Brian McLaren started out the debate at Malone University by mapping out the progression of the emerging church conversation and his contribution to it.
STAGE ONE: He said it started out as a conversation among young, white, middle-class pastors (and him as the old guy at 42) about how to do church in order to reach 18-30 year olds outside of the church. McLaren’s book The Church on the Other Side reflects this conversation.
STAGE TWO: The emerging church conversation quickly shifted from church-focus to how to evangelize and disciple people, and McLaren’s books More Ready Than You Realize and Finding Faith reflect that stage of the conversation (Finding Faith has subsequently been repackaged as two separate books: A Search for What Makes Sense and A Search for What Is Real).
STAGE THREE: The conversation shifted from reaching 18-30 year olds to the realization that the issue is less about the age of people, but the cultural milieu in which we find ourselves. This interest in the cultural milieu of the 21st Century led the conversation into the deep topic of philosophy, especially explorations into how postmodernism has affected our thinking and our ways of knowing. McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christian reflects this stage in the conversation.
STAGE FOUR: The next stage entailed the realization that the conversation was very white and male and middle classed. They began to expand the conversation into seeking to understand church history and other Christian traditions, while inviting women, mainline Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholics into the discussion. This led to McLaren’s book, A Generous Orthodoxy.
STAGE FIVE: With this desire to get beyond the particularity of American Christianity, the Emerging Church conversation began listening to those outside the United States, hearing how others see the gospel as focused on Justice and Civil Issues. They discovered that The Kingdom of God is much more the center of the gospel outside of the states. McLaren’s books The Secret Message of Jesus and Everything Must Change reflect this stage.
STAGE SIX: McLaren said that the next stage he senses the conversation moving into is what he calls “Spirituality:” cultivating a deep awareness, love, and worship of God. This is reflected by his new book, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices.
As I listened to Brian map out these stages, I thought, “This explains a lot about Brian’s journey and that of others who have been involved in this emerging church thing.” For me personally, it brought to mind my early connections with Brian. As I led a new church plant in 2001, his The Church on the Other Side was very helpful. The first book I led our church leadership through was More Ready Than You Realize, and I gave away a case of Finding Faith to people that I was sharing my faith with. These three books were, and continue to be, three of my all-time favorites. I began this blog after attending the Emergent Conference in 2004, spending a weekend as part of Brian McLaren's Emergent Conference cohort, meeting with him several times during the conference to discuss with him the conference and processing it into my ministry.
From what Brian McLaren said at Malone, this much is certain: He is on a spiritual journey, a journey that is continuing to evolve as he engages in new conversations, exploring the implications of the Gospel on different aspects of life. This is why his books have become more and more controversial. People were fine with him exploring how to do church to reach a new postmodern, post-Christian generation. They are less comfortable with the McLaren that is becoming more and more political (now that he is no longer pastoring a local church, he calls himself an “activist”), and especially as he becomes more and more ready to question the standard theological assumptions of American evangelicalism. The church has always been uncomfortable with “activists,” especially if they perceive that the activist is thrying to change them!
However, this should inform how the church should interact and interpret Brian McLaren. He is just a person who thinks deeply about things, is in conversation with a lot of people about these things (both personally and through research), and writes about where he is on this journey. Where will Brian McLaren be in 10 years? Only God knows (I mean that literally, not with my eyes rolling and throwing my hands up, exclaiming, "God only knows!"). :-)
But it is certainly exciting that the stage he’s in now finds him exploring the ancient Christian spiritual disciplines, like fixed-hour prayer, fasting, and the observance of the Sabbath. This stage might bring many of his skeptics back into listening to him again.
other posts in this series:
The Inquisition of Brian McLaren?
Cage Match: Bryan Hollon vs. Brian McLaren (Well, Not Exactly)
McLaren at Malone: My Musings on the Mêlée