If the founders of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism came back to earth today, would they recognize the religions that bear their names?
That was the question New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked earlier this month.
“Jesus never mentioned gays or abortion but focused on the sick and the poor, yet some Christian leaders have prospered by demonizing gays,” he wrote, adding that things would be similar for founders of other religions.
“Muhammad raised the status of women in his time, yet today some Islamic clerics bar women from driving, or cite religion as a reason to hack off the genitals of young girls. Buddha presumably would be aghast at the apartheid imposed on the Rohingya minority by Buddhists in Myanmar.”
Kristof asked the question as an introduction to a column about The Great Spiritual Migration, a new book by American Christian pastor, activist, speaker and author Brian McLaren.
“Our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for,” McLaren told Kristof, noting that Jesus was known for being a poor, itinerant radical who challenged the establishment—but today the church that bears his name is, in many countries, the establishment.
“No wonder more and more of us who are Christians by birth, by choice, or both find ourselves shaking our heads and asking, ‘What happened to Christianity?’” McLaren said, adding that sometimes “we feel as if our founder has been kidnapped and held hostage by extremists.”
Intrigued by Kristof’s column, I called McLaren to ask about the book, and to ask where he sees Christianity in North America going today.
According to McLaren, a spiritual migration is underway as many people leave the church due to frustration and dissatisfaction with its rules, beliefs, doctrines, hierarchies and traditions.
Specifically, he sees three shifts, or migrations, in North American Christianity today.
One is a shift away from Christianity as “a system of beliefs” to a faith that is based on showing love for people and the planet.
The other is a “shift in our understanding of God,” away from a view of God as violent and judgmental to one of grace and acceptance.
And the third is a shift away from organized religion to what he calls “an organizing religion, one that organizes people for the common good.”
While this migration can cause a lot of anxiety for some Christians, McLaren sees it “as a good thing, a great opportunity for the world’s largest religion to find a way to be better at being Christian.”
And what is that better way?
For McLaren, it’s what he calls a “love-centred orientation” that recognizes that “the core of Christ’s teaching was to love God and your neighbour as yourself.”
In this regard, “it’s fascinating how little attention the church has paid to forming a people committed to showing love,” he says. “Much more attention has been paid to correctness of belief.”
As for those who are leaving the church, McLaren says “I don’t want to see them leave the faith.” Instead, he wants them to stay Christian, but to “find the true faith.”
All of this sounds very critical of the current state of the church, especially in America, where McLaren lives. But he also believes in its potential.
Besides, he asks, “what are the alternatives? I don’t think TV, politics or consumerism is doing better,” at helping people live lives that show concern for others, peace, the poor or the planet.
And he sees hope in the upheaval and disruption facing organized Christianity today. “There is great spiritual dissatisfaction, but also great spiritual hunger,” he says. “That can also be a powerful motivating force for change.”
As an American, McLaren realizes he is writing out of that experience. But he says this spiritual migration isn’t limited to the U.S.; Christians in Canada and other countries also tell him of their frustration with church.
“Christians around the world are hungry for something new and different,” he states.
“There is a huge vacuum. The church is slow and cowardly when it comes to addressing the great questions facing the world. I hope Christians everywhere will step out in courage and creativity to create just and generous communities where they pray, interpret the Bible and worship differently.”