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An Interview: Brian McLaren


Questions presented by Fred Peatross
Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren is the founder and minister of Cedar Ridge Community church in Spencerville, Maryland. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland with a master's degree in English. He taught at several colleges and universities before entering pastoral ministry in 1988. Brian is chairman of the board of International Teams, an innovative and multicultural missions agency, and is active in Young Life, the Willow Creek Association, and Leadership Network. He and his wife, Grace, have four children. Brian is the author of The Church on the Other Side (formally titled Reinventing your Church), More Ready Thank You Realize, and his latest book, A New Kind of Christian.

Brian's dream is to change the way people in the Washington-Baltimore region (and beyond) think about church and Christianity, he explains. "We're building an exciting, accepting, active church of imperfect but growing people who can be difference-makers in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. What I get most enthusiastic about is this: seeing people who have not considered themselves committed Christians come and relax and learn and then - the lights go on - and they discover a faith that is real and a mission in life that makes a difference. That's what it's all about for me."

1) Brian, it seems as if the the world has largely rejected the traditional trappings of modern religion and find little use for the institutional church. What are your thoughts?

-- Yes ... but the rejection seems to go both ways. I think the church tends to reject people outside the church too often, and sees little use for the cultures of the world at large. The leverage point is to change the way people in the church think about their role in the world. In "More Ready Than You Realize," I compare the situation to a mining operation. The church can see "the world" as a place to mine "raw materials" for its own self-aggrandizement. Or -- the church can see its role as existing for the good of the world. Does the world exist for the church, or the church for the world? It seems to me, if indeed Jesus sent us into the world as he was sent by the Father ... then we in the church must change our attitude to the world, its cultures, and its people.

2) What do church leaders do with the long-standing members who have found security in familiarity (and often confused it with gospel) and refuse to move forward?

-- This is such an important -- and tough -- question. I don't think we can treat anyone harshly. These people have simply believed what they have been told: that the church exists largely for the benefit of its members. For us to help people believe and act on the belief that the church exists largely for the benefit of its nonmembers -- this will be a major shift, and it will require humility, patience, clear teaching, apologies, prayer, and did I say patience?

I don't think we should expect a majority of the comfortable to get it. We should seek to bless and care for these people, and at the same time, focus more proactive efforts on those who "get it." And we should especially hope to "disciple" new believers in a better way of seeing, thinking, etc.

3) Many of those who read my writings are not familar with you and your books. With that in mind, could you tell the readers, in your opinion, what the church of tomorrow is going to look like?"

-- Well ... that's a huge question, and the best answer is '-- I don't know--. My book "Church on the Other Side" attempts to explore that question. In short, I think there will be all types of churches -- cathedrals, congregations, house churches, contemporary and traditional, liturgical and charismatic, etc., etc. I think that God uses all kinds of churches to reach and bless all kinds of people. More significant than how the church looks, in my opinion, is how the church believes and lives ... and that's where I hope we'll see profound changes. I hope that we'll see churches that see themselves as communities of faith and mission, dedicated to being and making disciples or apprentices of Jesus, in authentic community, for the good of the world. That's my hope and dream.

4) How close is our culture to reaching "the other side" of the postmodern transition?

Great question.

I think it varies both geographically and demographically. Geographically, for example, if you're in Seattle or San Francisco or Washington DC or Paris -- I think you're pretty far along in the transition.

If you're in the Midwest or Deep South, in general, you'll probably be more embedded in the modern culture. Demographically, the younger you go, the more likely you're at home on the other side. But of course there are exceptions. There are plenty of 75-year-old postmodern grandmothers in Mississippi, I'm sure.

5) Brian, here's a question I've been waiting to ask. Should the prevailing culture provide the direction for change in the church?

Well, let me offer three answers: 1. Of course not, 2. of course, and 3. of course not.

Should the prevailing culture provide the direction for change in the church? Of course not: On the one hand, the Scriptures in general -- and the teachings of our Lord in particular, interpreted and applied under the guidance of the Holy Spirit -- provide the direction for our mission as the church. And when it's time for change, when we realize we need to change in some ways (in other words, when we admit we're not perfect, we admit we've gotten off track in some way) ... of course, we go to the Scriptures in general, and the teachings of Jesus in particular, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Should the prevailing culture provide the direction for change in the church? Of course: But on the other hand, if our mission from Jesus is to go to the people of our culture to proclaim the gospel, to make disciples in our culture, love our neighbors in our culture, etc., and if we realize we're not doing that -- or we're doing it for yesterday's world and not today's, or today's and not tomorrow's -- then we have to be in touch with our culture. Where our culture is, what it's about, how it suffers, how it sins, the questions it asks, how it thinks, what it values, where it's coming from, where it's going ... all these things must be important to us ... if indeed we believe we should be about a mission in our world. (Of course, some people probably don't understand the church as a missional community, so they'd probably disagree with what I've just said. But for anyone who sees the church as a missional community ... I can't imagine them not agreeing.)

Should the prevailing culture provide the direction for change in the church? Of course not: Giving your question the careful attention it deserves -- if the operative word in your question is "prevailing" -- then I'd say we must not limit ourselves to being sensitive to the prevailing culture. In every setting, there are minority cultures, oppressed cultures, forgotten cultures -- the poor, the sick, the elderly, the young, the ethnic minority, the refugee, the stranger, the orphan, the handicapped -- and if anything (as I currently understand the teachings of our Lord anyway) we should have a disproportionate concern for them and their cultures. We must care about the prevailing culture, yes ... but not only the prevailing culture: also -- and especially --these many minority cultures.

6) In your book titled, "Church On The Other Side," you talk about reinventing church. Here's my question. How is a reinvented church different from a restored or renewed church?

Another great question: A restored church assumes that it had everything basically right, except for one or two "last details" or "lost details." Once it "fixes" these few details, it feels it is now correct, right, fixed, OK, together, superior. (This is how many of our current denominations formed -- as restoration movements.)

Renewed churches similarly assume they have everything basically right, except that they have lost some enthusiasm, usually because they have slipped behind the times by a decade or century or two. So, they seek to do a one-time fix -- update, restructure, whatever -- so they'll be regain what they lost and be fine again.

By contrast, a church entering reinvention feels it is a mess. It feels it has lost its way. It is ready to go back to the drawing board and first principles and start all over again. It's saying, "We think we need a do-over. We need a new beginning. We aren't even sure what's wrong with us ... so we're going to put everything up for grabs, everything, of course, except our identity as Christians, as followers of Jesus. Whatever he wants from us, we'll do." This seems to me to be not only a quantitative difference, but also a qualitative difference. Perhaps that's why this process is so rare -- it's really quite radical.

7. And finally how will the church on the other side handle theology?

That's a million dollar question. I've got about three new books in mind that will begin to begin to begin to grapple with this question, and a lot of other people are grappling with it too.

As the "Resurrect Theology as Art and Science" chapter in Church on the Other Side suggested, I think one major difference will be this: I think we'll see theology more as a creative and learning process, like art and science, and less as a regulative process, like passing laws ... and less as a technical process like documenting software. I think we'll be more honest about the difference between our theology at its best and God's truth ... acknowledging that our best theology is only an imperfect approximation falling far below the glory of God's truth, like a child's drawing trying to capture a beautiful landscape.

I think we'll be more aware of how theology is a human enterprise, and is always linked to its historical context, responding to the questions and needs and issues of its time ... and is therefore never "objective" and never "absolute" and never "finished." That means, I hope, that we'll handle theology (to get back to your question) with more humility.

Also, as a friend of mine, John Franke, says -- I think we'll realize that theology is not just about God. It's about constructing models of the universe, models of reality, beginning with beliefs about God. That realization will, I hope, make theology a thousand times more important to us.

Again, this is a huge question, but I hope these few thoughts -- which are only my perspective at this point in my own learning process -- will prove stimulating to people, and will perhaps encourage people to read the book. Because in many ways, the whole book is a first attempt at addressing this important question.


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