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Author McLaren finds warm UM welcome—mostly Sam Hodges, Feb 27, 2012
By Sam Hodges Managing Editor
Brian McLaren is not now nor has he ever been a United Methodist.
But the popular—and controversial—Christian thinker keeps showing up in Methodist circles, and even adding UM affiliations, such as joining the board at Claremont School of Theology.
“I’m such a big fan and believer in Wesleyan theology,” Mr. McLaren said in a phone interview. “A number of my friends tell me I’m a closet Methodist. I just feel there is a huge amount of unfulfilled potential in what the Methodist heritage has to offer in this challenging time.”
Mr. McLaren was named by Time magazine as one of the country’s most influential evangelical leaders, but he’s perhaps better known as a leader in the emerging church movement.
His innovative ideas about church and culture had a kind of incubator at non-denominational Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area. He left a career in college teaching to be founding pastor there, and stayed about two decades, influencing other churches along the way.
Since then, he’s focused on writing and teaching, and the titles of some of his books—including The Church on the Other Side, A New Kind of Christianity and Naked Spirituality—suggest the extent of his critique of the institutional church, whatever its theological bent.
“Brian transcends the traditional boundaries and asks questions which force both evangelicals and mainline folks to recognize that their assumptions may be based more in culture than in beliefs about God and the witness of Scripture,” said the Rev. Jay Voorhees, pastor of Old Hickory UMC in Nashville, Tenn., and a reader of Mr. McLaren’s works.
Mr. McLaren insists that his words and ideas, however they may jolt, aren’t intended to send an anti-denomination message.
“Many people wrongly, I think, assume that the emerging church is an alternative to more traditional, denominational churches,” he said. “Right now one of the primary ways this whole emerging phenomenon is happening is through many of our traditional denominational churches.”
Mr. McLaren has plenty of critics, especially among conservative evangelicals, but he’s been embraced by many within the UMC.
Recently, Mr. McLaren signed on as theologian-in-residence for Life in the Trinity, a ministry run by the Rev. Joseph Stabile, pastor of Cochran Chapel UMC in Dallas, and his wife, Suzanne.
Mr. McLaren won’t actually be living there, but he’s agreed to lead a series of workshops that will be taped and distributed via DVD.
Life in the Trinity is an ecumenical ministry, focused on fostering personal growth and community; but its Micah Center (named after the famous verse Micah 6:8) is on the Cochran Chapel UMC campus.
And the Stabiles consider Mr. McLaren a Wesleyan in spirit.
“He displays an extraordinary amount of understanding of grace, God’s grace falling on everybody, and he also has a deep sense of social justice, which I think connects very much to John Wesley,” said Mr. Stabile.
Ms. Stabile noted Mr. McLaren’s emphasis on spiritual practices.
“Wesley seemed to know what to do that would keep people going on the next part of their journey,” she said. “That’s what we try to do here at Life in the Trinity, and that’s what Brian tries to do.”
Last fall, Mr. McLaren also joined the board of trustees of the Claremont School of Theology in California, one of the official UM seminaries.
“Our academic dean, Phillip Clayton, is friends with Brian and they have done several events on emerging trends in Christianity,” said Jerry Campbell, the seminary’s president. “So Phillip reached out to him and invited him to join our board.”
Claremont has made news, and generated controversy, by helping to start and becoming part of the new Claremont Lincoln University, a consortium of professional graduate schools that includes the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and the Islamic Center of Southern California’s Bayan College.
The Mississippi Conference of the UMC last summer passed a resolution calling on the upcoming General Conference to cut the denomination’s ties with Claremont because of its role in a consortium providing clerical education for non-Christian faiths.
But that’s part of what drew Mr. McLaren to Claremont.
“I’m very interested in the whole area of Christian identity in a neighborly relationship with other faith identities,” he said. “Obviously Claremont has taken a bold, really historic step, trying to grapple with that issue.”
Mr. McLaren is a frequent guest speaker in UM settings, such as last year at the Michigan Area’s School for Pastoral Ministry. He’s been a repeat visitor at the Perkins School of Theology, part of Southern Methodist University.
Fans there include the Rev. Elaine Heath, associate professor of evangelism, director of the Center for Missional Wisdom and an ordained UM elder.
“He understands holiness as both an inward and individual life of piety and a communal life of justice, hospitality and prayer,” Dr. Heath said. “He understands God first and foremost as a God of grace. He embodies, as few others do, the kind of holy ecumenism John Wesley advocated in his sermon 39, ‘Catholic Spirit.’ In all these ways he is a good friend to us in the UMC.”
But the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of the unofficial conservative UMC caucus Good News, offers a different perspective, including on the McLaren-Claremont relationship.
“Both McLaren and Claremont believe it’s very hip to ask questions, dialogue and never provide any answers that would give what St. Paul referred to as ‘the offense of the cross,’” he said. “And they both seem certain they have been chosen to invent, in the words of McLaren, ‘a new kind of Christianity.’ Of course, what they claim to be new is little more than a repackaging of an old Protestant liberalism which has led the UMC into decades of decline.”
The Rev. Jason Byassee, pastor of Boone UMC in North Carolina, offers caution from another perspective. He has reviewed books by Mr. McLaren for Christian Century, the venerable mainline Protestant magazine, and calls him “a great speaker and occasionally better writer.” But he notes that Mr. McLaren is not a trained theologian—his graduate work was in English—and says he “often doesn’t know when he’s innovating and when he’s saying something that’s been around forever.”
Dr. Byassee too has issues with the McLaren-Claremont relationship.
“My fear is his association with Claremont lets them think, ‘See, we’re so open as to include evangelicals,’ when he’s either not one anymore or isn’t the kind who will make them wrestle with the genuine diversity in the Christian church in America,” he said.
Mr. McLaren is known for disarming gentleness in response to critics of all stripes, and goes out of his way to offer verbal support to the UMC and other mainline denominations.
They have a future, because they’re getting real, he argues.
“With several decades of alarming statistic about size and age and so on, just about all mainline Protestants are waking up to the very simple but jolting reality that whatever the future will be, it will not be a just a continuation of the past,” he said.
“One of the very encouraging responses to those disturbing statistics is a question, and that question is, ‘What is our mission? Why are we are here?’ When people, especially leaders, start focusing on mission, that opens up enormous possibilities for renewal.”