By LESA ENGELTHALER / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Time magazine, Brian McLaren has been called a "paradigm shifter." He's a
senior fellow with Emergent, a network of supporters of the emerging
church movement, which is dedicated to developing new approaches to
Christian theology and community.
Mr. McLaren is founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in
Burtonsville, Md., outside Washington, D.C. He's a popular lecturer,
mostly thanks to his 2001 book A New Kind of Christian, which features
fictional characters discussing theology, postmodernism, apologetics,
ecology and the arts. (A new volume, The Last Word and the Word After
That, was published this spring. It's the third book in the New Kind
of Christian trilogy.)
Mr. McLaren's works explore Christianity's transition from modernism
to postmodernism and how that affects theology, spirituality, and the
future of American Protestantism.
He makes many an evangelical wince. Some he downright ticks off. But
as he and his fellow emerging church leaders talk energetically about
seeing the Gospel in fresh ways, people are listening.
Special Contributor Lesa Engelthaler spoke with Mr. McLaren by
cellphone as he took a walk in his Maryland neighborhood.
Here are excerpts:
Question: Your academic training is in English, not theology. How did
you end up a pastor?
Answer: I became a committed Christian in the '70s through the Jesus
Movement, never planning on becoming a pastor. I wanted to be a
college English teacher. If anyone had been my model back in those
days, it would have been C.S. Lewis.
I was fortunate enough to get to work as an English professor at
some secular universities, and while we were doing that, my wife and I
opened our home for a little Bible study, which eventually became a
house church. I was devoting about 20 hours a week to church-related
work, and as it grew, they asked me to lead.
The interesting convergence is that when I was in graduate school in
the '70s, postmodern philosophy really hit the American academy, and
it came in through English departments and literary criticism. So I
was exposed very early on. When I started to understand some of the
questions being raised, I remember thinking that the Christian faith
doesn't have good answers to this yet, and I hope someone else figures
out the answers.
Fast-forward about 12 years. In the '90s, I realized that many of
the spiritual seekers coming to my church were asking those same
questions, so suddenly it became my problem. (Laughs.)
Question: Define postmodern.
Answer: In the last two decades, the word "post" has been stuck onto lots of words to describe our times. A number of us felt that there is
a significant change going on, that we are moving beyond the
intellectual cultural territory that we've been roughly in for the
last 300 to 500 years. This has stimulated different responses among
Some have taken a kind of circle-the-wagons mentality that says
we've got to oppose these changes at any cost. Others of us have said
that this is where we live, so we need to find ways to be faithful to
God in these changes – philosophically, culturally, even economically
[in] a global economy, and militarily [in] a world of nuclear,
biological and chemical weapons.
Question: And what does "emerging" mean in the emerging church
Answer: Emerging means what is changing has not fully formed yet.
We all have a sense that we live in two worlds, especially here in
America. We live in a very strong, striving, modern world, and yet it
feels that we are also extending into this new, postmodern world.
One of the huge changes we're dealing with is from a world dominated
by white people, Europeans and Americans, to a world that is a
partnership between Africans, Latin Americans, Asians and
Euro-Americans. We want to get as many of these voices at the table
and be listening to one another and actually appreciate differences of
opinion, because they make you think about things you wouldn't have
thought of otherwise.
Question: You write about A New Kind of Christian. What does he or she look like, and what's wrong with the "old kind" of Christian?
Answer: There's nothing wrong with the old kind. I don't want to
criticize people, but when we're moving into a new culture, we have to
respond to that culture appropriately.
Over most of U.S. history, white, English-speaking Christians have
been the dominant force. But now your children attend public school
with a Buddhist sitting on one side and a Muslim on the other side,
and a few kids from atheist families in the room, too. Learning how to
live and practice our faith in a pluralistic context puts a new kind
of Christian in America, having to live much more like the Christian
who lives in India or Turkey or Nigeria.
Question: If we were to take a field trip to an emerging church, what
would we find?
Answer: My good friend Leonard Sweet has an acrostic, EPIC, that
E – experiential. It is not just about listening and thinking, but
there's the idea of "let's enter into worship as an experience." An
increased emphasis on the senses, not just the rational faculties – so
emerging churches actually seem kind of ancient. They are
rediscovering liturgical practices such as candles, incense and
P – participatory. The idea that worship is not just something you
observe, like watching television. You really participate. For
example, in our church, an important part of our worship is a period
of about 20 minutes in which there are stations around the room where
people might go to ask for prayer, or write down a prayer or a poem,
or make their financial offering, or seek communion.
I – image-based. The idea here is not just words for the ears, but
an increased emphasis on things you can see. Because of digital
technology you have the capacity to project images, show artwork, use
film and video.
C – communal. A strong emphasis on community. People are saying, "We
don't just want to attend a service and look at the back of people's
Question: Your views have stirred up quite a few evangelical leaders.
What's their beef with you?
Answer: Unfortunately, some of the disagreement springs from
misunderstanding. A well-known Baptist leader wrote a strong critique
of my last book, saying it is obvious I'm a relativist. There is a
chapter in the book that gives reasons why relativism is not the
Many conservative Christians feel that the interests of America and
the interest of the kingdom of God are closely aligned – they might
even say the interests of the Republican Party. (Laughs). I think that
is a deep area of tension. Many of us certainly love our country, but
we don't think that the kingdom of God is in the pocket of any
political party, or in a nation, or even in Western civilization.
What's been interesting is that I've had a couple of evangelical
leaders say, "I don't really like your books. But I wish you well,
because I know that my children want nothing to do with the form of
church and Christianity that I practice." So, people are kinder to me
than you might expect, because they see that something is not working
for their kids.
One reason so many kids go to college and move away from their faith
is that in their upbringing they only get the bright side of Christian
history. Then they go to college and learn about, for example,
Christianity and slavery. Maybe they've only heard about how
Christians helped end slavery, but not how Christians defended slavery
for a long time. In the emergent community, there is the desire to try
to be more balanced as we face some of our history's failures.
Question: You write, "Clarity is good but sometimes intrigue may be
even more precious; clarity tends to put an end to further thinking."
Answer: If you asked Jesus, "What is the kingdom of God?" he would
have said, "Well, it's like the man who had two sons," or, "It's like
the women who put yeast in a bunch of dough." And then he'd have told
a story, which would do something more important than just answer your
questions: He'd make you keep thinking about it. And the act of
thinking deeply and engaging your imagination about what Jesus was
saying ends up having greater effect on you than just getting a clear
answer to your question.