2016-06-30
Brian D. McLaren's laid-back style might fool you into thinking he's a hip college professor. In reality, he's a pastor and a leader in the emerging church movement. His book 'A Generous Orthodoxy' and his 'A New Kind of Christian' trilogy have challenged conservative evangelical views of Jesus, the Bible, and non-Christians. He spoke to Beliefnet about 'The Last Word and the Word After That,' which explores the concept of hell and completes his trilogy.

Congratulations on making TIME magazine's '25 Most Influential Evangelicals' list. How did you feel about being included?

It's complicated because my sense is that the article was really trying to equate the word 'evangelical' with 'conservative Republican.' Although I think there are many wonderful things about conservative Republicans, I don't fit in that category. So I felt I probably was the oddest duck in the article (laughs). On the other hand, I was glad if I could be an example of someone from an evangelical background who is not happy with the tone of the religious right. So if I provided an alternative voice, I'm glad that I could be included.

You were involved in controversy when the Kentucky Baptist Convention rescinded your invitation to speak because of a controversial paragraph in your book 'A Generous Orthodoxy.' You said, in part, that making disciples doesn't necessarily "equal making adherents to the Christian religion." Did you think the dis-invitation was justified?


When I go to speak somewhere, I'm a guest so I'm not offended if someone would invite me and then decide they would rather not have me. And [the Kentucky Baptist Convention] were very kind and polite in the way they did it.

When you wrote that paragraph, did you feel it would make waves or did it seem natural to write?

I knew it would be seen as controversial to some people. If they had asked me for further explanation, I would have told them that this is an especially important issue for Americans to think about right now. Since the invasion of Iraq, there are millions of Christians around the world who now are in danger. If they associate with a Christian religion, that makes them seem to be associated with the United States for a whole number of reasons. It becomes dangerous and impossible for people who want to follow Jesus in their lives to identify as Christians. Very often if you're in a Muslim country, and you identify as a Christian, you're set up for exclusion and bad treatment. In some cases, worse.

What made you want to tackle the concept of hell in the final book of your trilogy?

In the message of Jesus, I think there is a balance between how the message relates to our would in history as we know it and how it relates to the experience of people beyond death, outside of history. For many Christians, their faith is primarily about what happens to people after they die. That distracts them from seeking justice and living in a compassionate way while we're still alive in this life. We need to go back and take another look at Jesus' teachings about hell. For so many people, the conventional teaching about hell makes God seem vicious. That's not something we should let stand.

In your book, your main character Pastor Dan is "put on trial" by his church board and his doctrinal beliefs are examined. Is Dan's experience like other pastors' in America today?

These are very difficult and challenging times for pastors. In the last thirty years, there's been more crossover between denominations. People are exposed to a lot more theological diversity even though many of our church structures were set up to preserve a lot more theological uniformity. Dan represents someone working in a church structure that did not have much room for diversity and yet he began to stretch outside of those parameters. I think that is a very common situation. Even in my travels I meet pastors who have gone through an awful lot of pain in these kinds of circumstances.

Will this continue to be a struggle within Christian churches?

A lot of these very detailed doctrinal statements arose in an era where almost everybody went to church. You had a little bit of competition about who would get a bigger part of the market share, if I can say it that way. Churches tended to emphasize their distinctive features. You could tell somebody that they should leave their denomination and join yours because their denomination is wrong about X, Y, and Z. But that's not the situation that most of us live in anymore. Now, less than 20% of Americans attend church on an average Sunday.

Postmodernism? The Emerging Church? Huh? Read more >>

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  • Could you explain what the term "emerging church" and "postmodern" mean? How do they relate to each other?

    "Postmodern" is a really squirrel-y term. It's very hard to nail down and different people use it to mean opposite things. When some people use it, they mean relativistic, nihilistic (meaningless). For some people it means, everything bad rolled into one. For other people, the word postmodern means a kind of accelerating change in our culture over the last fifty years. We have the sense that we're emerging out of modernity into something new-and that's where the term "emerging church" comes from. We're trying to deal in healthier ways with a rapidly changing culture. I don't actually like the term "emerging church" because it sounds like it's one set of denominations as opposed to others. For me it's more a matter of conversation; it's a group of people talking together and asking questions together about what it means to practice our faith in this new context.

    Who would be a typical member of the "emerging church"?

    Could I give you two typical kinds? A significant proportion would be people who grew up in traditional churches but now feel they don't fit there anymore. If they don't feel that they can function in the churches of their upbringing, the emerging church provides a good alternative to leaving the faith entirely. But increasing numbers of people involved have very little or no religious background. They are searching for God, for meaning, for purpose. If they were to attend a traditional church, they would find so many obstacles in their way before they could even hear what the Christian message was. In many of these [emerging] churches, some of those obstacles are removed so they have a chance to evaluate the Christian message.

    What would be some obstacles of the traditional church?

    A lot of traditional churches in the United States are caught up in the culture wars. When many people encounter the religious right, what they sense from these people is anger, judgment, a kind of rejection and combative attitude. People look at our world and say, 'I don't want to be part of a religion that is combative and judgmental and angry...Jesus doesn't seem that way.' Most of the obstacles are a matter of tone and attitude. I think a lot of people are asking, 'How did the Christian faith come to be associated with something that is pro-war and sort of anti-poor and pro-judgment?' Those things don't seem to match with the teachings of Jesus.

    At one point, you have Dan introduced into Neo's group of friends. One of them tells Dan that this group is like a church. It's almost like going back to a grassroots Christianity. When you were writing about this group, did you have the ideal postmodern church in mind?

    I'm not proposing those kinds of grassroots and non-institutional churches as the best form, but I think they are an important form of the church. People hear the word church and think steeple, organ, parking lot. We have to realize that in the first few centuries of the church, there was nothing like that. What we have to do is honor the church in all of its forms. We need the eastern Orthodox churches to be strong and we need the Roman Catholic Church to be healthy and we need all different kinds of churches because there's so much work to be done in our world. God wants to work through all these different forms of churches. We shouldn't say this is the only legitimate form, but we should just be happy with every group of people who are seeking to follow Christ.

    You seemed to represent a lot multicultural people of faith in your book. Was this a conscious effort to show diversity?

    Part of that is a reflection of where I've spent most of life: the Washington DC area, which is just so richly multicultural. Part of it is a way of saying the modern church was dominated by white males and the next era of the church will be much more multicolored. I think women will have a much more important place in the church. Also, most people now know that more Christians live in the global south than live in the global north. There are more Christians in Africa, Asia, Latin America than there are in North America. I think the statistics here in the US are stagnant and declining. In Europe, they have plummeted over the last 100 years. This is a time for Christians to appreciate the fact that Christianity truly is a world religion. It's not primarily a white man's religion anymore.

    How would you suggest that the church work in a postmodern world?

    A good start would be for us to talk less about being Christians and more about being followers of Jesus. If we were to actually live the way Jesus taught us to live, it would humble us. We can be very proud if we understand the right doctrines and have certain opinions. But when we deal with the very nitty-gritty of living the way Jesus taught us, none of us can act very proud. We would start taking seriously the things Jesus said about caring for the poor. If we see our neighbor in need, we go and do what we can to help. The most important thing is that we stop being content as members of the Christian religion and actually aspire to start living in the way of Jesus.