I just got back from hearing Brian McLaren lecture on the campus of Saint Paul School of Theology. It was great to hear his voice, see him live and in person, shake his hand, you know, breathe the same air he was breathing. And yes, I did ask him to sign my copy of “A Generous Orthodoxy.” I know, I’m a nerd.
As I shook his hand and handed him the book, I asked, “So, can we do this in the mainline or do we have to start something totally new?” (By “do this,” I meant emerging church, offering a healthy relationship with God through Christ in the church to a generation of people who would not necessarily think of the church first when seeking meaning and purpose in their lives.)
He looked at me and said, “Are you a mainline pastor?”
“Yes, I am United Methodist,” says I.
Then he said basically that he thinks the mainline is a very good place in which to “do this” emerging new thing. He recommended an author to me, whose name I promptly forgot, and mentioned the UMerging conversation. He said, “Um-merging” with a short “u” vowel sound, and since I had never heard anyone actually pronounce it out loud, I asked him if that was how it was supposed to sound. He kind of grinned and said, “Well, I know some people say ‘you-merging’ or whatever, but I say ‘uhm-merging.’” Wasn’t that so very post-modern of him?
The content of the lecture was basically a re-cap of his book, “More Ready Than You Realize,” and he even used the same e-mails from April that he used for the thematic thread of that book. So if you already read that one, you didn’t get many new insights today. There was some stuff that struck me, though.
He said that the 1990’s “church growth” movement was fueled by reaching out to people who love God and like the idea of church, but had a bad experience or three from the past that had driven them away from church. The key to the movement was to remove those barriers in perception, and welcome the people back to church. However, the emerging evangelism that McLaren does is reaching out to a group of people who have no specific negative experience keeping them away from church. There is just a general shoulder shrug about church that precludes their even thinking of church as a place they would find what they are looking for.
For example, in the 90s you said to de-churched people, “We are removing the barriers to church! Come back,” and so they came back. But now, removing the barriers to church is, in McLaren’s analogy, like removing the barriers to playing bridge. “You no longer have to smoke cigarettes to enjoy playing bridge! Come and play.” That doesn’t work for people who don’t like to play bridge. They are not pro-smoking, they just don’t play bridge. The emerging church movement is not about removing barriers to coming to church, it is about giving people a reason to want to come to church in the first place.
That’s pretty good stuff. Former barriers like liturgy and formality and hymns and solemnity and “traditional” are no longer inherently barriers. The trick is to present them with creativity and excellence and energy and life, all undergirded with a desire for an authentic relationship with God and one another. (That’s my own spin on it.)
I also liked his answer to a question about the “essentials” of the faith. The emerging church movement often gets criticized for being all form and no content. He was pressed for time and it was the last question of the morning, so he said pretty quickly that God, who is pure good, created the world and all that is in it. God has a “dream” of how the world ought to look, and humanity, through sin, greed, prejudice, etc. has turned the “dream” into a “nightmare,” messing up the goodness of the world that God intended. And so God sent Jesus Christ as the expression of that dream, to announce it and embody it, and to save creation from the nightmare. He also used the term “Kingdom of God” when talking about God’s dream, or desired state for creation. Following Jesus, therefore, is a decision to realize God’s dream, continue the mission of Christ to announce and embody the Reign of God on earth.
You know, sprinkle in some churchy jargon here and there and that sounds pretty orthodox to me.
There was a bunch more – emphasis on asking good questions, minimizing the language of conquest from religious conversations, pointing out that “modern” evangelism still works if the focus is “modern” people but new ways of doing things are required for “post-moderns,” and so forth. It was a morning well spent. Having read his books, reflected on his ideas, and now inhabited common space, I’m more convinced than ever that McLaren is pretty much right on target with what he has to say about the future of the church.