Brian McLaren Responds to Everything Must Change Concerns

Everything Must Change By Brian MclarenHeres a little email chat I had with Brian McLaren recently. He agreed to let me post it on my blog. I reviewed Brian’s book “Everything Must Change” but my mixed review was a little harsh and I had a few questions unanswered. I thought it would be worthwhile to post the conversation here in case you had the same questions as I did. Anyway, thanks Brian for your responses. Here is a shortened piece of the conversation, right after I was complimenting Brian on his book:

Andrewjones50X60-1Brian, I have 3 concerns from your book that linger:

1. the apparent absence of the CHURCH as God’s primary instrument in accomplishing his mission on earth – and the gaping hole in your book where the example of equality and justice in the early church of Acts 2-4 should have been, in my humble opinion. [i read recently that the love feast happened daily in homes and the poor could always find a meal with the believers – a justice element in the lords supper that has gone by the wayside]

Brianmaclaren50X60-1Great point. Because I decided to limit my focus to Jesus, I didn’t bring in a lot of stuff from Acts and the Epistles that I could have (except one chapter to show that Paul is part of the revolution, so to speak, not a traitor to it as so many think) … Limiting my focus to Jesus kept me from bringing in much about the church per se, or from church history – or from the Old Testament, for that matter – each of which could be a book in itself. A church history written from this perspective would be powerful – kind of a 21st century re-write of Broadbent’s “The Pilgrim Church” (which I’ll bet you’ve read, but if not, it’s worth finding in a used book shop or seminary library).

One of the things that I hope the book does (by understatement, perhaps?) is help people think of “church” in broader ways. For example, I don’t think that the church per se is going to intentionally solve economic problems in Africa. But churches will inspire entrepreneurs and activists and politicians and health care workers and community organizers and film-makers, etc., to work together in ways that will bring more and more healing. In this way, “church work” is building up the church, but “the work of the church” is doing kingdom work in our daily lives and jobs, from business to art to government to education to agriculture to whatever.

Andrewjones50X60-2. . . however, you have already written a great book (the church on the other side) where you affirm your faith in the body of Christ and you also are choosing to speak to the church in your Deep Shift tour which tells me you actually DO see the primacy of the church . . .

Brianmaclaren50X60-2Yes. I was deeply impacted a few years ago by Alan Roxburgh at one of our events (you may have been there?) when he said, the church is like a person who gets invited to a party and only talks about himself. I’ve been thinking that we get into a syndrome of trying to save our lives denominationally, etc, which makes us lose them … when instead, our churches need to lose our lives, pour ourselves out for the sake of the world, become more interested in joining God in caring for the world than in getting God to join us in caring for ourselves, that sort of thing. But of course, at heart I’ll always be a pastor, and in the end, none of this matters unless it’s embedded in local churches of whatever form. My next book will lean back in that direction – it’s on spiritual formation and disciplines, etc.

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Andrewjones50X60-32. The apparent absence of HOPE in your view of future things. Maybe i missed it but you don’t seem to acknowledge hope in the afterlife, resurrection of the dead, etc in your book and i had to guess whether you had walked away from these foundational orthodox doctrines or you were focusing exclusively on the immanence of the gospel in today’s world for effect.

Brianmaclaren50X60-3Again, I set a pretty specific goal for myself in this book: to explore global crises and what the message of Jesus says to those crises. I did address life after death in Secret Message of Jesus, chapter 20. So I haven’t walked away from hope in the afterlife, etc. If anything, I see more than ever how hope in the afterlife is necessary to keep us going when progress in this life seems slow or nonexistent.

BTW – have you read Andrew Perriman’s books “The Coming of the Son of Man” or “Re:Mission”? He’s opened up a lot of new questions for me regarding eschatology. I’d love to know what you think of his work if you’ve had time to look at it. He takes NT Wright’s stuff and extends it a step farther, I think. Jay Gary’s work (he has a great website) also has been forcing me to rethink my eschatology along similar lines.

Andrewjones50X60-4Yeah – I was with Andrew Perriman a few months ago in Amsterdam and I really like his books AND the questions he brings to the text. Similar questions as Wright, ie, “What were the disciples THINKING when Jesus said that?

Hey Brian, in your book you seem to embrace a non-spiritual understanding of structures and powers. The Africans would generally hold to the presence of angels and demons behind things, a supernatural view of structures as well as natural. Philip Jenkins seems to land on the western side also on this issue. I don’t think one could claim to represent African theology without addressing that issue.

Brianmaclaren50X60-4I’ve talked with lots of Africans about this. It’s really complex. I’ve had a couple of personal experiences with “dark powers,” so I certainly don’t write them off. But I also think that the language used in Africa (and in a lot of Pentecostalism elsewhere) thinks it grasps these unseen realities more than it really does. So I probably lean more toward Walter Wink than either John Spong or Benny Hinn … these forces are real, deadly real. But I think that the language of devils, etc., which I think may have been borrowed by the Jews from the Zoroastrians during the exile, is no more precise than our language of waves and particles in trying to grasp light … which is truly real but which eludes our ability to define very well. So I wouldn’t call my understanding “non-spiritual.” It’s just that I think the spirituality of evil is non-dualistic, meaning it gets embodied in people and organizations etc., in their “spirit” … but I would be the first to say I have a lot to learn on this. Sometime when we’re together, I’ll tell you about some of the fascinating conversations I’ve had with Africans … from common people to theologians – on the subject of demons and tribal cosmology in general.

Andrewjones50X60-5Fair enough. And I know that you appreciated “Colossians Remixed”. And finally . . . Number 3. An uncritical appraisal of the liberation theology movement from Latin America – there are libraries full of writings on this. I am sure you have read the criticisms (David Bosch in ‘Transforming Mission’ is good) and have your own but your book appears almost giddy and accepting without reservation –

Brianmaclaren50X60-5Wow, this is really interesting … I honestly can’t imagine why you’d say this. I quote Leonardo Boff several times – but I don’t think I quote any other liberation theologians (maybe Jon Sobrino, whom I’ve tried to read in Spanish, but didn’t succeed very well!), and I think I agree with David Bosch 100% – on just about everything! (BTW – I got to know his beautiful widow in Praetoria. She’s planning to join us in Rwanda in May – maybe you could come? Let me know if you think you could swing it – it’s May 20-27)

Boff is neither marxist nor violent by any stretch of the imagination … I think you could say he got into trouble with the pope not for his economics but for being too Protestant in advocating the priesthood of all believers! Maybe you saw something I don’t remember writing. Can you give me a specific where you think I am giddy about liberation theologians? Also, which are you critical of, and what ideas of theirs? It’s commonly said in Evangelical settings in the US that liberation theologians are marxists, advocating violent revolution, etc., but it’s interesting: in Latin America or Africa, I’ve never heard anyone say anything like this – I think they abandoned that thinking in the 80’s or maybe even the 70’s. Everyone I met in Latin America would consider anyone advocating violence as crazy … I did quote Rene Padilla’s good insight about marxism. He said that in Latin America, people say Capitalism is very good at production but bad at distribution. Marxism is good at distribution but terrible at production – which means the best they can do is distribute poverty evenly! The hope, clearly, is with finding ways to make capitalism more humane, compassionate, collaborative and sustainable – at least, that’s how I see it.

Andrewjones50X60Ahhhh. Forgive me for misjudging. I really like Padilla’s thinking. I must have just reacted badly and assumed things that were not accurate.

Brian, your view on the last things has a few of us guessing. How does your eschatological position compare with . . say . . an evangelical post-millenial view? And do you believe in life after death?

Brianmaclaren50X60 Just to be super clear … YES! I believe in life after death! I find it hard to line up my views with conventional pre, post, or amillenial views because I think they are all based on an assumption I don’t share, i.e. that the book of Revelation is intended to tell us how the world will end. This view presupposes a deterministic view of history, which I don’t share. I suppose I’m more Wesleyan and Anabaptist in this regard than Calvinist. Anyway, I talk about this in detail in SMJ, and refer to it briefly in EMC – I believe the Book of Revelation is an example of Jewish Apocalyptic which, although it may be concerned with the end of the age, is not really talking about the end of the world at all. In this, I follow NT Wright’s general line of thought, so if I’m off the ranch, so is he. I see Biblical prophecy in terms of warnings and promises, which are different from prognostications. If I had to put a name on my eschatology, I suppose I would call it “Participatory” – meaning that God invites us to participate in God’s ongoing work in the world, leading to the ultimate victory of all that is good and the ultimate defeat of evil. Beyond that, there are a lot of eschatological details I was much surer about twenty years ago when I read the Bible less and popular end-times books more!

Andrewjones50X60-6You seem to be calling the American church to a new level of repentance, one that is deeper and more connected with structures. How has the response been?

Brianmaclaren50X60-6My loyal critics are by and large ignoring this book (so far), or if they pay attention to it – this is very sad to me – they generally ignore everything about poverty, war, and environmental destruction, and focus on doctrinal issues they disagree with me about. Sheesh. I can only hope that someone they agree with theologically will get them thinking more seriously about global crises. Apart from these loyal critics, though, response is really encouraging. People are telling me they are coming to faith or back to faith through the book … and they are feeling more confident to call themselves followers of Jesus when Jesus is presented not just as a fire escape and savior from the world, but as a liberating king and savior of the world. I am also hearing privately from some “big names” who can’t afford to associate with me publicly because of all the nastiness in the American religious world, but who are thankful for the book and affirming of its message.

I’m really grateful that you wrote, Andrew, and I hope we can go go-carting or something equally fun and good together before too long. I always meet people for whom you and your website are an oasis in the desert and a source of hope … I really appreciate your friendship. Warmly, in Christ – Brian

Andrewjones50X60-7Go-carting again would be great. I am posting the photo of us and our wives at the 2002 Go-cart race in Prague. Thanks for your helpful responses to my crass questions. Look forward to our next chat. Glad to be your friend, Andrew.

Pragueevent1

Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name “Precious” :-)

30 Comments

  • Andrew,
    A great interview. Thanks for posting this. As you know, theres a good three part conversation between Brian and Alan Roxburgh @ the Allelon site that folk might want to check out, as well. (Full disclosure: I shot the interview in a Toronto hotel room last fall.)

  • Fabulous post and conversation. We need conversations like this to model how we balance Christian unity with theological diversity, even if you two just needed to clarify some of your positions.
    Regarding liberation theology, there’s a great introduction to it in the Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology. The Latin American author of that section focuses on the struggle to balance social change (i.e. ending poverty) with spiritual change.
    Regarding the impact of Everything Must Change, I heard Chris Hedges, author of American Facists, speak and he hammered on Christians for ignoring poverty, the reduction of weapons, and the environment. Afterwards I mentioned EMC to him and he was genuinely intrigued, though he believes the Christian right will somehow triumph over this form of progressive Christianity. In any case, it was encouraging to see how a harsh critic of Christianity (at least the Evangelical/Christian right end of Christianity) resonated with Brian’s message in EMC.
    That one brief event with Hedges gave me blogging fodder for weeks!

  • Thanks for this Andrew… good questions and very interesting answers from Brian… One can really hear in the last response, his hurt at the way he is treated by his very loud critics. Hope the traveling is treating you well… see you soon, I’m looking forward to sharing some beer/whisky/food with you in the near future and exploring this question of “Mission Spirituality”. Love to the Clan!

  • Thanks for this gracious interchange – well done with this conversation. I enjoy reading your blog.
    I’m curious however – re your apparent belief in “the CHURCH as God’s primary instrument in accomplishing his mission on earth”. We all know of the multitude of ways ‘church’ is used in common language by christians. I presume (please correct me if I’m wrong) that in this context, by ‘church’ you mean something like ‘all christians in the world’, or even maybe the universal church (all christians who have ever lived), rather than a much narrower meaning of local church groups or denominations.
    If I’m right in this assumption, then it includes christians both inside & outside organised churches. Hence, the same concept can also be conveyed a few other ways, by saying that God’s primary mission will be accomplished by a) His people, or b) His body, or c) His kingdom, or d) His kingdom workers … or you can probably think of others. From my perspective, these alternative phrases are more advantageous than phrases about the ‘church’ for a number of reasons –
    1. They don’t hint at any link to church structure & organisation (which at some times is helpful for the kingdom, but at other times hinders it)
    2. The word ‘church’ is used in a multitude of different ways – so when someone says ‘church’, others can take it to mean different things than the speaker intended
    3. The word ‘church’ has no clear link/foundation in the Bible ie it comes from different Greek roots to ekklesia. Over the last 2000 years, it has developed a meaning of its own
    4. Some people toss around phrases like ‘the church is the hope of the world’ – which raises a couple of questions – ?which particular ‘church’, from the multitude of meanings, is the hope of the world? & ?I thought Jesus was the hope of the world?
    Sorry – I’ve come a long way briefly in this comment – I hope it makes sense. You’ve probably covered this elsewhere in your blogs – sorry, but I’m an ignorant NZer who hasn’t read them all …..
    Keep up the good blogging … & work ….
    Blessings. David

  • thanks David. i agree with your understanding of the universal church and appreciate the work of my friend and fellow kiwi alan jamieson [Churchless Faith]
    Brian – i think if we all had more conversation with each other rather than jumping to conclusions . . as i sometimes do . . . then we would find that we dont differ as much as we thought.

  • very interesting thoughts
    ah, i thin Broadbent’s Pilgrim Church was re-printed a couple of years back, im pretty sure we have it in one of our branches if you wanted a copy?

  • great post – should be held as an example of how we can dialog about (possible) differences…so easy for us to dismiss authors, speakers, (and bloggers) by not realizing that they are real people.

  • Andrew,
    Great point about the Lord’s Supper. I have to chew on that one some more. Never occurred to me quite like that.
    I wanted to point out one quote that I thought was a little strange:
    “I don’t think that the church per se is going to intentionally solve economic problems in Africa. But churches will inspire entrepreneurs and activists and politicians and health care workers and community organizers and film-makers, etc., to work together in ways that will bring more and more healing. In this way, “church work” is building up the church, but “the work of the church” is doing kingdom work in our daily lives and jobs, from business to art to government to education to agriculture to whatever.”
    Does it seem strange to anyone but me that he would say the church wouldn’t intentionally solve the problem but the church can inspire non-Christians (did I read that into what he was saying) to make a difference? So the purpose of the church is not to solve the problem but to inspire outsiders to go and bring healing. I know it is easy to take a really good interview with lots of good responses and pull one awkward sentence out so I am trying to understand why he would say something like that.

  • Thanks for this, it has re-assured me a little on where MacLaren is going with this book. I have almost finished reading the book right now, but I am still concerned that by looking at Jesus without the context of his past (Old Testament) and future (the rest of the New Testament), it is essentially taken Jesus out of context. Having read hundreds of pages of EMC, the notions of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension being means by which a Spirit-filled people of God can transform the world seem to be absent, which I find very worrying.

  • Matt. Brian’s sentence made sense to me. Our Cooperative in Scotland, for example, which is being run as a social enterprise, is drawing in many people who do not call themselves Christians and yet are attracted by the mission of Christ.
    Alastair – I agree. The gospels have often trumped the epistles in the last few years, esp. in contexts where the writings of Paul had more exposure than the gospels and the imbalance was addressed. But I do find a lot of Old Testament as backdrop to Jesus – check out the two writers already mentioned here – Tom Wright and Andrew Perriman.

  • Andrew,
    Does it seem like a contradiction to say we are God’s people but if we are going to get done part of the mission here we really won’t do it ourselves, instead we will rely on the real movers and shakers in the world to get it done?

  • Ahh . . . . Matt . . interesting dilemma . . so do you only share the gospel with words to the shakers and movers until they confess Christ and get baptised and are then and only then ready for mission
    . . OR .. .
    do you summon them to eternal life AND to follow Jesus into what he is up to and tell them to start right now?
    And this is where people point to the disciples of Christ who left their boats and coins to follow Christ into his mission and yet may not have fully been “born again” until later on.
    The other idea that comes up here is whether we can be God’s people and not be involved in his mission. Or as one person asked, do we not become the people of God in mission?

  • If we are Christ’s and are filled with his Spirit, should it be surprising to us when a Christian teacher says the job will really get done through the non-Christians? Sounds surprising to me. Why not dream bigger rather than settle for a picture of Christians just hoping to influence “those who can make a difference?” [my words]. Sounds like we don’t expect God to do very much through his people and almost like God is saying, “I can’t do it through the church but I sure could use some politicians, health care workers, etc to get this job done…” Doesn’t really sound like everything changed to me.

  • Matt – when you ask “the job will really get done through the non-Christians?” then you have taken it far beyond what I or probably Brian have hinted at.
    Are you saying that personnel for God’s mission is limited entirely to those already in the church?
    And if so, are non-believers simply not invited to participate with God in his plan until they get their redemption or are they actually forbidden to participate?
    And practically, I would be curious to know how you determine the salvation of the people that sweep the floor in your church or participate in a smaller way in God’s mission. Do you exclude on the basis of the job or is it an across-the-board exclusion?

  • Andrew,
    I don’t make that determination of who is included and who is not. Thank goodness! I agree that God can use non-Christians to accomplish his plan. He did that with Pilate didn’t he? I just think we are dreaming too small and putting God in an awful tight box when we say the church can’t do it but the church can inspire outsiders to get it done. I also don’t think we can rely on non-Christians to get the Christian mission accomplished for us.
    Who would have thought the church could grow from a few hundred believers to tens of thousands across the world in a matter of decades with basically zero communication technology? Good thing they didn’t dream too small.
    I hope I am not being obnoxious here. I am really trying to understand what he is saying and your last comment helped.

  • thanks matt. and please forgive me for messin’ wid ya and having some fun.
    i usually think in practical terms – ie – running a church or mission related program and the volunteers come from who knows where.
    actually, this question of who god uses – church or world or both – is quite complex and many missiologists have struggled with it (you will no doubt quote Hoekendijk to me) and i am sure we will not solve it today.
    i also have noticed that God has his key players everywhere and i see the church [read: aggregation more than congregation] has having a significant role, as always, in culture shift.
    appreciate the banter.

  • There is no denying God uses both. I am with you in thinking the church is one of his primary instruments in the world today. I don’t think that stopped with the book of Acts or the death of the apostles. There is a continuity of God’s people and how they are to do his work that will last through eternity…even in heaven I would venture to say (just with a slightly different function I am sure).

  • I would go further and say that the church IS the primary [but not the only] instrument. Which is the problem i have with liberation theology that often puts the stress away from the body of Christ and towards whoever wants to jump into God’s mission of justice. Thus my question to Brian about LT . . .

  • Great to see a conversation like this happen between you two. It is far too rare for an author to be so accountable to answer such questions and for a ‘critic’ to be so polite and willing to engage intellectually and even rarer for both to be gracious & both to learn from the exchange.
    You’ve both given me a better vision of doing Christian theology.
    Thanks,
    Paul

  • andrew, thanks for the post.
    it made me feel like we don’t use blogs enough to share these kinds of dialogues; reminds me of the ‘conversation’ word we throw around so much in these, uh, conversations.
    grace and peace from texas.

  • Good interview on the whole Andrew. Though I have to say that I get a little weary of the kinds of questions like the first two you asked. They strike me as the sort that basically boil down to “you didn’t address my favorite theological topic so you must not care about it or agree with me on it”. (Though yours were much more kindly put than most of these I see.) But it’s only one book! He can’t possibly address every single topic someone might throw at him as a criticism. Just because he didn’t have space to address the church in Acts doesn’t mean he was deliberately ignoring it! Just because he doesn’t get into his specific eschatology in this book doesn’t mean he doesn’t have one, or that his is heretical! I’m sure you realize this Andrew, so I’m not really calling you out personally on it. I’m just griping because I feel like I encounter this attitude a lot in the blogosphere. C’mon people, Brian can only cover so many topics in one book, and frankly EMC went a little long anyway IMHO. Cut him some slack already. Or go pick up his other books where he does address your pet issues.
    Sorry for getting into rant mode. It was a good interview overall. Thanks for posting it.

  • Thanks for posting questions and answers. It’s interesting having known you and getting to know Brian through these books. Sometimes I don’t know what questions to ask, but I always learn from others. Still learning, chewing and pondering.

  • Thanks for the great interview Andrew – and thanks by proxy for taking the time to respond. I wish emergent critics who claim we emergent types can’t give straight answers would read this! A very clear and interesting interview. Andrew, I stumble across your site frequently when googling but keep forgetting to bookmark it – I’m adding you to my links and putting a post about this interview because it’s so good. While Mike’s rebuke *is* right on, I’ve talked to plenty of folks from the more conservative/post-conservative end of things who were asking similar questions. You can’t blame them when the book is titled *every*thing must change, especially when the “conventional view” gets pretty thoroughly dismantled. Nice to have Brian asnswer these questions as opposed to endless speculation about what he thinks or if he still believes what he’s said in other books. Helps take down some barriers from folks who need to change.

  • Andrew,
    This is just fabulous. Dialogue on issues betweeen brothers in Christ trying to find out whether we agree or not, and how to work together even if we don’t agree. I love it. I have been reading so many people on both ends of the discussion that seem so divisive, even if they don’t intend to be. This is the third interview i have read with Brian in the past two days and really feel it clears some things up, and would really show some critics that he has his head on straight, even if they disagree on different theologies. The greatest line was when Brian said that so many critics miss his points and only adress theoloical disagreements and he hopes that someone they agree with theologically will draw them into the Social Justice conversation. Let us continue to pray for this reconciliation. The open arms of the crucified Messiah stretch wide enough to include both ends of the discussion, and certainly strong enough to pull them together. I love Christ, and i Love His church.
    Shalom,
    Ben

  • Andrew, thanks for the humanizing interview with McLaren. I am continually amazed at how easy it is for one to attack another on a theological point in order to pull the attention away from compassionate application to which that theology gives life. Thanks for giving room for Brian’s love for God and compassion for people to come through.

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