Monday, December 11, 2006

Brian McLaren's thoughts on an Ancient Evangelical Future

Last weekend I attended a conference on "A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future," based on the document produced by Bob Webber and others. The conference was hosted by Northern Seminary and cosponsored by several organizations, including Christianity Today and InterVarsity Press.

In the opening session, Brian McLaren made a helpful comment regarding the emerging/Emergent church and the future of evangelicalism. He first mentioned that some think that Emergent should be seen as another "slice of the pie," alongside such slices as Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, etc. He suggested that we change the analogy from pie slices to rings of a tree. Rings of a tree are shaped and affected by the external weather conditions, and we can envision the current outside ring of the tree to be the emerging ring. Different parts of the tree are still Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican and so on, but McLaren's concept was that the outside, emerging Presbyterian part of the ring has more in common with the outside Baptist part than it would with Presbyterians in its own tradition four or five rings in. Today's emergent evangelicals, regardless of tradition, are responding to the same "weather conditions" and thus have much opportunity for collaboration.

CT editor David Neff later made a comment that the founders of modern neo-evangelicalism from the Billy Graham generation didn't see evangelicals as another slice of the pie, but were rather the "outer ring" of their generation. They saw evangelicals as a renewal movement within existing Protestant traditions, so there would be evangelical Methodists, evangelical Presbyterians and so on, not evangelicals as a separate category. In other words, evangelical as an adjective, not as a noun. And thus, Billy Graham and other neo-evangelicals were the emergent folks of their day. Likewise the charismatic renewal movements of the 1970s - they were the "emergent" outer ring of that generation. I thought this was a helpful observation.

Another comment that McLaren made was that churches have always tended to rebel against higher church traditions and to look down upon lower church traditions. He had a slide with a hierarchy of churches, with high church traditions at the top - Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, and then moving on through Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, into free church evangelicalism and Baptist and Bible churches, with house churches and "micro" and "liquid" and other such churches at the bottom, which are akin to Barna's non-churched and de-churched "Revolutionary" Christians.

A lot of evangelicals are giving Barna Revolutionaries flak these days for not being part of a "local church." But we would do well to remember that today's independent non-denominational evangelical churches were themselves criticized by earlier generations because they lacked denominational accountability and structures. Even though I think Barna's book was rather thin, I think McLaren made a good case for the legitimacy of today's house churches and un-churches as standing in continuity with the church renewal movements of the past. And McLaren pointed to the interesting opportunities for retrieval of high-church traditions among low-church independents, especially in terms of recovery of the liturgy and other components from the earliest centuries of the church. As an evangelical Anglican myself, I found myself heartened by the potential for mainstream evangelicalism to join hands in identification as and in continuity with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Another thing that was encouraging was McLaren's attention to the global church. The emergent church movement has been criticized for being too much of a white, middle-class, suburban phenomenon and not really tied in with global church realities. But McLaren was keen on making sure that this was not merely a North American phenomenon and learning from indigenous church leaders and theologians of the Southern Hemisphere. One of my concerns with the "ancient" part of the ancient evangelical call is that this usually means recovery of an ancient Western tradition. But when we recover a more fully-orbed history of the ancient church, we see that it includes North Africa, India, Asia and more. I'll develop these thoughts in another post later and post some more thoughts from other presenters from this conference in the next few days.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this recap, this is helpful. I had hoped to attend some of these sessions, but found myself without the time.

Sivin Kit said...

Thanks for your recaps and summaries. I'm glad Brian has been in touch with the wider global conversation (or whispers?) as much as he can. I appreciate the gesture.