the emergent conversation (food for thought)

Currently reading: A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren

As I was packing for our current vacation, I nabbed McLaren’s controversial book from Jack’s pile of recent reading acquisitions. (I tell you, if another bibliophile were to move into our household, the walls would probably collapse under the weight of the paper. LOL)

The “emergent church” movement is stirring up quite a stink in evangelicalism these days. I ran into a Facebook forum discussion (bj survivors) recently in a tornado of turmoil over the fact that one of the BJ faithful — a pretty well-known composer, no less — has “jumped ship” to attend a large seeker church and investigate the emergent church movement.  McLaren’s at the center of the movement, so I figured I’d tackle his book.

(Incidentally, he’s the grandson of the famous Scottish missionary to Africa, Robert McLaren.)

His central premise seems to be that the shift to postmodernism after 500 years of modernism demands a shift in theological thinking. Right practice (orthopraxy) is just as important as orthodoxy (right doctrine) in an age focused less on rationalist argumentation and more on community. Instead of a focus on delineating right doctrine (a very modernist approach to the world), the Church ought to recognize a more “additive” theology, one that doesn’t necessarily agree with all streams in the Christian tradition, but is at least willing to accept the good from them and see a bigger picture in theology.

Thus far (I’m about halfway through the book), I think McLaren has a number of valuable insights to offer the evangelical church. Like anything I read, I don’t agree with every idea. But he’s made some great points:

  • The Evangelical Church is too focused on a “me” view of salvation. Like all good modernists, we’re still thinking about salvation in terms of what it can do for me. Individualists to the core, we look for churches that “meet our needs,” talk about our personal relationship with Jesus, and focus more on the eternal than the here & now
  • McLaren suggests that proper theology (contained more in the non-evangelical traditions, but I think he needs to meet some more Dutch Reformed folks) recognizes that salvation is for the cosmos, not just individuals. Thus, our individual salvation is a small step in God’s over-arching plan to save the WORLD.
  • Evangelical theology tends to emphasize Jesus’ atonement and minimize His life and work. Thus we ignore many of the social/political truths which other streams in Christendom emphasize, to our own detriment (and diminishing the world-wide and social impact of the Gospel).
  • Thus, McClaren argues for an “additive” orthodoxy — not that a Christian will accept all streams of tradition equally, but he/she will certainly be willing to acknowledge their positive contributions to a richer, fuller understanding of Christ and His work.
  • The Reformation was a Modernist movement, focusing on individual freedom of thought and a rational emphasis in theology. Martin Luther’s famous statement, “Here I stand!” is the classic statement of the past 500 years of Church history. McLaren argues that, in a Postmodern world, the Church’s battle cry needs to be “There we go!”, with “there” referencing the Church’s worldwide mission of redemption and blessing. It is a statement of communal action rather than a statement of individual belief.

I am not as comfortable as McLaren with the RCC or Orthodox churches, or with liberation theology. But even my Church History prof at BJU emphasized the fact that Christendom is defined by an allegiance to the basics of Christian theology as stated in the historic creeds…. not to the growing list of “things which must be believed in order to be ‘right.'”   I also think McLaren’s view of the RCC is naive. But he makes an excellent point that even the RCC has in recent years recognized its own need for reforms in doctrine and practice…. and the Protestant world ought to applaud that.

I think McLaren’s emphasis on the Church’s mission as worldwide and pervasive (extending beyond individuals to families, nations, and institutions) is a much-needed correction in evangelical theology.  We have grown too narrow, too happy to criticize each other and quibble over denominational differences.

(To get to the same conclusion from a Reformed worldview, read Al Wolters’ awesome little book Creation Regained.)

I plan to just skim the remainder of the book  — I can tell I’ve hit most of the “meat” already — and see if his conclusion follows from his premises. Overall, I like much of what he says. He argues that thoughtless, irrelevant orthodoxy is no virtue — and he’s right. I see in young people a deep, unquenchable thirst for something MORE than dry orthodoxy in the Church … and a sincere desire for a life with purpose, a life that matters to more than just themselves.

Individualistic, consumer-driven evangelicalism needs to give way to a broader, deeper understanding of the Church’s mission.  If McLaren’s movement pushes us there, then the Spirit is at work.

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