Those who think they have evangelicals figured out and have relegated them to a confined conceptual box may be in for surprise if they hear Brian McLaren speak at First United Church, April 4-5 as he brings his Everything Must Change Tour to Oak Park.

In his book by the same name, which he is promoting on the tour, McLaren acknowledges that evangelicals have in the past been concerned only with getting people “saved.” While he has nothing against being born again, he argues that when evangelicals worry only about getting to heaven, they abandon the mission on earth that Jesus has given to every Christian.

He writes, “The versions of Christianity we inherited are largely flattened, watered-down, tamed … offering us a ticket to heaven after death, but not challenging us to address the issues that threaten life on earth.” (p. 3) Three of the most critical issues, he states, are the environment, poverty and war.

Underlying these three is a more profound spiritual issue. McLaren argues the Christian Church has, in modern times, failed to provide what he calls a “framing story,” i.e. a myth, in the Joseph Campbell sense of the word, capable of giving direction, value, vision, inspiration and a framework for living, which empowers people to change what he refers to as the suicidal system threatening life on this planet.

Mike Clawson, who is coordinating the tour (also known as Deep Shift) in the Chicago area, acknowledged that liberal Protestants might find all this, at least on a superficial level, similar to what they have been hearing from the pulpit since the 1960s. Clawson, however, points out that McLaren, whose roots are evangelical, is trying to move past Christian thinking on both the right and the left. McLaren, he says, is “both post-evangelical and post-liberal.”

The movement is sometimes referred to as the “Emerging Church Movement.”

“Emergent folks,” Clawson explained, “tend not to be as phobic about supernaturalism as classic mainline liberals [e.g. needing to “demythologize” the Bible, cast doubt on miracles, or redefine the Resurrection], but at the same time, we’re not locked into a rigid biblical literalism either. There’s an openness to rethinking a lot of core evangelical beliefs, but not necessarily settling for the liberal answers either.”

In many ways McLaren’s target audience is evangelicals.

“He is addressing many of their biggest blind spots regarding how their theology contributes to the systems of social injustice in the world,” Clawson said, which is why McLaren shifts the emphasis from orthodoxy, i.e. right belief, to orthopraxy or right practice.

Mamie Broadhurst, the pastor at First United, is promoting the event because she sees it as an opportunity for a conversation between her, for the most part, liberal Protestant congregation and a Christian who comes down at the same end point but comes from a very different place and uses a different language to articulate his vision.

“The pushing point for those who are already out in the world,” she said, “is how can I hear this language which I don’t usually associate with that end point. It feels like language that has different belief structures behind it.” Broadhurst believes this “multicultural” difference in religious language between her church members and a thinker whose roots are conservative should make for a “really engaging conversation.”

Both Clawson and Broadhurst referred to McLaren as a bridge-builder who often catches flack from both the right and the left. “Liberals,” Broadhurst said, “think he is still too wacky-you know, living in ‘Jesus land’-and conservatives in some cases think he has abandoned Jesus altogether and left him by the wayside.”

Seeing McLaren as a bridge-builder is what motivated Clare Butterfield to be part of a panel responding to his ideas. Butterfield is a Unitarian-Universalist minister who works for Faith in Place, an organization that seeks “to give tools to religious people to help them become better stewards of Creation.”

“I agreed to be on the panel because I was intrigued by the Emergent Church take on the work I do from a more liberal theological stance,” she said. “While the theological vocabulary is different, I would describe McLaren as a pragmatist-ideas are supposed to change outcomes. If we claim a value system or a sacred literature, then we should behave differently as a consequence of our interaction with it.”

Also on the panel will be Lynn Hybels, the wife of Willow Creek’s pastor and author of Nice Girls Don’t Change the World, and Jhonathan Gomez, who was born in Guatemala and is involved with immigration issues and mentoring.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...