(One of the advantages of being a newspaper columnist is that I can contact almost anyone and ask for an interview--and usually get it. In 2011 I was able to interview Brian McLaren in advance of his visit to Winnipeg.)
For some people, Brian McLaren is a heretic, challenging old beliefs about Christianity and promoting new ways of thinking about things like salvation and spirituality.
For others, McLaren is a fresh, welcome voice, precisely because he challenges old beliefs and suggests new ways of being a follower of Jesus.
No matter how he is viewed—McLaren is one of the most visible leaders of what is called the Emergent Church—gets a lot of attention.
Those who are looking for new ways of being a Christian appreciate his call for a new kind of Christianity where personal, daily interaction with God is more important than institutional church structures.
They appreciate how he talks about faith as being a way of life more than a system of beliefs, about how being authentically good is more important than being doctrinally “right.,”
Others feel that, in searching for new ways to live the Christian faith, he goes too far.
As one critic put it: “McLaren rejects absolute truth, authority, theology, objectivity, certainty and clarity. He embraces relativism, inclusivism, deconstructionism, stories (to replace truth), creative interpretation of Scripture, neo-orthodoxy, and tolerance.”
For McLaren, it’s all part of the struggle the church in North America finds itself in today—and he’s the lightning rod.
“We are an embattled Christian community that is trying to retain its influence and foothold,” he says of the current situation, where Christianity no longer holds a dominant role in society.
This position of dominance “can’t be regained,” he says, even though some badly want to turn back the clock. “We have to imagine a new ethos for Christian discipleship.”
And what does that new ethos look like?
The new kind of Christianity is “a movement of quest,” he states. “Early Christianity was a way of life, not a system of belief. We need to recapture being followers of the way of Jesus.”
This is in contrast to the “old kind of Christianity,” which was “unmoving, defensive, used to being in control,” defined for believers by institutions, doctrines and statements about belief.
McLaren is quick to note he’s not against institutions.
“But the temptation is to go on autopilot, just participate in its rituals and functions,” he says.
Some Christians find the changes and challenges to traditional ways of living the Christian faith to be very unsettling.
“Many respond by developing a list of essentials,” he says. The problem with that approach, he says, “the list of essentials is shrinking as we discover the grand simplicities in the teachings of Jesus.”
If it is an unsettling time for some, for McLaren it’s an exciting time to be a Christian.
“This is a time of radical reappraisal of the Gospel,” he says. “The most exciting times in church history were times of movement, setbacks and mistakes. They were huge ventures of faith.”
McLaren believes that Christians today need to take some venturesome steps.
“This is an extremely dangerous time,” he said, adding that the fate of the world depends on the choices people make today.
For McLaren, there are three major crises facing the world today.
The first is the planet—too many people live in ecologically unsustainable ways.
The second is the widening the gap between the rich and poor.
The third is escalating violence, both in North America and around the world.
“We need to rediscover what the Scriptures have to say to us about these things,” McLaren said, suggesting that we need new ways of viewing Christian faith that use the Bible as an inspired library, not a constitution or set of rules and regulations
As for what churches do on Sunday mornings—worship—it should be “less about what happens after we die, and more about what God is doing in the world today . . . more about what God is doing in the world, not just what God is doing in our hearts.”
Many worship services, he says, are too often “a celebration of our pleasant, middle class lifestyle. I’m all for celebrating, but we also need to keep in mind the needs of the world.”
When Christians shrink the frame of God’s activity “to my soul, we shrink the frame of God’s work, turn it into sentimentality, something that doesn’t fit in a world of suffering,” he adds.
For McLaren, Christians today “need to find a way forward,” not do “business as usual.”
Jesus, he says, “didn’t say stand with me, or retreat with me, but follow me.”