The Grace of God is like the wind blowing across the sea; if you want to reach the other side you need to raise your sail.
Over the past decade author and teacher Brian McLaren has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy within the church, particularly among those believers of a more conservative, fundamentalist bent. Fueled by his own spiritual journey as well as a deep understanding that the church must find new wineskins in which it can spread the life-giving teachings of Jesus, McLaren has stepped on more than a few theological toes along the way.
McLaren clearly understands that his mission is a daunting one, yet he continues to move forward in spite of a constant din of criticism coming from the more rigid, backward-looking quarters of the faith. As a person who cares deeply about the church, McLaren also knows that unless these new wineskins are developed, the massive exodus from the sanctuaries across America will continue.
In A New Kind of Christianity McLaren lists ten questions that might frame the discussion, which leads to a fresh definition of the faith. These questions are:
- The narrative question: “What is the overarching story line of the Bible?”
- The authority question: “How should the Bible be understood?”
- The God question: “Is God violent?”
- The Jesus question: “Who is Jesus and why is he important?”
- The gospel question: “What is the gospel?”
- The church question: “What do we do about the church?”
- The sex question: “Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?”
- The future question: “Can we find a better way of viewing the future?”
- The pluralism question: “How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?”
- The-what-do-we-do-now- question: “How can we translate our quest into action?”
In describing the current context in which these vital questions are being asked, McLaren makes the following cogent remarks:
These ten questions are, to recall Dylan’s epic line, blowing in the wind around us. Even if we’ve never heard them articulated, they have been hovering just outside our conscious awareness. They trouble our conventional paradigms of faith just as the ten plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, and hail plagued the Egyptians in the Exodus story. When people tell us to be quiet and accept the conventional answers we’ve been given in the past, many of us groan like the ancient Hebrews when they were forced to produce bricks without straw. We cry out to God, “Please set us free!” We cry out to preachers and theologians, “Let us go! Let us find some space to think, to worship God outside the bars and walls and fences in which we are constrained and imprisoned. We’ll head out into the wilderness – risk hunger, thirst, exposure, death – but we can’t sustain this constrained way of thinking, believing, and living much longer. We need to ask the questions that are simmering in our souls.”
If recent history tells us anything for certain, these questions are indeed being raised. And one more thing – if sincere, thinking, seeking followers of Jesus cannot find the freedom to explore their questions, doubts, and concomitant gray areas within the parameters of the traditional faith, they will find that freedom elsewhere. The exodus from organized Christianity over the last half-century proves this beyond any question.
I sincerely believe McLaren’s voice is a prophetic one and his message, although he would never admit or assert this, is of divine origin. God is calling to his people, insisting that they come out from the theological and denominational prisons religious leaders have fabricated over the centuries. A fresh wind is blowing my friends, a wind that carries a message of liberation, hope, and rejuvenation.
And just as in those biblical times so long ago, anytime a prophetic wind sweeps across the landscape, voices of opposition arise in an attempt to quell the latest movement of God. Shamefully enough, more often than not those contrary voices come not from the non-religious, but instead, from our religious leaders themselves. This is no less true today than it was at the time of the Master. Jesus contended with the Pharisees of his day and so do we. With an agenda bent upon maintaining the status quo at all cost, these critics are loud, judgmental, and fearful. McLaren has been accused of apostasy, heresy, and everything from being the brother of Beelzebub to creating a limp-wristed Jesus.
Turning briefly to another angle on all of this, it is important that we understand that the term “Christian” has taken on a generally negative connotation in contemporary culture. Perhaps this is somewhat less true in the Bible Belt where I live, but for the most part, when people hear the word “Christian,” it brings to mind a stereotype of “rigid, judgmental, narrow-minded, homo-hating bigots.” Whether this reality is justified or not is open to debate, however, the fact is such a reality indeed exists. Perhaps this has occurred as a result of far too many professing Christians have settled for an empty shell of the real thing. Jesus charged us with making disciples, not Christians. McLaren explains:
We might say that “Christians” are people who have entered a certain sedentary membership or arrived at a status validated by some group or institution, while “disciples” are learners (or unlearners) who have started on a rigorous and unending journey or quest in relation to Jesus Christ. It’s worth noting in this regard that the word “Christian” occurs in the New Testament exactly three times and the word “Christianity” exactly zero. The word “disciple,” however, is found 263 times.
I can say without reservation that what we need today is not more Christians, but instead, more disciples of Jesus. By that term I don’t mean a cadre of holier-than-thou Morality Marshalls or Thought Police and certainly not a mega-flock of Super Christians out to convert the heathen and keep an eye on the Democrats.
I am talking about an increasing number of highly committed, consecrated disciples of the Master who seek to deepen their vital connection with the Divine and bring about his kingdom on earth – a noble mission if there ever was one. Driven by a heart of compassion flowing from an internalized understanding of the interconnection of all existence, these rejuvenated disciples form communities that thrive on consistent, loving service to others while, at the same time, seeking to establish religious, social, economic, and political institutions based on kingdom principles of equality, justice, and compassion.
Brian McLaren is but one of a host of fresh voices being used by God in this exciting yet challenging time. Like McLaren, many of these relatively new voices are calling for a reevaluation of all that has gone before. And believe me when I say this is no small, isolated movement. It is, instead, a groundswell emerging from the spiritual grassroots. Fueled by the energy and passion of many young, vital believers this new Christianity is attracting a great deal of positive attention from those outside the traditional church culture. Social researcher George Barna puts it this way:
The United States is home to an increasing number of Revolutionaries. These people are devout followers of Jesus Christ who are serious about their faith, who are constantly worshiping and interacting with God, and whose lives are centered on their belief in Christ. Some of them are aligned with a congregational church, but many of them are not. The key to understanding Revolutionaries is not what church they attend, or even if they attend. Instead, it’s their complete dedication to being thoroughly Christian by viewing every moment of life through a spiritual lens and making every decision in light of biblical principles. These are individuals who are determined to glorify God every day through every thought, word, and deed in their lives.
Giving a more personal face to this new breed of Christ-follower, Barna, in his seminal volume entitled, Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary, describes a “Revolutionary” by the name of David this way:
David, you see, is a Revolutionary Christian. His life reflects the very ideals and principles that characterized the life and purpose of Jesus Christ and that advance the Kingdom of God – despite the fact that David rarely attends church services. He is typical of a new breed of disciples of Jesus Christ. They are not willing to play religious games and aren’t interested in being part of a religious community that is not intentionally and aggressively advancing God’s Kingdom. They are people who want more of God – much more – in their lives. And they are doing whatever it takes to get it.
Increasingly, we see more of the old faith structures crumbling, often from their own ineffectiveness and lack of relevancy. As this process goes forward, we also are witness to many of the walls and barriers that formerly separated people and cultures falling as well. To say this is God’s will is a vast understatement. Jesus’ entire ministry was an example of reaching out to those considered unclean or unapproachable. Jesus stressed unity at every turn and this theme was echoed time and time again in the writings of Paul.
This process of tearing down walls of separation and creating avenues of connection and unity has at its heart a desire to resurrect and implement a fundamental Christian principle that has generally been lost in the American church. Our nation was founded on and developed through a people driven by a central cultural icon: rugged individualism. The positive progress engendered by this peculiarly American value is without question. However, we must understand that no matter how theologians, preachers, and laypersons alike have tried to marry this individualism to the Christian faith, they have created a form of Christianity that runs counter to the faith envisioned by Christ.
Fortunately, more and more of these new, revolutionary disciples are coming to understand that a core mission fueled the practice and the success of the early church and it is precisely that core mission that was mentioned at the beginning of the preceding paragraph. The way of living increasingly exemplified in the lives of this new breed of disciple is rooted in the ancient Christian practice known as the common good. Author and social researcher Gabe Lyons explains:
This simple phrase means “the most good for all people.” Aristotle first conceived it, but Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth century Roman Catholic philosopher, honed it well as a Christian conception of how Christians ought to live alongside others in society. This strict definition of the common good – the most good for all people – doesn’t prefer one human being over another; instead, it values all human life and wants what is best for all people, Christian or not. It motivates these next Christians to care for all people, whether young or old, disabled, impaired, unborn, or otherwise different from themselves in race, religion, socioeconomic status, or worldview. . . . . . . .Practicing this common good mentality – where good deeds are also seen as integral to Christian mission – can actually have a positive impact on culture at large.
I find it highly refreshing to see this long-standing Christian conception of “common good” begin to reemerge into the light of day. As mentioned before, our culture’s obsession with individuality, coupled with Capitalisms “every man for himself” ethic has submerged the spiritual principle of common good, relegating it to the spiritual hinterland where it only makes an appearance as a trite platitude around the holidays. When you look at the life of Jesus, you quickly see that he placed common good at the very center of his worldview and more importantly, his daily lifestyle. As his followers, we are called to no less.
We began this article by looking at the ten questions posed by Brian McLaren; questions which we can use to frame our discussions of how we, as followers of the Master Jesus, may proceed. As we look at these questions we also discover that our personal spiritual formation and the corporate mission of the church are intimately connected. When things are working as they should, the latter provides direction and support to help facilitate the former. Experience has shown, however, that this is rarely the case. As the future unfolds, rectifying this kind of spiritual misfiring has to be rectified if the church hopes to survive.
More often than not, when we analyze the factors that contribute to the church’s failure to follow Christ’s command to “make disciples,” we find old, time-worn paradigms taking center stage. “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” and “If it was good enough for Grandma Becky, then it’s good enough for me,” or similar refrains echo down the vacant pews in near-empty sanctuaries. Still, one can hope and the new, vibrant kind of Christians we have discussed in this article give us a reasonable foundation upon which we can base that hope. And the church, with all its warts, blemishes, and even its scandals, can still surprise us at times with its resiliency and its ability to transcend the ball and chain of irrelevant tradition. These are special times when something sublime – something mystical – something life-changing is taking place. McLaren describes these experiences this way:
Rare moments come to us in our journey when the penny drops, the tumblers click, the pieces fall into place, the lights come on, and our breath is taken away. The old paradigm falls away behind us like a port of departure, and we are won over to new possibilities, caught up in a new way of seeing, looking toward a new and wide horizon. The Lord has more light and truth to break forth, we believe, and so we raise our sails to the wind of the Spirit.
(c) L.D. Turner 2011/2014/All Rights Reserved