A Conversation With Brian McLaren (Sep-Dec 2006)

By Matt Dabbs

by Fred Peatross
September – December 2006

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, pastor, and networker among innovative Christian leaders, thinkers, and activists. He is a frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs. He has appeared on many broadcasts including Larry King Live, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, and Nightline. His work has also been covered in Time Magazine (where he was listed as one of American’s Twenty-five most influential evangelicals), Christianity Today, Christian Century, the Washington Post, and many other print media.

His 2004 release, A Generous Orthodoxy (Emergent/YS/Zondervan), is a personal confession and has been called a “manifesto” of the emerging church conversation. The conclusion to the A New Kind of Christian trilogy was released in 2005, entitled, The Last Word and the Word After That (Jossey-Bass).

His books have been or are being translated into many languages, including Korean, Chinese, French, Swedish, Norwegian, and Spanish. He has written for or contributed interviews to many periodicals, including Leadership, Sojourners, Worship Leader, and Conversations. Many of his articles are available at [www.brianmclaren.net]. He is also a musician and songwriter.

He is on the international steering team and board of directors for Emergent Village, a growing generative friendship among missional Christian leaders. He is also active in global networking among emerging leaders.

Fred Peatross, New Wineskins Conversations Editor, caught up with Brian and the two of them talked about Brian’s ministry, his writings, and the things Jesus continues to teach him. This conversation available exclusively (with the inclusiveness of free access to all) at New Wineskins.

Fred: Brian, I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to sit down with me and talk about some important matters. I’m not sure how everyone who listens in on our conversation will feel, but for me the answers you give are very important answers. So let me thank you before we begin.

I’ve read all your books and, like many, I anxiously await your next release. Any plans you can tell us about?

The Secret Message of JesusBrian McLaren: I’m finishing up a book that builds on The Secret Message of Jesus.

The tentative title is, Jesus and the Suicide Machine, but I’m thinking about changing the title. The book tries to answer two questions: what are the top problems in the world, and what does the message of Jesus say to those problems? I’m somewhat obsessed with the book these days. I feel it’s one of the most important things I’ve done.

Fred: I imagine your life has changed dramatically in the past six years. In such a short period of time you have gone from a pastor in a local church (accessible to all) to what Time Magazine called one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals in America.

Normally such rapid change can reveal crevices in our lives that need our personal attention—things such as personal weaknesses, character flaws, etc. When confronted by situations or friends who suddenly reveal blind spots in our personal lives there is an emotional pain that accompanies the acceptance of such facts. Strangely, maybe I should say paradoxically, God forcing us to take a closer look at our life can often be the very prescription He knew we needed. Have the dramatic life changes over the last five to six years affected you in ways that we need to know about? What can you share with us?

Brian McLaren: One of the biggest challenges is that I am by nature an introvert. Being “in demand” is pretty demanding for an introvert. So I need to set aside time to recharge . . . which isn’t new (I’ve always needed that, and Sabbath is a pretty biblical idea!), but it gets harder to do when doing so always means saying “no” to somebody. But my soul needs these quiet times to simply be in God’s presence—and remember that God is a gracious presence, not a demanding one.

Obviously, one of the biggest challenges has been dealing with some pretty harsh criticism. Being called everything from a heretic to a “son of Lucifer” can either mess you up or cause you to send roots down deeper into Christ. By the grace of God, it has been doing more of the latter than the former. It’s often an emotional whiplash, though, to hear from some people how helpful my work has been for them, and then to be grossly misinterpreted and turned into a cartoon, etc.

Fred: I learn more from my mistakes and the mistakes of others more than I do from my successes and the successes of others. With that said, is there anything you’ve regretted writing or saying since becoming the so-called “guru” of the emerging church? What mistakes have you made along the journey?

Brian McLaren: My biggest mistakes, I think, have had to do with overwork, taking on too much, not saying “no” enough, which has taken away from my family too many times. In terms of things I’ve written. I’m glad I didn’t start writing until I was forty; that means that I’ve had less to retract! I am ambivalent about the times I’ve responded to critics. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that it has made any difference or increased understanding, so I may have been better off not responding at all. I’m not sure yet.

Fred: One of the chapters in your book, A Generous Orthodoxy, is titled, “Why I am Missional.” I’d like to hear your thoughts on the differences between a church that does missions and a missional community. I find this distinction very difficult to articulate to leaders today. Can you help me with this?

Brian McLaren: The biggest difference here is theological. If our understanding of the gospel is primarily dualistic: focused on “saving souls” for “eternity,” apart from the body, society, the environment, culture, history, etc., then we’ll have “missions programs.” But if our understanding of mission is integral: flows from an understanding of the gospel of the kingdom, then everything we do is mission. For example, public worship involves forming people as God-centered disciples, and God-centered disciples are a redemptive and healing force in the world, the kinds of people who do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. To me, the gospel of the kingdom of God—the gospel Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated—integrates everything and changes everything.

Fred: From matters of perspective and the current progression what do you foresee for the body of Christ in the next five years?

Brian McLaren: The Body of Christ is so diverse. When I think of conservative Evangelicals in the US, or poor urban Pentecostals in Latin America, or rural Roman Catholics in Africa, or urbane Protestants in Europe . . . I see such different things going on that it’s impossible to generalize. I hope there will be increased listening . . . where Christians in the West listen to their sisters and brothers from the global south, where white Christians listen to non-white Christians, where Christians listen to Muslims and atheists, and so on.

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

Brian McLaren: 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.

Fred: One more question, Brian. When you leave this world what do you want your tombstone to say?

Brian McLaren: Actually, I’d hope to be cremated and have my ashes scattered in one of the wild natural places I’ve come to love in life. But if it had a tombstone . . . hmmm. I guess I’d like it to say, “A seeker.”New Wineskins

If you enjoyed this interview, you might also enjoy A Conversation with Brian McLaren (2003) and McLaren’s article for New Wineskins, An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters.

Fred PeatrossFred Peatross lives, works, romances his wife and exudes deep feelings of love, awe, and admiration for his Creator while living in the heart of Appalachia. For over two decades Fred has resided in Huntington, West Virginia where he has been a leader in the traditional church. He has been a deacon, a shepherd, and a pulpit minister. But his greatest love is Missio Dei.

Long before thousands of missionaries poured into the former Soviet Union Fred, in a combined effort with a Christ follower from Alabama planted a church in Dneprodzerhinsk, Ukraine. Today Fred lives as a missionary to America daily praying behind the back of his friends as he journeys and explores life alongside them. [Fred Peatross’ book Missio Dei - In the Crisis of ChristianityMissio Dei: In the Crisis of Christianity, reviewed in New Wineskins]. He blogs at [Abductive Columns].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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