New Kinds of Christians

The buzz word these days in religious circles is the "Emergent Church," a religious movement often linked to Brian McLaren. McLaren is probably the best known proponent, but not the only major spokesperson. There seems to be another movement, with a similar name, that is linked to people like Marcus Borg. This other movement is sometimes referred to as the "Emerging Christian Way." In many ways these two movements are very different, and yet they have similarities.

Since I just finished reading McLaren's A New Kind of Christian (Jossey-Bass, 2001), I want to make some comments about it and the movement that it speaks for. But before I do that I want to insert this quote from a promo for the book: The Emerging Christian Way: Thoughts, Stories, and Wisdom for a faith of Transformation (Copperhouse Books, 2006). I've not yet read this book, but I think it's worth mentioning in connection with the Emergent tradition.

This emerging movement or paradigm - which is really about reclaiming the ancient wisdom of Christian tradition - represents for millions of people a "new" way of being Christian. As scholars have begun to articulate, it is a Christianity that focuses not on literalism, or convention, or charity, or even "beliefs," but rather on transformation of both the individual and society. The result is a Christianity that lives and breathes in our contemporary world.

Now back to McLaren. I realize that A New Kind of Christian, isn't a recent publication, but I just read it. I was going to read a more recent book, but was told to read this first, and that's what I've done. In this book, McLaren sets out a vision of what Emergent Christianity could be/is to be. He uses fiction to carry the story--kind of a narrative theology. Now having read the book, I can say that McClaren won't be mistaken for John Irving or even Michael Crichton, but I understand why he chose to use this format.

What I think both of these movements have in common is a sense that the church is in a period of transition. In his book, McClaren speaks at some length -- through the person of Neo Oliver, a high school science teacher and former pastor with a degree in the philosophy of science -- about post-modernism. The recipient of this information is a pastor who is on the verge of leaving the ministry because his faith doesn't seem to make sense anymore.

With Postmodernism being the the crux of the issue, McLaren (Neo) suggests that liberal and conservative forms of Christianity are stuck in an evidentialist modernist form of Christianity, but the future lies with a post modern Christianity, a Christianity that is centered in Jesus Christ, but allowing considerable freedom. This is a form of evangelicalism (and Emergent Christianity is distinctly Evangelical) that is open to evolution, isn't concerned so much about literalism or inerrancy, is concerned about sharing the gospel but is open to how God might speak through and use other religious traditions. Salvation is about more than simply getting into heaven -- in the book the mentor figure, Neo makes reference to the story of the redemption of the servant of Tash in C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle.

In The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg puts the emphasis on transformation as the core value of Christian faith. We are transformed because of our encounter with God through Jesus. Borg is a panentheist, McLaren is likely not, but I believe that McLaren would be of one mind with Borg on this point -- transformation. As I pointed out in my reviews of James W. Thompson's book Pastoral Ministry according to Paul -- transformation is Paul's core value as well. Maybe there is convergence here!

I'm planning to continue reading on into McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy so that I can get a better sense of what this Emergent Movement is all about. I can tell that postmodernism is a key point, but so is Lesslie Newbingin's missional theology. It is, therefore, postmodern but with an outward focus on transforming the world. There's more to come, so stay tuned. I invite you to chime in and add your thoughts, especially if you come from either of these two traditions.


Danny said…
Bob, your thoughts touch on a topic that I have just begun to take an interest in. Here in northern California, a conversation has started regarding these issues, initiated by our region's emphasis on transformation. Several of us have read The Sky is Falling, an excellent book by Alan Roxburgh. If you've read it, I've love to hear your thoughts.

Like many, I have wondered about the typical church's relevance to the 21st century. Like the character in the book you mention, I've considered leaving church and going into teaching full-time. (I'll have to find that book and read it.)

Thanks for the post. No I've not read Roxburgh's book. I know that Don Dewey of Ventura is high on him. I'll have to get a hold of it! I think we've all thought about doing something else. Of course, I must confess that I always thought I'd be a college teacher and not a pastor, but here I am a pastor. When things get rough, my head starts dreaming of how nice it would be to be back in academia!
Richard Bass said…

It's interesting to see this post about both McLaren and Borg. I was in Portland over the summer where they and Diana Butler Bass did a week together on "The Church in the 21st Century."

It was very interesting to see how these three, all starting from very different places, were heading in the same direction. It was like one of those freeway merges I remember from Southern California: Marcus merging in from the left (unabashedly liberal Christianity), Brian from the right (out of if not still in evangelicalism), and Diana heading straight up the middle with her interest in the transformation of the established church.

What they all had in common, though, was an interest in Christianity as transformational: for the individual, for the continual renewal of the faith, and for the sake of the world. And a sense that we are in a particular moment when there is an openness to this kind of change.

Brian, like most of us, has been on a journey since 2001. You were probably right to start with NKOC, but I expect you'll find Generous Orthodoxy or the newer Secret Message of Jesus more engaging. Better yet, hear him speak sometime; he is a warm, generous, and engaging speaker.

As for Danny's comment about the "typical church's relevance," I expect it has very little. What we need to do is change what the "typical church" is and does.

I have been meaning to read Roxburgh's book myself. When you've finished studying the "Emerging Church" you can turn your attention to the "Missional Church."

Thank you for your comments. I almost went up for the event in Portland. Now I'm sorry I didn't. There seems to be a strong convergence between Borg and McLaren. Diana seems to have here finger on the pulse of both, which is quite helpful. Missional is definitely next on the agenda -- I still need to figure out what all this means!
DaNutz said…
Bob, it is interesting that you mention these 2 together. They are 2 of my favorite authors. As a life long Evangelical and son of a southern baptist pastor, I had nearly lost all my faith until Marcus Borg helped me fall in love with the Bible "again" (for the first time). Borg showed me how to drop my 5th grade Evangelical reading of scripture and opened my eyes to the wealth of spritual depth that is in those pages. Mclaren on the other hand helped keep me from being angry at my Evangelical friends and family while I was pursuing my new found passion for Jesus and his message of personal transformation and political activism.

I hope you will enjoy those books and read them with an open mind. My journey started because I decided that I had enough of partisanship among Christianity and I wanted to get both sides of the story. I was unfamiliar with Christian liberalism and I felt these people were too smart to ignore so I read them. It was the best thing I've ever done!

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