in the middle of nowhere, essentially useless, as long as it has a good foundation?



  4. Steve: no, I’m not.

    First, in the rebuilding of the bridge, more attention needs to be given to the foundations of the approaches.

    Second, if we neglect the foundations of the entire structure (IMO, discipleship and proper belief, you may add others) the next time the whole bridge will wash away, leaving nothing.

    The problem with evangelical churches is that they’re too much of a “numbers game” these days. If you take the time to ground the membership in the essentials, the numbers will happen. But if you don’t, when disaster strikes, the sheep will scatter, and then…


  5. The problem with non-evangelical churches is that they don’t care if anyone else manages to make a connection with the gospel. The bridge analogy is particularly appropriate in addressing the issue for those congregations who are rightfully concerned about the values and beliefs of true faith, but unconcerned about sharing it. They are like people who have settled down in that central span and set themselves to blaming everyone out there for not getting on board. Problem is, the approaches have washed away. As people in the faith we must be concerned about how to rebuild the approaches. People are dying out there and they can’t get to us.


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