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Author and speaker Brian McLaren makes a second appearance at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church

The author of more than 20 books talks about his latest, ‘Life After Doom’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Brian McLaren

LOUISVILLE — With his most recent book, “Life After Doom: Wisdom and Courage for a World Falling Apart” now available, author, speaker and activist Brian McLaren returned to New York Avenue Presbyterian Church’s airwaves last week for a 90-minute presentation and Q&A on “Creating a Church for the Future.” Watch McLaren’s talk and the session that followed here. Read about McLaren’s talk last month as part of the Washington, D.C. church’s McClendon Scholar Program here.

“I’m not going to give you the answers,” McLaren told the large online crowd. “What I hope by the grace of God I can do is play a role in stimulating your creativity. What we need at times like this is not some top-down formula. We need creative thinking that breaks out of the old boxes and unleashes part of our brain that very often we don’t use when it comes to religion and Christian faith.”

“This is especially relevant, I think, for Presbyterians,” said McLaren, who works with a number of other mainline denominations as well. He said he recently spent time with the faithful at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas and First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte. Next week, he’ll be with one of the PC(USA)’s new worshiping communities, an initiative of the PC(USA) that “really exemplifies the kind of creativity I hope we can stimulate in all of our minds and hearts. There are so many beautiful things happening in Presbyterian churches.”

“Let’s remember,” McLaren said, “that the church as we know it — church with an organ, church with pews, church with a pulpit, church with crosses, church with stained glass windows — these are inventions. People created these things. They didn’t always exist. The very early church had none of these things, and so what we consider normal and maybe even essential for churches, we have to understand that no, these are just residues of other people’s creativity. If we keep things exactly as they made them, we are not imitating our ancestors — we are actually violating their creativity when we refuse to be creative on our own.”

McLaren offered five guidelines “to help you in your creativity”:

  • Welcome ourselves to reality. We’re well aware of forces including climate change, financial changes and changes in congregations’ mix of ages, he said. Those changes have made many people nostalgic, “wishing they could go back to the past,” but understanding “that creativity is one of the characteristics that brought us this far.” Most mainline churches have three wings, he said: the nostalgic wing, a smaller creative wing and those between the two — often including clergy and lay leaders — walking on eggshells.
  • Unleash our creativity, or “we’ll just keep bringing our old solutions” to the problems churches face, McLaren said.
  • Prioritize adaptability. The Reformers knew the church needed reforming, but some of them insisted that the church needed to keep reforming once it was Reformed. McLaren used the illustration of a tree that had grown up near a river that had changed its course, leaving the tree’s roots exposed. “This tree did everything right. It took root near water … but now the soil has been eroded under those roots,” he said, displaying a picture. “When we think about the church of the future, we have multiple uncertainties that we need to face.” Church leaders adapted mightily during the pandemic. Like that tree, we ought to be about strengthening our roots and developing our seeds “to prepare for a future beyond our own survival.”
  • Go deep in the essentials. After giving viewers “100% permission to disagree,” McLaren said that among the deep changes Phyllis Tickle described is one he would add: from defining Christian faith from a set of beliefs or a kind of structure or hierarchy to defining Christian faith as a set of skills or capacities developed through practices including mentoring, apprenticeships, rituals and conversations. “I think the Christian of the future will be more like a plumber or a farmer or a doctor or a pilot,” he said. “You don’t ask a pilot, ‘What do you believe about flying?’” It’s the same with a farmer. “They might have beliefs, but what you really want to know is, can you grow a tomato? Can you land a plane?”
  • Move and build a movement. What’s needed is “a creative and agile spiritual movement that works across our denominations and helps our more progressive and creative congregations to have a shared vision together,” McLaren said. Institutional structures “almost never declare an emergency and almost never train people for life after their decline.”

During a question-and-answer session following his presentation, McLaren said facing reality “can be a bit bracing. It should be disturbing. But I think if we sit with it — if we don’t turn away or don’t try to just explain it away — I think what happens is, especially if we are people of deep faith, we realize that with God’s help we can face what we need to. It actually makes the Bible come alive in a lot of new ways, because the Bible has a whole lot to say about enduring tribulation and hard times, and so I think all of those things will become more and more salient for us.”

McLaren said initiatives such as New York Avenue Presbyterian Church’s McClendon Scholar Program are “really important to bring people together and say, ‘We’re going to have an honest conversation and we don’t all have to agree.’ The goal of this isn’t to make us all think the same thing. The goal of this is to make us all think and to unleash our creativity, and to help us face reality.”

“We have some wonderful, strong, healthy churches in the country,” McLaren said. “Many of them just need to keep doing what they’re doing. But we have so many of our congregations that are teetering on sustainability, and we have a demographic cliff we’re going to fall over.”

“Many of our churches and denominations are facing reality and are able to create safe places to talk about it and not rush toward a solution.” If we rush the process, “it’s almost guaranteed we’ll bring our old thinking and assumptions with us. There is something about creating space where we sit with reality that eventually helps us start thinking in deeper and fresher ways.”

It can be helpful, he said, to speak with people who have left your church to find out why — all while maintaining a posture that’s not defensive. “I don’t think there’s any substitute for that kind of listening,” McLaren said. “It’s not just because we’ll gain information we need. It’s because the act of humble listening changes us and that change in us helps us think differently and more creatively about the future.”

Asked about the future of the multicultural church, McLaren said if we “revitalize our churches and don’t solve our segregation, we haven’t done the work that needs to be done.”

“The churches that want to address this are going to have to be very savvy and smart,” he said. “One of the reasons I lean hard on creativity is because if we want to connect with young people, our tradition is not drawing them in.” What’s needed is “a whole different approach with young people. I would suspect one of the things that they would want is for these new spaces that we create to always be led by multiracial groups. There are very gifted church consultants out there who are trying to help churches grapple with this sort of thing.”

Learn more about New York Avenue Presbyterian Church’s McClendon Scholar Program here.

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