A Conversation about Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity
Brian McLaren, I Accept Your Invitation
Welcome: You’re reading “Part 1” of my blog series responding to Brian McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity. Many people have engaged Brian’s thinking—most focusing on a systematic theology response (you can visit here to see a boatload of links). I’m thankful for their foundational responses. My focus is on “pastoral theology” or “practical theology.” As a pastor, counselor, and professor who equips the church for biblical counseling and spiritual formation, I’m accepting Brian’s invitation to interact about the implications of his views for the everyday life of one-another Christianity—the “personal ministry of the Word.” My posts will be periodic so I can intelligently, carefully, fairly, and thoroughly engage Brian’s thinking.
Throughout A New Kind of Christianity Brian invites conversation. He calls it an invitation for discussion not a “debate that creates hate” (p. 17). Using a sports’ analogy, Brian writes about his views, “They are offered as a gentle serve or lob; their primary goal is to start the interplay, to get things rolling, to invite reply” (p. 23). Brian also notes concerning those who may disagree with him that, “We welcome their charitable critique” (p. 25). In summary he says, “This quest must instead work more like a wedding proposal, an invitation. It must be about free conversation, not forced conversion” (p. 27).
To this generic invite, Brian adds a very specific invitation to pastors and counselors. When I read the following words, my ears perked up higher than Mr. Spock from Star Trek.
“This Greco-Roman framing may help explain why Christian pastors and counselors have such a hard time convincing Christians that God actually loves them” (p. 266).
Until reading that quote, my plan was to let the “theologians” converse with Brian. Of course, theology intimately relates to everyday life, so I should have been willing to join the conversation from the get-go. But when I read that quote, it was “Game on.” Brian had served up his “gentle lob” and I would volley back.
This is why the specific emphasis of my tennis match, er, conversation, with Brian focuses on:
What are the implications of A New Kind of Christianity for “the personal ministry of the Word”—biblical counseling, spiritual formation, pastoral counseling, pastoral care, Christian counseling, one another ministry, soul care, spiritual direction, spiritual friendship, and personal discipleship?
Call it whatever you want. I’ve spent the past quarter-century in the trenches of pastoral ministry comforting grieving parishioners, counseling struggling Christians, equipping lay people, pastors, and professional Christian counselors for “the personal ministry of the Word.”
Brian’s “ten questions” deserve a “pastoral ministry response.” Game on.
A Few Ground Rules
Any good tennis match must have a few ground rules (even in post-modern tennis—sorry, I couldn’t resist!). Any healthy conversation ought to include some communication skills and relational competencies. I’ll “basically” let Brian set those ground rules.
Ground Rule # 1: Q and R (Sorta’)
Brian asks not for Q/A, but for Q/R. Q/A, of course, equals Question and Answer. Brian says he thinks most questions aren’t suited for a simple answer (I’m not sure any questions are suited for a simple answer…). So he prefers Q/R: Question and Response—stimulating, open-ended, conversations starters.
So here’s my intention:
To engage Brian in stimulating Q/R about how his ten questions relate to the personal ministry of the Word (biblical counseling, spiritual formation, pastoral care, small groups, personal discipleship, soul care, spiritual direction, spiritual friendship, one another ministry, etc.).
Now, that said, I will try to do not just what Brian said, but what Brian did. As much as Brian likes to focus on “responses,” his book is filled with his answers to his ten questions. That’s not a critique. It’s an observation. And…it set’s the ground rules fairly so that we’re both playing by the same norms. Yes, I will give my answers. And I’ll give them in the form I often tell my students, “This is my current best attempt to respond to this question.” So…please be charitable when you read not only “responses” from me, but also “answers.” I want to be like Brian.
Ground Rule # 2: “Charitable” (Faithful Are the Wounds of a Friend)
Brian repeatedly asks that people who respond to him do so charitably. I want to do that. In fact, I hope I do it more consistently than it felt like, to me, Brian did it.
I don’t have the time or space in this first post to share the many examples of Brian’s less-than-charitable interactions throughout the book, but I will share a few samplers…to set the ground rules. Brian starts the book by illustrating his innocent speaking engagement being bothered by four people placing leaflets on car windshields talking about Brian as a “known heretic” (p. 1). He responds by asking the rhetorical question, “How did a mild-manner guy like me get into so much trouble” (p. 2)?
Now, now. Is that any way to start a friendly conversation? So…those who disagree or have different responses from Brian are illustrative of heresy hunters. Brian and those with views like him are innocent mild-manner guys. I know, it’s subtle (well, kind of). I know, Brian didn’t say everyone who disagrees is a “heresy hunter.” He didn’t say everyone who agrees with him is a good guy. But… come on… is that really an open-ended invitation to a charitable conversation?
But that’s topped by the page where Brian introduces the first five questions. The illustration now changes from parking lot heresy hunters to evil guards at a concentration camp (p. 31).
And who are these concentration camp guards? They are pastors (who disagree with Brian).
For Brian, the reason others are not on his quest is because they’ve been locked in a closet, cell, or concentration camp by guards (pastors) motivated by a desire to keep people under their control by making them fearful of the real world. These guards (pastors) are like Satan masquerading as an angel of light. “We see our guards not as guards at all, but as pleasant custodians in clerical robes or casual suits. They’ve been to graduate school (seminary) where many of them mastered the techniques of friendly manipulation…” (p. 31, parenthesis added).
Brian, come clean. That’s not a shout out, is it? That’s a bit of an introductory dig. We’ve been dissed, right? Is this really how we want to invite charitable conversation?
So…now…if I “respond” to Brian with any difference of opinion, that puts me in the camp (remember, he said “many of them” not a few) of those manipulative pastors who seek to control their congregations through fear (techniques learned in “graduate school”—where do pastors go for graduate school?—seminary). So I’m in a double-bind because I’ve pastored three churches and I now equip pastors at a seminary.
The examples could go on and on. These are simply two of Brian’s somewhat subtle illustrative introductions. Read the book and you’ll stumble upon a batch of specific less-than-charitable statements about those who disagree with Brian.
They don’t feel like a “gentle lob” in tennis. They come across like the gauntlet being laid down in a jousting match, like an En Garde” in fencing, like a “glove slap” in a duel, or like a Klingon Bat’leth line-up (you have to be a Star Trek fan).
I’m going to try to follow Brian’s ground rules of charitable conversation, but hopefully more as a friendly tennis match than as, “I challenge you to a duel!” Perhaps the imagery from Proverbs fits best, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). Some of Brian’s words are biting, wounding, sarcastic, in-your-face (yep, mild-mannered Brian). I’ll try to take them as faithful wounds from a friend (believing the best about Brian’s intentions). So…when I’m a tad playful, or sarcastic, or telling-it-like-it-is, please allow me the benefit of the doubt, also.
The Rest of the Story
In “Part 2,” I’ll further explain my focus—what I’m calling “the personal ministry of the Word.” In relationship to Brian’s ten questions, I’ll introduce two themes—the sufficiency of Scripture and progressive sanctification—as they relate to “biblical counseling” and “spiritual formation.”
Join the Conversation
What implications do you see for “the personal ministry of the Word” from Brian’s ten questions in A New Kind of Christianity?