The second part of A New Kind of Christianity is called ‘Emerging and Exploring’: a number of mental doors have been opened in the first part of the book; now it is time to pass through and see what is on the other side. The sixth question is ‘What Do We Do About the Church?’
Most of our churches, McLaren argues, are adapted to support the five paradigms that have so far been brought into question: ‘the Greco-Roman narrative, the constitutional approach to the Bible, a vision of a tribal and violent God, a rather flattened view of Jesus, and a domesticated understanding of the gospel’ (161). Not being American, I can see how that works for four out of five of these paradigms, but I don’t think I have yet come across a church, no matter how ‘modern’ in its theology and practice, that could be said to be ‘perfectly designed and well equipped to promote and support… a vision of a tribal and violent God’.
Still, there is no question that significant numbers of people are leaving churches at least partly as a reaction against just the sort of intellectual, theological and ethical issues that McLaren has highlighted in the preceding sections. To some extent churches are managing to save unhappy believers from the particular shortcomings and limitations of other churches – when we get bored with the Catholic swings, we jump off and run to play on the Pentecostal slide; when we hurt on the Baptist climbing frame, we go for a spin on the Eastern Orthodox roundabout. But what happens when we lose interest altogether in the playground of the traditional church? Where do we go?
Fortunately, change is taking place. The process by which the early grassroots communities of faith evolved into the formal hierarchical institution of the Christendom church is being reversed and a new plurality is emerging. This diversification is seen by some as a bad thing, but McLaren thinks that it should be celebrated as the context for discovering a new defining purpose:
What if the Christian faith is supposed to exist in a variety of forms rather than just one imperial one? … And what if, instead of arguing about which form is correct and legitimate, we were to honor, appreciate, and validate one another and see ourselves as servants of one grander mission, apostles of one greater message, seekers on one ultimate quest? That, I’d say, sounds like a new kind of Christianity. (164)
This vision of transformation through a generous ecumenism is classic Brian McLaren – and as unrealistic and tendentious as it may sound, I think it should be heard. It would be an excellent thing to be able to think of diversity in the church not as the consequence of internecine conflict but as a free and creative response to contextual forces. But can we define that mission and message and quest in a way that will generate the sort of consensus, the sort of agreement, necessary for us to believe that a ‘new kind of Christianity’ is really emerging?
The solution McLaren offers is, he admits, ‘embarrassingly obvious and simple to understand’ – it is that, whatever else churches are, they should understand their primary purpose to instruct people in the way of Christlike love. In language that strongly echoes Everything Must Change he writes:
Churches, simply put, come to be communities that form Christlike people who embody and communicate, in word and deed, the good news of the kingdom of God (or we could say the shalom, harmony, dance, sacred ecosystem, love economy, benevolent society, beloved community, or preemptive peace movement of God). And they do this not within an isolated for withdrawn religious subculture, not simply to create an idealized spiritual country club for their own benefit, but rather in the world as it is and for the world as it could be, as agents of transformation. (165)
If this is to happen, it will require a ‘profound openness to the Holy Spirit’: ‘You can’t give what you don’t have.’ If we fear that our churhes will never get beyond their divisiveness, their immaturity, their theological confusion, their irresolution, then we should take heart from 1 Corinthians 13, in which Paul encourages a thoroughly defective community to pursue the more excellent way of love.
To subordinate everything to this goal of forming Christlike people would confront us with a rambunctious cohort of new questions about spiritual formation and education, models of training, forms of liturgy and ritual, in a pluralistic, technologically sophisticated global culture. But these questions, McLaren argues,
render us creative protagonists who have the power, through the Holy Spirit, to create a new future of the church as a school of love – which means a school of listening, dialogue, of appreciative inquiry, understanding, preemptive peace-making, reconciliation, non-violence, prophetic confrontation, advocacy, and personal and social transformation. (171)
Is it fair to point out that there is next to nothing in this vision of the church as a school of love about worship of the creator God, or public proclamation of the good news that God raised Jesus from the dead, or of righteousness, or of prayer, or of the lordship of Christ? Is it fair to complain that even with the liberal use of such terms as ‘Christlike’ and ‘Spirit’ the rhetoric comes perilously close to erasing the distinctive narrative identity of the covenant people? Is it fair to ask whether this account fulfils even the expectations raised by McLaren’s own three part retelling of the biblical narrative in terms of creation, liberation and the hope of peaceable kingdom?
On the whole, I think probably not. I think he means only that the calling to love as Christ loved is the missing unifying force that needs to be restored and invigorated at the heart of a multitude of traditions, which will retain their characteristic (albeit radically transformed) theological, ecclesial and missional emphases. There is much in this book to suggest that, despite his impatience with traditional churches, trapped as they are within outmoded paradigms, McLaren genuinely wishes to honour and affirm existing forms and congregations: ‘our churches are doing beautiful work, and they are sanctuaries of sacredness, beauty, and kindness without which our world would be a much poorer place’ (165). It’s just that they need to change – slowly, experimentally, ecumenically. But if we follow McLaren’s veering, galloping argument in too much of a hurry, we may easily not see how it swerves away from the precipice at the last minute and find ourselves flying over the edge, screaming and cursing, into theological oblivion.