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The Steps of Brian McLaren

This week’s podcast is Every Step I Take from Brian McLaren’s album Learning How To Love, which is available from Heavenly Grooves.

Ken Scott, the Archivist for "Jesus Music," wondered who had ever heard of Brian McLaren.  Well, many, as it turns out, for now he listed as one of Time Magazine’s top 25 evangelical leaders.  It’s interesting to hear him sing of an outline of his future life in this song, then actually do it.

McLaren is one of the leaders of the "Emerging Church," and is now starting a tour to promote his new book, Everything Must Change, and the ideas that go with it.  As regular readers of this blog may have figured out, I have some serious issues with the Emerging Church, and many of them are the same ones I clashed with liberals in the Episcopal Church (and for that matter the Roman Catholic Church.)   Let me concentrate on one of them, namely the issue of eternity.

He’s kicking off his tour in Charlotte, NC, this weekend, and had the following exchange with Tim Funk of the Charlotte Observer:

Q. You say that many Christians should start by replacing the idea of getting themselves and others "saved" so they can go to heaven — the evacuation plan, I think you call with — with this idea of getting out there, in the here and now, and healing the hurts of the world. So when Jesus said, "As the father sent me, so I sent you," he was talking not really about conversions but about tackling the world’s crises — Is that right?

A. Actually, I would put the two together. If we keep recruiting people to evacuate the earth, then every person who gets saved is, in some ways, taken out of the action. It’s like going to the bench of people who want to play in a football game and trying to recruit them to leave the (stadium) altogether.

A better image would be: What Jesus is asking us to do is go into the stands and recruit some people to come on the field and join us to play. The recruiting of new disciples is really connected to wanting to make a difference in the world.

I’ve gone on at length about the centrality of our eternal destiny in Eternity is Still What Matters, but there are several things about McLaren’s idea that need a response:

  1. Evangelical churches–the name notwithstanding–on the whole are not as focused on evangelism as McLaren makes them out to be.  He should try to work for a ministry which promotes and trains lay people for personal evangelism and see the general indifference for himself.  (Barna’s statistics bear that out, BTW.)
  2. His concern for discipleship is admirable, but if people have not experienced the saving power of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, then discipleship is irrelevant.
  3. His hard work to develop an alternative to conservative American Evangelical politics is ironic when juxtaposed with his reservations about the "fire insurance" approach to Christianity he decries.  In the days when he made Learning How To Love, most American Evangelicals concentrated on evangelism and stayed out of politics.  The shift into politics is in some ways a shift away from evangelism and church life as the central vehicle for living out the Gospel, irrespective of the fact that political involvement was initially driven by necessity.  Moving the church in yet another political direction–even if cloaked in the garb of "social justice"–will have the same effect on Evangelical churches it has had on liberal ones, i.e., drain their energy from the mission of the church.
  4. Neither McLaren nor most American Evangelicals have grasped the central fact that the lure of eternal life with God is best appreciated in the context of the difficulties of this one.  That’s certainly the case with me and many others, but that’s something else that has fallen victim to Boomer triumphalism, especially when coupled with prosperity teaching.  (I share McLaren’s ambivalence on this subject, but not necessarily for the same reasons.)  I’d like to solve many of the world’s problems too, but am all too aware that things will inevitably get bogged down in patronage and power holder politics, which is reason enough to be leery of "social justice" movements.

McLaren’s right that we need a new paradigm of Christianity in the U.S.  But what that paradigm should be isn’t as clear as many in the "Emerging Church" movement would have us believe.  To me too much of this is old liberalism tried again, and like Karl Marx used to say, history repeats itself, the first time as a tragedy and the second as a farce.

Note: there are many aspects of the "Emerging Church" that deserve scrutiny. Travis Johnson (who is more on the front lines than I am) discusses some of them here.


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