McLaren, a former nondenominational pastor, is the author of 15 books advocating “a new kind of Christianity.” In 2005, Time magazine named McLaren as one of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America, describing him as a paradigm shifter. Others think his views are more akin to heresy.
In his latest book, “The Great Spiritual Migration,” McLaren advocates moving away from strict adherence to a belief system.
|The Collective is a Fresh Expression of FUMC of DeLand that has become a multigenerational congregation. Planned events include a weekly gathering called Occupy Trilogy, which takes place in a local coffee shop to discuss potential Sunday sermon topics.|
“The Christian faith had an identity that was vital and vigorous long before it had a belief system,” McLaren said.
As a first century movement, Christianity challenged institutional Judaism, and over the centuries it, too, became an institution. But it became encrusted with a belief system that has supported a wide range of unintended consequences like colonialism and stigmatizing people who are different, McLaren said.
“When beliefs become a primary marker for belonging, religious gatekeepers gain one of humanity’s greatest powers: to excommunicate or expel,” McLaren writes.
And that is why many people have come to think of God as violent, full of hellfire and damnation, he said. It’s a belief—he likens to driving with a loaded gun—that he thinks Christians need to jettison because it gives a sense that God loves them more, which, in his words, entitles them to judge and harm others.
“That’s why Jesus is so revolutionary,” McLaren said. “He didn’t just say love your neighbor. He said love your enemy. God loves everyone, no exceptions. We haven’t come to terms with that yet, even though it’s been around for 2,000 years. The idea that God loves Christians more than non-Christians is a common and destructive belief.”
Some people find the prospect of what McLaren calls “a new kind of Christianity” scary; others, like The Collective, find it liberating.
The Collective, a Fresh Expression of First United Methodist Church of DeLand, was initially targeted for college students but has become a multigenerational congregation.
“We have Quakers, everything from hyper-Pentecostals to the super-Orthodox who have hit every branch falling out of the Evangelical tree,” said Rev. Ben Collins, director of The Collective. “They are the core of wisdom, the village elders. The workshop has bonded that group and given them more of a voice in the congregation.”
Collins said he invited McLaren to a weekend conference last fall because he is a bridge between the institutional church and the emerging church.
“He is serving as the itinerant inspirer who gives us language and reinforces our values,” Collins said. “He pours gas on the fire.”
Bill Brennan, a member of The Collective, facilitated a follow-up group of about a dozen people who studied “The New Spiritual Migration” for four weeks. The group said the members felt validated by McLaren’s perspective.
The conference sparked a conversation in The Collective, which included a discussion during the liturgy about the practical aspects of being Jesus’ disciples rather than Christians who believe all the right things, Brennan said.
“They’re asking ‘what does this look like in the school of love?’” Collins said. “We have continually heard an echo of pragmatism.”
One conversation focused on how to respond to members of a fundamentalist church in DeLand famous for its public demonstrations on street corners threatening people with eternal damnation, Brennan said.
“They are true believers, very rigid and hard to dialogue with,” Brennan said. “And one woman in our group said why don’t we just listen to them. Let them be who they are. I don’t know if anyone has gone out there and done that, but the discussion got people listening more in our individual lives.”
Collins said McLaren’s teachings are helping The Collective—which sees itself as a movement—come to terms with its need to become more organized.
“We are in year five, and we’re beginning to shift from a startup culture that is still dependent on a larger institution to sustain us and shepherd us. We are in the process of determining what it means for The Collective to be in a long-term relationship with the Florida Conference,” Collins said. “How is The Collective as a movement connected to the institution that sustains us, and how do we give back? We’re sort of the R&D branch, and we need to figure out how we report back to corporate on what we’re finding.”
So, what is The Collective learning?
“A return to parish ministry is huge,” Collins said. “We have pastors appointed to buildings instead of to people. But we are most alive as a church when we are most alive in the community we are part of. Do you get people to like you because you have great music or preaching, or do you add value to their lives? It’s a difference of style or substance.”
Collins said The Collective starts with the idea of “unconditional belonging” and then asks how to give value to people’s lives. “It’s given us a lot of credibility and we’re beginning to see fruit of that,” Collins said.
McLaren said he is frequently asked what he thinks the church of the future will look like.
“I tell them I think this is a dangerous question,” McLaren said. “You can ask it in such a way as to mean ‘something is going to happen, and I need to adjust to it.’ That approach is profoundly disempowering. It diminishes you from being a protagonist in your own story.
“It’s far better to ask, ‘What could and should happen with God’s help, and how can we pray and work together to help that possibility become a reality?’”
Lilla Ross is a freelance journalist based in Jacksonville.
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