I sometimes feel that I am the most fortunate person in the world. I have the privilege, first of writing books, and then of getting to travel and meet so many of my readers in person. In addition, so many readers take the time and effort to write or email me with kind and encouraging words. Thank you so much. Even though I can’t respond to all the email and letters I receive, I am sincerely grateful for your encouragement.
Your encouragement is especially meaningful in light of the increasing levels of criticism I have received over the last year, much of it unfair and inaccurate, much of it, no doubt, richly deserved. It is in regard to criticism that I would like to make several requests of my supportive readers. When people become contentious, we have a special responsibility to be peacemakers. If you consider these requests, you will be helping me and I will be deeply and personally grateful.
1. Please do not cause dissension, division, or trouble on my account (or any other account!). If others say or write unfair or inaccurate things about me or my writings, please do not respond in kind. You may wish to offer some words of personal testimony by telling people how God has in some way helped you through my work, or you may want to offer your personal observation if you have met me in person, but please, please do not respond with harshness, counterattack, or defensiveness. If you read a harsh or unfair review, instead of getting upset with the content or tone of the review, simply set a better example by writing a constructive review. If someone writes something that insults you, let them know how you feel – not in an accusatory way, but in a vulnerable way: “I felt insulted and misunderstood when I read your blog post.” Paul said, “Don’t let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil,” and he also said that in matters of dispute, we should keep our opinions to ourselves (Romans 14). These provide parameters, I think, for knowing how to respond. In all cases, please remember the Proverb that says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.”
2. Please do not make me or even my books the issue. Make Christ and his teachings the issue, and make a right understanding of the Scriptures the issue. If you want to bring up an idea that you read in my book, instead of saying, “McLaren says,” or “The Secret Message of Jesus” says, or whatever, point to Jesus’ own words, or other relevant words from Scripture. I haven’t seen many examples of “dueling Bible verses” producing good results, especially on blog sites, but sometimes a non-combative and gentle appeal to a Scripture can help some people see things in a new light.
3. If you have become convinced of something from one of my books, and you hear a preacher or friend say the opposite, if at all possible, just let it slide. Instead, try to hear what they’re saying in a charitable light and learn whatever you can from it. Affirm whatever you can and don’t argue about the rest. The proverb says it’s a person’s glory to overlook an offense, and Paul calls us to be longsuffering and patient, often reminding us not to be quarrelsome or contentious in any way, but to be kind to all, patient when wronged, and gentle with everyone.
4. Please don’t recommend my books to people who aren’t ready for them. I wouldn’t have been able to handle some ideas in my books twenty years ago, so I am sympathetic to people who can’t handle them now. The book that means the most to you may be a distraction to one of your friends, so please be careful and prayerful in this regard. Timing is, as they say, everything. If Paul’s inspired writings were considered by Peter to be hard to understand easy to distort, then no doubt my scribbles and ramblings will be confusing and problematic for some people. I’d recommend my new book, The Secret Message of Jesus, along with More Ready Than You Realize and Finding Faith, as the most accessible of my books, but even they would be unprofitable for some people. All Scripture is profitable, but not everything else is universally profitable!
5. If you have become convinced of some things from my books which put you at odds with your church or organization, please do not undermine the leadership there. Please! People often ask my advice in these situations. I don’t think there is a universal prescription (except love your neighbors!), but when I was a senior pastor, here’s what I wish people would have done if they had differences with my leadership or teaching: First, I wish they would have come to me (or written to me) in private and in a friendly and nonthreatening way told me what they have come to see or believe (not what they think I should see or believe!). Then I wish they would have asked me for my advice on what they should do. Would I like the opportunity to present them with counter-arguments? Would I prefer that they leave and find another church? Would I prefer that they stay and share their ideas, gently and patiently of course, with others? Would I prefer that they form a small group to dialogue about these matters? Or maybe I think that they’re on the right track, but this congregation isn’t ready for their ideas, so perhaps they should consider finding or forming a new faith community? Third, I would have appreciated a promise that they wouldn’t cause dissension in the congregation, but would instead pursue what makes for peace and mutual edification.
If it turns out that you should leave, please write a letter of thanks to the church leaders – without even a hint of criticism – and leave them with a blessing, so that whenever you see one another in the future, they’ll have a good feeling about you and gratitude for your mature spirit. I think it is a good gesture to give a generous financial gift as part of your goodbye. If you have duties at the church, don’t leave without finding and training a replacement. Above all, don’t even get close to a church split or anything like it. It’s better to quietly withdraw than disturb the peace of a faith community in any way. Again echoing the apostle Paul, as far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone, and be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
6. If you are a pastor or other leader yourself, please do not impose on your congregation or organization ideas you have become convinced of through my books. Change is a process that requires wise and patient leadership. To rush new ideas into a sermon is often the very worst way to bring about change – apart from a change of address and employment, that is! If your congregation is open to new ideas and seeks a transformation in its identity to a more missional and emergent vocation, I would highly recommend you begin by finding an experienced consultant that you trust to guide you in this process. (I can highly recommend my colleagues at ILSCC.net, and there are many other good consultants whom I personally know and respect.)
7. If you are mistreated simply because you agree with ideas in my books, then by all means seek out some friends who will understand. You’ll need some people with whom you can be open and honest so that you can process the pain and grief of mistreatment. You may need to seek a professional counselor or spiritual director’s help. Whatever you do, don’t let the mistreatment of others destroy your faith or make you lose heart. Doing so will in the end empower the people who have behaved badly. Instead, let their mistreatment drive you deeper into God’s compassionate care. Elsewhere on this site, you will find a prayer that has helped me so much when I experience mistreatment. I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me. For several months, I prayed this prayer day after day, and parts of it I now know by heart. It has helped me to see people who have hurt me not as enemies but as “cruel friends” for whom I can sincerely thank God.
8. An idea: if you’re excited about something you’ve gained from my work, instead of turning it into discussion, first turn it into action and invite others to get involved with the action. For example, get some people together to do something for people in need in your community, or clean up a stream or park, or organize around a justice issue you care about, or address some down-to-earth problem for your church (paint a classroom or remodel a bathroom or build a playground), throw some big parties for friends who aren’t connected to God. In the end, action is what counts, not words. If people use my books to stir up arguments, it’s a guarantee they haven’t understood what I’m writing about; if they get involved in compassionate action, it’s a good sign they get it.
9. If you see people who have been helped by my books doing the opposite of one of these requests, please encourage them to read or re-read this letter. It might even be good, if you have a study group who reads one of my books, to go over these requests at the beginning or end of your study. And if you have done the opposite of one of these requests, by all means, humbly and sincerely apologize to those you hurt or offended.
It has been my policy to avoid defending myself. Occasionally I have offered some clarification, and I am in the process of writing a friendly note to my critics, asking for their cooperation in raising the quality of dialogue in our Christian communities. But I do not want to become defensive, nor do I want to get anywhere close to counter-attack, aggressively or passive-aggressively. If I do that, I have violated the message I’m trying to live and communicate.
On a positive note, the amount of criticism I receive regarding my books is small compared to the warm and moving accounts I hear of people being blessed by God through them. The criticism has been less severe than I feared, and the positive response has been far more wonderful than I had hoped. Over time, perhaps those positive effects will become more visible and will soften the hearts of the critics to some degree.
Again, I thank you for reading my books and considering these requests. And I thank God for the privilege of in some way serving you, even indirectly, through writing. May God’s kingdom come, and may God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven through all we do.