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Review: John Dorhauer, Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World

By Rev. Dr. Bob Shore-Goss[1]

Beyond ResistanceAs a post-modern theologian and a pastor in dually affiliated congregation (MCC and UCC), I read Beyond Resistance with anticipation. Any book with the title with “Resistance” and “Post-modern” immediately catches my attention as an eco- and queer activist, self-identifying as a Buddhist Christian.  I teach undergraduates who generally do not have an interest in institutional religion and am in a congregation trying to understand its mission in a rapidly changing world. I wanted to see what Rev. Dorhauer, the newly elected General Minister of the UCC, had to share about church in a post-modern world.

I was surprised that Dorhauer is so pastoral in this book and think it should be added to the reading list of the UCC History and Polity class to spark conversations and reflections for folks early in their formation as they seek ordination.  It would be useful to discernment and ministerial committees of UCC associations, as well.

Dorhauer demonstrates pastoral insight, care, and sensitivity as he speaks about both Church 2.0 (the church from Constantine till the present) and the emerging post-modern Church 3.0, which seeks to refashion the church of Acts (Church 1.0) in today’s electronic world. [2] The church 2.0 and 30 is based on the analogy of the operating system of a computer. The early church is 1.0 version, and with the impact of the Emperor Constantine upon the Christian church, it was upgraded to church 2.0. All subsequent models were subsets of version 2.0, but the 21st century emerging church is a new operating system.

He discusses churches that are dying; pastors who, having given years of their lives to ministerial service, find themselves in churches making decisions between the maintenance of the building or employing the pastor full time (or at all) and those newly approved for ministry who enter the search and call process (which can take up to two years) or who take a part time pastor position with $80,000 in school loans to be paid back.  All this at a time when the attendance of membership is declining not only in the UCC but most denominational churches.

Rev. Dorhauer asserts, “We enter postmodernity without a viable option for postmodern thinkers who have already left the church.”  He does not pretend to be an expert in the postmodernity but engages postmodern movements with a discerning ear.  He also draws from his discernment experience as conference minister, calling on us and our churches to listen to the times.

He lists three features of the postmodern: 1) For postmoderns, there is no universal Truth; truth is relative and plural. 2) Postmoderns learn differently. 3) Postmoderns distrust institutional authority.  Post-moderns do not identify with church, but they may describe admiration for Jesus and identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

Later Rev. Dorhauer speaks of postmodernity as “irreducible plurality,’ a culture where competing religious truth claims are advanced. One solution has the emergence of hybrid spiritualities, what religion scholars have designated as multiple-religious-participation (mrp). I designate my own spirituality as Buddhist-Christian.[3]  MRP has been practiced in Asia for millennia and more recently in the last several decades in western cultures.

One of Dorhauer’s strengths is his theological and pastoral stress on the missional nature of church.  He forcefully states,

…the Church exists for a purpose: mission. Leadership and discipleship, however, we define them, are empowered for the sake of that mission. Mission doesn’t emanate from, and exist for, the church. It is the Church that emanates from and exists for mission. (84)

He draws the example of the UCC church, south of Tucson, whose stated mission: We are a church on the border, called to serve the immigrant.” I had the opportunity to visit the church on a border class trip, sponsored by Claremont School of Theology. I was deeply impressed by retired folks who were part of the Samaritan movement to leave food, water, and medicine in the desert for border crossers to prevent any further deaths of border crossers in the desert. Churches are missional, and preservation and the maintenance of the church cannot be the only focus of mission. The Spirit works outside all boundaries, and She inspires us to new creative discoveries of our mission as Church.

His chapter on “Grieving, Believing, Perceiving” is remarkably insightful and pastorally sensitive on churches’ experiencing the postmodern world, facing “diminishment, rapid and uncontrollable change, grief and abandonment by youth.”  Grieving, believing, perceiving are the necessary tools that churches need to face dramatic change.    Churches and people resist change.  Seminaries do generally not teach students how to reinvent themselves every three years or reinvent ministries to meet changes.  Dorhauer recognizes the grief involved in change but focuses our attention of the grief of Jesus’ disciples and handling that grief in resurrection.

Personally, I was glad for Rev. Dorhauer’s disclaimer on church models 1.0, 2.0 and the current “upgrade” to 3.0.  The analogy of computer operating system is initially enticing for church systems, but  it is fraught with dangers. There is a built value that an upgrade is better than a previous operating system. Dorhauer counters this with an affirmation church 2.0, where working is valuable to the life of the church.  Church 3.0 may be suited for a certain younger and unchurched demographic while church 2.0 is sufficient for another cultural demographic. There is no value judgment of an upgrade is better.  What is lost is that church 2.0 and 3.0 are different missional styles, adapted to serve different populations with different world views and values. There have been many reform and renewal movements in the history of Christianity from Constantine on.  Church 2.0 is too broad category to sufficiently capture the full breadth of Christian history in the west and globally.

Dorhauer hopes that “both church 2.0 and church 3.0 see each other as missional partners with a shared call to preach the gospel.” (40)  He takes pains not to throw out church 2.0 and recognize its value to church mission, yet sees that postmodernity requires new forms and strategies to carry on the gospel mission.  He hopes that church 2.0 will continue its missional work and not feel threatened by church 3.0.

As a postmodern theologian and professor of comparative religions in the seminary and in the university, I serve a church 2.0 though laced with postmodern inclusions and theological diversities. The church is unable to transition to church 3.0 but has opted to seed a church 3.0 and create a partnership in mission.

We produced Terrence McNally’s controversial play Corpus Christi with a gay Joshua/Jesus eight years ago. The cast were primarily unchurched though I discovered the cast would, before each performance, pray to touch the hearts of the audience.  The cast of the play has developed a missional focus on LGBT inclusion, same-sex marriage, and the bullying of youth in its performances and talk-backs to a number of UCC and other churches and to fringe dramatic festivals at Edinburgh Scotland and Dublin, Ireland.  It won awards amidst the religious pickets then went to off Broadway.

The cast created a church with a mission to tell the story of Jesus that included gays/lesbians.  What emerged was a story of a cast with an evangelical mission, launching “I am Love Campaign.”[4] They produced a documentary, Playing with Redemption on Netflix.[5] They became an autonomous seedling missionary ministry of church 2.0.  The cast of Corpus Christi has reached thousands more people than has our own church.

Dorhauer observes, “Postmodern Christianity is already in the process of becoming a Post-denominational church.”  The UCC, with its “uniting and united” mission, is already equipped for uniting and creating ecumenical and interfaith partnerships with other faith communities from justice witness to ecological action for the Earth.

This post-denominational movement does not mean the eclipse of plurality and differences, but learning to live with increased differences and plurality. The postmodern Church, he notes, will have a hard time with a Christianity that does not welcome the Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, and the atheist. Postmodern Christianity will challenge a Christianity with a triumphant Jesus, with exclusivist claims.

There is a movement of the “philosophical café,” where people come to a coffee house to discuss philosophy. I hope in my forthcoming transition from pastor of church 2.0 to create a “spirituality café” for open exploration of spirituality and life’s issues concerning people. Could emergent worship or spiritual cafes provide a launching pad for new missional movements?  Could we consider Second Life Church (a virtual church) or ecumenical advocacy groups as Interfaith Power & Light church?

Rev. John Dorhauer stresses that postmodernity is not an enemy as much as a challenge and an opportunity for the church to listen to the Spirit. He gives an example of re-imagining a postmodern community in San Francisco with flexible hours and an emergent church experience for UCC clergy in retreat lead by a house church leader.

I remember General Synod 2013 when my congregation was becoming newly affiliated with the UCC.  I witnessed trajectories of the postmodern interlaced with church 2.0 models, there were various missional endeavors from a UCC community living on a farm using the Benedictine monastic rule, talking to a seminary dean about animal rights and engaging progressive Christians.  I saw the resurgence of contemplative practices, various justice groups, traditional hospitality and worship, multicultural celebrations, progressive environmental justice motions, and more. The newly emergent forms of Christian communities and more traditional churches were co-existing in the same church.    .

I enthusiastically recommend churches 2.0, churches in transition, and emerging churches 3.0 use Beyond Resistance for reading and discussion.  Together we can listen and discern the call of the Spirit to a renewal of our local and corporate mission.

First read the last chapter and discuss Dorhauer’s “thoughts intended to start conversations, not foreclose them.” And focus on the opening epigrams of Emily Dickenson, “I dwell in possibility.” And “Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.” These provide a framework for discussions of the book.

Then, read Beyond Resistance and discuss each chapter. How do the particulars of each chapter apply to your church? How do you understand your mission? How do you see the Spirit speaking to you in this postmodern period?  I recommend ending your discussions with a prayer for your church, the UCC, and praying for the gift of discerning the Spirit’s work inside and outside your church.

At this critical time in human history, you and I and all peoples of faith are prompted by the Spirit to listen to the cries of the poor and the cries of an Earth faced with the increasing challenges of climate change.   May we hear Her voice.

Note:  Beyond Resistance may be found at http://smile.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_5?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=dorhauer&sprefix=dorha%2Caps%2C236



Bob-Shore-Goss_Thumb[1] Rev. Dr. Robert Shore-Goss is Senior Pastor/Theologian at MCC United Church of Christ in the Valley (North Hollywood, CA). He received a doctorate in Comparative Religion and Theology, specializing in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and Theology from Harvard University and is author and co-editor of nine books, working on a book on eco-theology (www.mischievousspiritandtheology.com).  MCC United Church of Christ has a carbon neutral footprint   The church has attained level four, scoring over a 100 on the UCC Green Justice Congregational scale (http://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries_just-green-congregations and received a Green Oscar for environmental advocacy from California Power and Light (2011).


[2] See Neil Cole, Church 3.0: Upgrades for the Church, Jossey-Bass 2010.

[3] Robert Shore-Goss, “Bodhisattva Christianity: A Case of Multiple religious Belonging,” in Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, ed. by Robert E.Shore-Goss, Patrick S. Cheng, Thomas Bohache, and Mona West, Santa Barbara, Praeger ABC CLIO, 2013.

[4] I Am Love Campaign, https://www.facebook.com/iamlovecampaign

[5] See: Nic Arnzen and he Cast of Corpus Christi, “Communion: Playing with Redemption,” in Queering Christianity.


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